Write a few sentences about the chef’s kiss digital restoration of “Stop Making Sense” and you’ll start sounding like you work for A24, the distributor of this 40th anniversary edition. The film’s highly detailed and newly mastered sound mix is not as good as, if not better than, the live broadcast. Her better It’s better than living.
Here, see? Writing like crazy. But seeing and hearing this sparkling source of happiness again is an unexpectedly emotional experience. David Byrne, now 71 and a founding member of new wave band Talking Heads, is the main show and, in some ways, his own show. Perhaps this film was the closest he had ever been with these key collaborators in working together as a team, even though he was the sole frontrunner.
Director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film was condensed into roughly 80 minutes minus credits as a four-show series of Talking Heads performances filmed live at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, California. When I first saw “Stop Making Sense” in my early 20s, I had heard a handful of Talking Heads songs on the radio: “Psycho Killer,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Take me to the river.” The rest was undiscovered country. So the impact of the film and all its uplifting, eccentric, uplifting music, combined with a great director’s natural instinct to serve that music, could barely be handled in a single viewing. I saw this a lot that year.
We’re talking about concert films like time capsules and I’m not sure that statement applies here. Some concert movies — “Woodstock,” for example — serve as time capsules, both for what they bottle from history (hippies, squares, mud, Hendrix, wartime domesticity) and for how the visual strategies of filmmaking (split screen for days) were constructed. it is about its own particular time and place. “Stop Being Meaningful” contains some time capsule elements, of course. The synthesizer keyboard fills and Tom Tom Club interlude are entirely their moment, but no less pleasing for that.
As a visual musician, Byrne pointed out where he was and where he was going. The experimental theater of the 1970s and early ’80s tapped into the deep well of performance and graphic design influences emanating from Lower Manhattan. Byrne gave all of this a rhythm you could dance to. And the way he dances continues to be an inspiration for countless weirdos who literally try to move their limbs on the dance floor in a human, or at least humanoid, way.
The film is the best version of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues tour imaginable. The concert’s physical staging elements, introduced in bits and sections with elegantly and mockingly suggestive lyrics (Star Wars, Drugs, Onions, etc.), create an air of pure unease. Sometimes Byrne fiddles with a floor lamp, creating distorted shadows on the screen behind the tape. And when Bryne exits the stage and re-emerges dancing in his legendary Big Suit — his designer Gail Blacker once called it “more of an architectural project than a clothing project” — the sharply angled silhouetted sketch appears first, as if he’d just done it. He walked down the ramp of the “Close Encounters” mother ship.
All of this goes to show that “Stop Being Meaningful” doesn’t sound like a rock concert at all. Anyway, “Rock” is not exactly like that. What Byrne and his friends created at this peak of their all-too-brief time as a team was a mix of new wave, funk, world music, and whatever “art rock” meant. The result was magnificent. And when it wasn’t great, it was never remarkable or inexplicably funny — which makes you ask yourself, “How do I do this?” I write as someone who asks: an average of 12 times a day – or no matter how naïve the melodic line, it is so mournful and moving that it pierces the heart. It’s not for nothing that the subtitle of “This Is the Place to Be” is “Naive Melody.” This is the pearl of a song about home and where to find it, be it home or another person.
“Stop Being Meaningful” is also a masterclass in slow production. First, Byrne is on his own, boom box in hand, in “Psycho Killer.” When you hear the lyrics again, this time, it strikes you: By Byrne’s description—”nervous and angry,” “can’t relax,” starting a conversation and “can’t even finish it”—everyone in America is a potential psychopathic killer, at least on bad days.
The musicians, singers, stage risers and scenic elements then gradually make their entrance, so that once the whole band is assembled the film begins and never ceases to make sense as a concert film that knows exactly what it’s doing.
Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth don’t overdo anything and are mainly there to make the stage production look as enticing as possible. We’re talking about a cinematographer who created the look of “Blade Runner,” among others; so even though not a lot of money was spent on this project, the flexible range of light and shadow works like a charm. Plus editor Lisa Day’s wonderfully intuitive cutting. There will never be a cut when a cut is not requested. Beautiful long takes, flavored with terrific close-ups and medium shots, allow these people to do what they do so well – it sounds so easy, and yet we so rarely come across this level of modest craft in any genre.
The magic is in Demme’s calm, patient rapport with each artist. They are Byrne; bassist Tina Weymouth seemed a bit wary (not easy to work with, as Byrne himself admits); drummer Chris Frantz; keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison; guitarist Alex Weir; keyboardist Bernie Worrell; percussionist Steve Scales; and backup singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, who are invaluable to the spirit and energy of this film.
“Stop Making Sense” finally reminds us of a few simple truths: Bands other than the Rolling Stones don’t last forever. Sometimes the right creative artists collaborate on something special.
And very, very rarely does a movie come out as good as this one.
“Stop Being Meaningful” — 4 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG (for brief suggestive material)
Running time: 1:28
How to watch: In theaters, wider release September 23.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.