Stop Making Sense is a concert film featuring Talking Heads, and is often regarded by critics as the finest example of the genre. It was directed by Jonathan Demme and released in 1984, and documents three separate concerts filmed in Los Angeles in December 1983, with all the footage spliced together. The film was notably the first to utilize digital audio techniques for the entirety of its runtime, making use of a 24-track digital recorder that allowed for much clearer sound than other films of the time.
Even though the film contains footage from all three concerts, it plays as a unified whole, and our attention is always on the performers onstage as they progress through their set. There are no cutaways to the audience until the very last number; there are no features on the band and their musical evolution; there are no interviews with the musicians backstage as they prepare for the concert. The camerawork is extremely understated and naturalistic, with very long takes and no quick cuts.
All of these qualities are extremely rare among concert films, then and now, especially in contrast to the music videos that were changing the shape of the industry at the time. The great appeal and staying power of the movie is the single-minded simplicity. The viewer watches the band perform, and judges them on their own merits as musicians and entertainers, just like a real concert audience. The effect was so good that audiences would dance in the aisles at screenings.
And so we see Talking Heads unleashing their unique creativity, but at the same time we see their camaraderie with each other. Nearly everyone gets a chance to shine and show off their personalities. And then there's the music itself, which is, broadly speaking, New Wave, but with a host of other influences, especially funk. Just under half of the songs are from the Speaking in Tongues album, which their tour was supporting; in fact, all but three songs from the album ("I Get Wild/Wild Gravity", "Moon Rocks", and "Pull Up the Roots") appear on the setlist. However, the band also plays a number of their older hits, as well as "What a Day That Was", a piece from David Byrne's soundtrack to Twyla Harp's 1981 dance performance The Catherine Wheel.note The end result is an eclectic playlist with something for almost everyone, documenting Talking Heads at what many fans and critics consider to be their peak. Record buyers seemed to agree; the soundtrack album sold over two million copies in the U.S. alone by 1994. The film also became a favorite on the "midnight movie" and art house circuits.
Stop Making Sense is definitely one of the definitive concert film experiences, and a perfect introduction to the genre, not to mention Talking Heads themselves— its soundtrack was even included in Time's 2006 list of their 100 timeless and essential albums. To quote frontman David Byrne, "it's like 60 Minutes on acid." The film would eventually receive a Spiritual Successor 36 years later with the Spike Lee-directed American Utopia, taken from Byrne's 2019 Broadway residency show in support of his 2018 album of the same name.
Setlist (also used for the 1999 live album; timestamps for the latter included here):
- "Psycho Killer" (4:24)
- "Heaven" (3:41)
- "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" (2:09)
- "Found a Job" (3:15)
- "Slippery People" (4:00)
- "Burning Down the House" (4:06)
- "Life During Wartime" (5:51)
- "Making Flippy Floppy" (4:40)
- "Swamp" (4:30)
- "What a Day That Was" (6:00)note
- "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" (4:57)
- "Once in a Lifetime" (5:25)
- "Genius of Love" (4:30)note
- "Girlfriend Is Better" (5:06)
- "Take Me to the River" (5:32)note
- "Crosseyed and Painless" (6:11)
Bonus songs (deleted from the theatrical cut but included on home media releases)
1984 live album tracklistSide One
- "Psycho Killer" (4:28)
- "Swamp" (4:28)note
- "Slippery People" (4:13)note
- "Burning Down the House" (4:14)
- "Girlfriend Is Better" (5:07)note
- "Once in a Lifetime" (5:34)note
- "What a Day That Was" (6:30)note
- "Life During Wartime" (5:52)note
- "Take Me to the River" (6:00)note
Hi. I've got some tropes I want to play:
- And Now for Someone Completely Different: Tina Weymouth's Tom Tom Club does their single hit "Genius Of Love" during the break.
- Ascetic Aesthetic: David Byrne's stage design was intended to get rid of "distracting" elements, even cups of water, to focus on the music itself. The stage risers and even the mic stands were painted matte-black and conspicuous logos on instruments were taped over with black duct tape (save for the Zildjian-branded cymbals, which needed to be untampered to sound right). The amps were hidden in the risers.
- Audience Participation: At screenings, the audience would often act as if they were at a real concert, dancing in the aisles and even applauding in between songs.
- The Band Minus the Face: In the film, the lineup of the Tom Tom Club is literally Talking Heads minus David Byrne, as the secondary purpose of the performance of "Genius of Love" was to allow Byrne to change into the big suit for the next number. (As well as to recognise the fact that Tom Tom Club had recently had their own legitimate hit single.)
- Bilingual Bonus: "Psycho Killer" features lyrics in French.
- Call-Back: For "Once in a Lifetime", Byrne dons a pair of horn-rimmed glasses similar to the ones he wears in the music video and does similar movements.
- Chiaroscuro: The primary lighting style used throughout the film. Up to Eleven in Once In a Lifetime, when the camera stays on Byrne for the entire song, and the light / dark is very contrasted.
- Cloudcuckoolander: David Byrne definitely comes across as this, if not during the actual concert, then during his famous interview with himself about the film.
- Concert Film: Often regarded by critics as one of the finest examples of the genre. Unlike other contenders for this honor (e.g. The Last Waltz and Woodstock), this film is unique for focusing solely on the performance. David Byrne said in interviews that the band was always impatient with films like The Last Waltz that had endless backstage interviews with the band and shots of the audience whooping it up, etc., so they made a conscious decision to film a Talking Heads performance and leave out all the extraneous stuff.
- Control Freak: David Byrne wouldn't allow cups of water on the stage, according to Tina Weymouth.
- Creepy Monotone: Byrne's solo performance of "Psycho Killer" at the start of the movie is rendered this way, with him singing much more quietly than on the 1977 studio version and with an overall flat tone of voice, complimenting the robotic sound of the drum machine playing in the background.
- Debut Queue: Each of the four band members comes out one song at a time, followed by the backing musicians for the fifth number. At the same time, the stage is being assembled in full view of the audience.
- Diegetic Switch: How the film starts: Byrne carries a boombox on stage, mentions that he wants to play the audience a tape, and presses play. Upon doing so, a hidden TR-808 starts up, acting as the intro to "Psycho Killer".
- Early-Bird Cameo: Lynn Mabry, one of the two backup singers, can be heard singing the harmonies during the chorus of "Heaven", several numbers before she and Edna Holt appear onstage.
- Epic Rocking:
- The film version of "Take Me to the River" goes on for just over eight minutes, a good chunk of which is occupied by Byrne introducing the musicians and crew to the audience.
- On the 1984 live album, "What a Day That Was" surpasses six minutes and "Life During Wartime" comes close, both on the CD and cassette releases, "Take Me to the River" meanwhile tallies in at exactly six minutes.
- On the 1999 live album "What a Day That Was" and "Crosseyed and Painless" both reach or surpass the six-minute mark, with "Life During Wartime" again coming close.
- Epileptic Flashing Lights: A rapid series of strobe lights activate partway through "Genius of Love".
- Everything Has Rhythm: During "This Must Be the Place," Byrne dances with a lamp.
- Feet-First Introduction: Actually, the first thing we see is the shadow of Byrne's guitar neck as he passes through a doorway. We then see the bottom of his Iconic Outfit— namely, his pants legs and white shoes—as he strides to the microphone and sets down his boombox. Then after he presses play on the device, the camera finally pans up to show us David Byrne's face.
- Genre-Busting: Stop Making Sense busted some of the concert film genres by never showing the band offstage, had no interviews, and never showing the crowd— at least until the end, that is, when there are several shots of audience members dancing along during closing number "Crosseyed and Painless". This was not wholly intentional; they always planned to focus on the band rather than the audience, and very gradually include more audience shots as the film went on, but the ones at the end were the only ones that were actually usable (on account of both lighting issues and the audience being too self-conscious about being on-camera).
- Gone Horribly Right: The intention of the film was to create the illusion that the audience was actually watching a Talking Heads performance, not just a concert film. The effect was so good that audiences danced in the aisles, to the annoyance of one David Byrne, who was trying to concentrate on a screening of his own film.
- Hong Kong Dub: The audio doesn't sync up to the visuals in some places, the results of using the best visual takes with the best musical performances of the concerts. This produces a noticeable continuity error in "Take Me to the River" where a beach ball bounced onto the stage by the audience suddenly disappears.
- Iconic Outfit: The big— and we mean big— suit that Byrne wears in the last part of the concert is forever associated with both him and this movie.
- Inherently Funny Words: The slides shown during "Making Flippy Floppy" are supposed to be phrases that Byrne thought were funny.
- I Was Quite a Fashion Victim: Tina Weymouth, in the DVD commentary on her stage costume of the time: "Ah yes, the blimp suit. It must have looked very modern in The '80s."
- Lampshade Hanging: Literally.
- Large Ham: Byrne, unsurprisingly, but also drummer Chris Frantz (especially during "Genius Of Love") and percussionist Steve Scales, both of whom mug for the audience every chance they get.
- At one point, Byrne flops down on his back and sings from the floor. Shortly thereafter, he gets up and runs a full lap around the set.
- Lyrical Dissonance: The contributions of the backing singers and additional musicians, if anything, heightens the lyrical dissonance of "Life During Wartime", providing an even more upbeat arrangement to a song about the paranoia and ennui that surrounds living in a war-torn country.
- Occidental Otaku: When it came time for the staging and art direction, David Byrne took influence from Kabuki and Noh theaters' minimalist aesthetic, to the point of dressing stagehands and painting microphones black. The iconic big suit was also inspired by Noh theater.
- The Oner: There are quite a few of these. It even starts with one: showing David Byrne walking out on stage.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis:
- The Big Suit. The Simpsons episode with David Byrne As Himself has he and Homer briefly wearing the Big Suit together.
- The concert is also remembered as The One with... aerobic jogging by the band during songs.
- This film's version of "Once in a Lifetime" was the one used for Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
- Rearrange the Song: All of the songs are performed in a much funkier style than their studio counterparts; several songs are are significantly different on-stage compared to others. David Byrne has kept some of these arrangements in solo performances.
- Byrne performs "Psycho Killer" with just an acoustic guitar and a drum machine.
- "Heaven" just features acoustic guitar and bass.
- "What a Day That Was" is given a much faster tempo and more energetic vocals, turning it from an ethereal avant-funk track to a song you can jump up and down to.
- "This Must Be the Place" is given a significantly different intro and a longer outro, the latter incorporating a lengthy instrumental break before capping off with a reprise of the ending howl.
- Thanks to the soulful backing singers, "Take Me to the River" sounds a lot more like a normal Gospel song.
- "Crosseyed and Painless" has an extended, slower-tempo intro, carried over from the arrangement used during the Remain in Light tour and transposed to a different key.
- For the first home video release, three extra songs were inserted into the middle of the show. Later DVD releases went back to the theatrical cut, but included those extra songs as bonus content.
- The album version was heavily edited, with drums on most songs completely re-recorded. (Byrne said that he wanted the album to be something completely separate, rather than just a soundtrack for the film.) In 1999, it was rereleased as Stop Making Sense: Special New Edition, and this version was the soundtrack from the film.
- David Byrne's dance with a lamp is a reference to a routine from the 1951 film Royal Wedding, in which Fred Astaire dances with a coat rack.
- Byrne's "staggering" dance during "Psycho Killer" is a reference the way the main character of the film Breathless staggers after being shot (you'll notice that right before Byrne staggers the drum machine's beat is very rapid and sounds similar to a machine gun).
- The opening credits are done in the style of Dr. Strangelove. Pablo Ferro, who worked on the classic film, did the titles for Stop Making Sense as well.
- Keyboardist Bernie Worrell indulges in brief musical quotes during his solos ("The Star-Spangled Banner" in "Making Flippy Floppy", "Little Drummer Boy" in the bonus extra "I Zimbra").
- Something Something Leonard Bernstein: Byrne deliberately sings in a very obtuse style, so those of you who want to sing along might need a lyric sheet.
- Spiritual Antithesis: Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz on The Band is often used as a contrast to this film with its lack of interview footage. That said, Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads cited the film as a key influence on Stop Making Sense and Robbie Robertson was an attendance at one of the concerts captured in the film as well as meeting the band backstage.
- Step Up to the Microphone: Tina Weymouth (the blonde-haired bassist) sings her Tom Tom Club song "Genius of Love".Chris Frantz: The girls can do it too y'all!
- Also a downplayed version during "Girlfriend Is Better": Byrne is walking about the stage with a cameraman pointing the camera at him and a stagehand carrying a portable light pointed at him. He sings the title phrase of the movie because it gets repeated twice at this point in the song, then for the second repeat he sticks the mic in the stagehand's face—and the stagehand sings it perfectly on key, without missing a beat.
- Talking Heads: Averted. There are no Talking Heads in a movie about Talking Heads.
- The "The" Title Confusion: It's not "The Talking Heads", Chris Frantz, drummer for the band Talking Heads.
- Title Drop: Of the film itself, during the song "Girlfriend Is Better".
- Updated Re Release: To commemorate the film's 15th anniversary, the live album was re-released, not only containing every song from the film, but also presenting most of them as they were heard in the film (the original live album contained heavy overdubbing to differentiate it from the movie, most notably re-recording all the percussion tracks). The film was also released on DVD in its "Special New Edition", after being out of print on VHS for a few years.