Monday, 16 November 2015

Stop Making Sense

STOP MAKING SENSE (Jonathan Demme, US, 1985)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the seminal concert movie Stop Making Sense filmed at Patanges Theatre, Hollywood in December 1983, the film is released by Second Sight on DVD and Blu-ray on 16th November.

Conceived by front man David Byrne, the film begins with him entering the stage with a boom box and a guitar. He presses play, and begins a stripped back acoustic performance of Psycho Killer. Afterwards, one by one a member of the Talking Heads come to join him onstage as they play through their remarkable back catalogue.

Embracing the greatest of Hollywood musical conventions - let's put on a show in a barn - the concert starts with the hero alone performing and then one by one the troupe emerge to join him and embrace what he is doing. Byrne realises that the gig is one of of momentum and upwards to a crescendo, starting with slow songs and as the band gets bigger the sound gets bigger.

Rightly, this film is heralded as one of the great concert movies of all time. Oddly, there is another 1980s concert film in any list, that of Prince’s Sign O’ The Times from 1987, and in part you can see the influence of this film upon the purple wonder.

Gone are the silly backstage documentary and instead there is a determined focus on the performance and the performers.  If you have a front man, as intelligent as Byrne or as magnetic as Prince, who can hold the attention of an audience through any solo or dance number, backstage footage is redundant and unnecessary. In part, the dominance and ubiquity of Prince in the early 1980s has an influence on Talking Heads’ live performance.

The influx of funk and soul is epitomised by the cover of Al Green’s Take Me to the River, and the introduction of Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love with the hip hop jam along with the shout out to James Brown makes sense and gives credence  to wearing your influences proudly due to the attempted band choreography and in unison harmonies.

There is an overriding sense of euphoria and joy in the concert from the performers across the board. It is helped by having in Byrne, a wonderful leading performance both artistically and vocally.

Byrne channels the great silent comedy performers of Keaton and Chaplin when he does his dance asides such as with the lampshade during This Must Be The Place, like Chaplin’s potato dance in The Gold Rush, it is seemingly a throwaway moment that is both special and hypnotic. Tellingly, during the same song the back projection behind the band has imagery on to it, was this the first time a band put up imagery as they played live making it a multi-platform event, check out U2’s Rattle and Hum for further evidence and influence.

Director Demme proves a useful foil for Byrne eliciting differing moods for certain songs from the
athletic Life During Wartime to the fear and horror of What a Day That Was, where the lighting of Byrne’s face paints him as a pastor giving a deranged sermon, earmarking his own Academy award winning work on Silence of the Lambs eight years later.

The film is not only the vanguard of filmed concert movies, it is a touchstone of influence and ideas. It remains seminal and memorable.

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