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Class of 1984: “Stop Making Sense”

by on April 30, 2014
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In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

Only in the most constrictive sense is “Stop Making Sense” a Talking Heads concert film.

It’s a passionate portrait of exuberant subjects who refuse to sit still — a simple sketch given gradual weight and color to evoke an enormous escalation of energy. It’s a narrative art installation in which a band grows into its own space with all the care and patience afforded a home or a family. It’s often assembled like a horror film without intent to fright. We never know who may leap forth from chiaroscuro shadows or bounce into the light for unguarded glimpses of being lost in the music.

It’s a stirring showcase for frontman David Byrne’s legendary, oft-mocked convulsive fervor and Pentecostal pop-culture pontification on ennui and banality. Most unforgettably, it’s an unadulterated rush of seeing people lock into life’s effusive essence even if they couldn’t sustain it for long … or were just faking it.

Like Talking Heads itself, Jonathan Demme’s landmark 1984 film is accessible and arty. In less skilled hands, it would simply feel alien and cold, not vibrantly and enthrallingly alive.

By the time of its release, Talking Heads had been together for nearly 10 years, with “Remain in Light,” a staple on ’80s best-of lists, already under its belt. Coming off a three-year break, the band delivered its biggest album yet: 1983’s “Speaking in Tongues,” buoyed by high-charting hit “Burning Down the House.”

On the other hand, Demme was coming off a rough, hard-way lesson in Hollywood filmmaking. “Melvin and Howard,” Demme’s off-kilter, low-budget 1980 biopic about Howard Hughes’ unlikely Utah beneficiary, won two Oscars and earned him directorial duties on “Swing Shift” — a big-studio Goldie Hawn vehicle about women in a World War II armaments factory. Hawn and Warner Brothers wanted a commercial comedy. Demme wanted a character-driven drama. Who came out victorious should come as little surprise, and Demme denounced the results.

“Stop Making Sense” feels like his attempt to exorcise that enervating experience by chronicling esoteric entertainers who “made it” on their own terms. And with it, Demme kicked off a dynamic decade that many directors would be hard-pressed to match: eclectic, edgy comedies “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob”; avant-garde documentaries “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Cousin Bobby”; one of the 1990s’ most unexpected prestige pictures in “The Silence of the Lambs” (for which he won an Oscar); and “Philadelphia,” easily the highest-profile film at the time to explore the AIDS crisis.

Filmed over three nights at Los Angeles’s Pantages Theater during the “Tongues” tour, “Stop Making Sense” barely bothers with concert-film conventions. Only faint surround-sound cheers remind us of the crowd, and there are no frenetic cuts to fingers on fret boards or cymbal’s-eye-views of sticks crashing down. In fact, there aren’t many cuts at all, most notably during “Once in a Lifetime” when the shot remains largely static on Byrne as he bends back and forth like a balloon man in a car lot. Rarely are concert films so confident to let an artist’s magnetic presence simply wash over you for a few minutes instead of cutting to 30 different angles or crowds mugging for extreme close-ups.

To the unfamiliar, Byrne would seem to need all the audience validation. For a supposed rock star, he cuts a strikingly strange figure — a gangly, buttoned-up guy with a wide-eyed chicken strut, a weird fashion sense and an inscrutable, somewhat icy air of isolation. At first glance, whatever world Byrne resides in seems so far away that it borders on undiscoverable, let alone approachable. But the film’s opening insists upon a friendly, but forceful, introduction, to Byrne, and Demme and Co. continue to endear you to him without ever betraying his many idiosyncrasies.

Byrne’s guitar slices through a shaft of light in a stage-left doorway to open the film. He strides into the frame … or at least his white sneakers and tapered suit pants do. An unbroken, minute-long take starting at floor level follows Byrne to the stage, where he sets down a boombox, presses play and acoustically accompany a tinny, drum-machine beat for “Psycho Killer,” the band’s first big hit. The camera pans up as if not just to reveal, but behold him — eyes wide and feet stumbling about like a freshly born fawn finding his footing.

One song at a time, the rest of the band joins him. First comes buoyant bassist Tina Weymouth, who always tightly guards the rhythmic pocket; then Chris Frantz, a drummer whose aw-geez glee contrasts most starkly with Byrne’s aloofness; and finally guitarist / keyboardist Jerry Harrison, who weds polymath precision to rock propulsion.  As ethereally floating cameras show the band growing into its own space, you feel Byrne’s defenses, however artistically artificial, begin to fall, too.

The stage makes its own statement, converted from bare backdrops to a black-swathed set carved by large screens and stark, single-color lighting. Sometimes, the band feels like it’s playing under the unforgiving, sulfurous gaze of parking-lot lights — their gazes barely peeking out from behind bandit-mask shadows on their faces. Other times, as on “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” the band gathers near a floor lamp. It’s not for nothing: The show feels like a condo gathering where more and more guests slowly arrive — minimal stagecraft with maximum, transfixing effect.

By the time “Burning Down the House” hits, the feel-good vibe explodes into an unstoppable dance party you’ve stumbled upon in the middle of the night and will see through to the break of dawn or the collapse of your legs, whichever comes first. That’s when the film introduces the Talking Heads’ ingeniously incorporated touring ensemble, rooted in funk and soul — Parliament-Funkadelic founding member Bernie Worrell on keyboards, guitarist Alex Reid (of the Brothers Johnson), backup vocalists Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, and percussionist Steve Scales.

From here to the finish, Byrne comes unmoored, traversing the stage with workout-video intensity, running (in place) what must be the equivalent of a 5K and mirroring Mabry and Holt’s moves as a playful, gentle taunt. He’s a man intoxicated — not by alcohol, but by the encouraging presence of his band of merrymakers.

In moments like one in which Byrne leaps from the floor to start “Swamp,” Demme is unafraid to let him fall out of the frame and find the camera as he sees fit. It’s a beautiful depiction of how a band must balance rigors of rehearsing to perfection with a fearless embrace of spontaneity to keep every show fresh. Ostensibly about process — creating a show and an experience — “Stop Making Sense” feels instantaneous. And although we know that, by necessity, it had to have been meticulously planned, such is the magic that “Stop Making Sense” seems to simply unspool before us.

A Blondie-esque side trip into “Genius of Love” — the lone hit by Tom Tom Club, a side project of Frantz and Weymouth — is a larkish interlude at best. It’s mainly a way for Byrne to catch a breather and wedge himself into his purposefully oversized big-suit costume for “Girlfriend is Better” (from whose lyrics the film takes its title). And the film closes with “Crosseyed and Painless,” a well-earned final-song victory lap in which cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth finally shows the appreciative congregation that the band has been thanking all night long.

No one could have known then that “Sense’s” effervescence would seem ephemeral now. Never again would Talking Heads tour behind an album, and just four years later, the band broke up (for all intents and purposes). Its last performance together came at 2002’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and that was a temporary accord after a 1990s legal battle that saw Byrne fight for rights to the band name.

A reunion tour has been rigorously ruled out. Not that anyone needs it — especially Byrne, who retains au courant indie cred via collaborations with his distaff doppelganger, St. Vincent. But one comment Weymouth has made about Byrne — a man who self-describes as “borderline Asperger’s” — casts an interesting new light on “Sense” all these many years later.

In an interview, she called Byrne “a man incapable of returning friendship.” In “Sense,” all he seems to do is show appreciation for the liberation his musical cohorts afford him. Perhaps there lies the rub and the ultimate “putting on,” as it were, of a show: That all this agreeable fun onstage is just an unreliable narrative to mask real-life actual animosity, as it has been for many successful bands who have called it quits throughout the decades.

Is that actually the case? Who knows? If so, it wouldn’t tarnish “Sense” one bit. It would merely add a fascinating new wrinkle to an already exhilarating, enlightening film about artistic expression at its most incandescent.

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