Two concert films are all you need to make a strong case for the genre’s vitality.
Director Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads masterpiece “Stop Making Sense” was released in 1984, and now A24 has released a 4K digital restoration in theaters with super-clear and intricately beautiful sound. IMAX branded screens were preferred. Is this the best concert movie? Yes. I believe so. You don’t need to read anymore.
But wait! I caught up with my Tribune colleague Christopher Borrelli to zig and zag about the plot, history, and grandeur of the concert film experience.
The genre’s newest and arguably most profitable example opens Oct. 13: “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.” With less than a month until release, North American advance ticket sales for the Swift film totaled nearly $70 million. Opening week estimates range anywhere from $100 to $150 million. Swift has previously shot seven concert films, starting with 2010’s “Journey to Fearless,” ranging from studio sessions to stadium explosions.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Phillips: Did you see the preview of “Stop Making Sense” at Regal IMAX (on Western Ave.) last night?
Borrelli: Yes! Pretty cool! People were dancing in the theater.
Phillips: There were only three of us at our (daytime) press screening, but my leg was doing that David Byrne thing, constantly flailing around in rhythm. When I saw it again, it made me think that it’s not actually enough for a filmmaker to make it look like you’re in the audience. It’s more about capturing an extra-dimensional version of the event. Or something like that.
Borrelli: I know what you mean. The cliché is always: “We will film the concert and get you on stage!” With the group!” So do you really want to be on stage with the band? I do not want to be. I want a more immersive experience. I guess that was always my only knock against “Stop Being Meaningful”, Demme doesn’t give you much of an audience, except for the last part –
Phillips: Right. He had his own reasons, which he later talked about in interviews. The first night they shot the movie, they tried to light up the crowd, which distracted and restricted the audience’s attention, causing the performers to become obstructed. And Byrne later told Demme that it was the worst show Talking Heads had ever put on! Thus came the end of audience lighting.
Borrelli: Makes sense (laughs). I think “Stop Being Meaningful” was my first concert film in the cinema. It’s very important to me because I’m from Rhode Island and the band originates from Providence, so this is an important local landmark. Also in the same year, 1984, “Purple Rain” was released; It wasn’t a concert movie, but Prince was incredibly alive in it. The movie itself is pretty bad, but the concert footage is another level. Also, I just learned that “Stop Making Sense” was performed at the Chicago Fine Arts Theater for a year.
Phillips: What do you think is the real triumph of Demme’s film?
Borrelli: It’s hard to say. There is a degree of invisibility to what most directors do in concert films. When I saw it again, I realized how much Demme captured it all, how everyone in the band reacted to everything – how the backup singers reacted to David Byrne, how (bassist) Tina Weymouth reacted. Just like the stage concert, the movie starts with him alone with a stereo in “Psycho Killer” and they gradually add parts, parts, parts until they have a full show with a full band. The concert starts from there.
Phillips: So many right decisions every minute! I think it’s one of the few near-perfect movies of the last decade. When I first saw it I had only heard Talking Heads’ heavy rotation radio hits. So the impact of the music and Byrne’s sense of optimism and human connection in the face of anxiety kind of shook me up.
Here’s what Demme and editor Lisa Day have created: “Stop Making Sense” is nothing short of a spectacular display of editing rhythms. This is a patient approach; they don’t favor the stereotype, that kind of hand-held surface visual energy, or the run-and-gun, newsreel-style shots on Omaha Beach. Your point is, the movie just attracts attention. And they had a lead singer, Byrne, who was completely unique and unique. There is something I understand more this time: Music has a wonderful soul and people bring us so much joy. But at the center there is always a man who is alone in many ways.
Borrelli: This is probably one of the reasons why the band broke up.
What I see in “Stop Making Sense” I also see in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978) with The Band. It will leave the camera alone and allow actors to move in and out of the frame. I remember Van Morrison hunching over, lifting himself up into the frame, and then walking out again. In and out, back and forth. Sometimes it becomes a flash of movement or a flash of color, and in a way it captures how you remember a concert: as a strange mix of movement, shapes, sounds and things.
Phillips: Let’s go back to the pre-Woodstock era. Then and now, technique and camera feel aren’t everything in a concert film. Take one of my favorite concert movies, 1964’s “TAMI Show,” which features an unreal lineup from Lesley Gore to James Brown. And from James Brown you can go straight to Prince in “Purple Rain,” or better yet, his concert film “Sign o’ the Times” (1987). This was shot mostly at the Paisley Park soundstage in suburban Minneapolis, not while on tour. I don’t know, does this mean fewer performance movies? Or is it just a different species?
Borrelli: We should use the word “performance” as freely as possible in concert films. Whether it’s actually live, cobbled together from different nights, or recreated in the studio, it’s still a performance.
So I have a question for you. What’s your favorite concert movie cliché?
Phillips: Such a split-screen plot occurs in “Woodstock” (1970), although no one has gone too far with it before or since. Scorsese was one of the editors of this issue, and split screen was very popular at the time. It’s still with us now, in different formats, and it’s definitely one way to use the hours of concert footage they have. But I could never really relax into too much split screen. But today this visual technique has become an organic part of the experience of that film and that event. Part of the time capsule. A lot of things in “Woodstock” are not like that. They are more timeless. When Jimi Hendrix plays “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s the definitive version of the song, mysteriously getting to the heart of our country’s entire bloody history.
So Chris, what are your hopes for the Taylor Swift concert movie coming next month?
Borrelli: My hope?
Phillips: Your greatest hope. How successful do you hope it will be as a concert film?
Borrelli: My hope is that it captures this moment to some extent. We have an artist on top of the world, arguably one of the most influential people on the planet. It would be great if they could somehow capture what it was like. Some insight into performance and the culture itself.
This is not a concert film, but last night (my daughter) Zora and I started watching “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) on a whim. He’s 7 years old and after about 10 minutes he told me he really liked it but was curious about the people screaming, running, chasing after the Beatles. The feeling of being in the middle of such an event. I think the movie “Eras Tour” captures a little bit of what Taylor Swift’s success feels like, or the success of any musical superstar. What does it look like? Not just the performance, but also the world around him.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.