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Film / Stop Making Sense

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"Hi. I've got a tape I want to play."
David Byrne, frontman of Talking Heads, opening the concert

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.

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.


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. To quote frontman David Byrne, "it's like 60 Minutes on acid."


Bonus songs (deleted from the theatrical cut but included on home media releases):

Hi. I've got some tropes I want to play:

  • Adorkable: David Byrne at various points in the movie.
  • And Now for Someone Completely Different: Tina Weymouth's Tom Tom Club does their One 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. 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.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Psycho Killer" features lyrics in French.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:
    • In "Burning Down The House", Steve Scales sticks out his tongue for the camera.
    • During "Girlfriend Is Better", David Byrne holds the microphone in front of the camera briefly.
  • 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: One of the finest.
  • Control Freak: David Byrne wouldn't allow cups of water on the stage, according to Tina Weymouth.
  • Creepy Monotone: This is how Byrne sings many of the songs, though he is complemented by the more soulful backup singers.
  • 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.
  • 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 crowdnote .
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: A trademark of the band, and in full evidence here.
    • The contributions of the backing singers and additional musicians, if anything, heightens the lyrical dissonance of "Life During Wartime".
  • 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.
  • 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.
    Roger Ebert: Watching the Talking Heads in concert is a little like rock 'n' roll crossed with "Jane Fonda's Workout."
  • 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.
    • 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, though this had already been used for performances on the Remain in Light tour.
  • Re-Cut:
    • 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.
  • Running Gag: In the self-interview clip, "It's like 60 Minutes on acid."
  • Shout-Out:
    • David Byrne's dance with a lamp is a reference to Fred Astaire's film dances.
    • His "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 ("America the Beautiful" in "Making Flippy Floppy", "Little Drummer Boy" in the bonus extra "I Zimbra").
  • Silly Love Songs: Spectacularly averted; only one song ("This Must Be the Place") is a love song, and it is sung to a lamp. On the other hand, you could make the case that they're going for quality over quantity.
    • The song is not exactly being sung to a lamp - it's a song about the comfort of home. The lamp represents that.
  • 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.
  • 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". (So also Album Title Drop, for the accompanying album.)
  • 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 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.

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