making sense of talking heads


tales from the big suit: david byrne in ‘stop making sense.’

Above all its theatrical design and positively enchanted music, there is a performance aesthetic at work in Jonathan Demme’s remarkable Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense that is as inviting and as it vital.

If you had to pin down one single instance – one single frame, even – that captures such intent, it would be when head Head David Byrne, dancing like a child unbound in his famed Big Suit during Girlfriend is Better, hoists his microphone momentarily to the camera filming him as if to invite the audience to sing. It’s an astounding moment in a film filled with them.

Amazingly, Stop Making Sense has turned 30 with digital re-release that is making the rounds of movie houses this summer in much the same way Talking Heads might be had the band not split at the dawn of the ‘90s. It plays twice on Aug. 6 as part of the Kentucky Theatre’s Summer Classics series. What a fitting homecoming. Not only did the film play there upon it release in 1984, but Talking Heads performed in Lexington in May 1983 at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum. It was the only regional stop of the tour Stop Making Sense was built around.

stop_making_sense_posterDemme’s film was a practice in simplicity. It presents an unbroken stage performance minus the gratuitous crowd shots, interviews and backstage nonsense. Then again, who needed frills when you had Byrne as your focal point? Throughout the film, he operates as a wiry stick figure of frontman who bends and dances like a rubber band and sings like an artist (and, at times, like a child) thoroughly consumed by the music around him.

Admittedly, much of the film’s fascination deals with Byrne’s performance design as his actual performance. It opens with the singer alone onstage belting out the misanthropic Psycho Killer before instruments and musicians are added with each successive song until Talking Heads stands as a nine-member post-punk funk army. The unit’s single-mindedness comes through during a version of the radio hit Life During Wartime, transformed here into calisthenics workout with half of the Heads running in place for much of the song.

But Demme is right on his target here, too. One of the film’s most arresting shots occurs during the thick funk of Swamp where the camera slowly pans across the front of the stage to catch Byrne s he pops into view like a jack-in-the-box.

Sadly, Stop Making Sense was also the beginning of the end for Talking Heads. The band never toured again after 1983. After three more studio records, it quietly dissolved. But what Demme and Byrne leave behind in this film isn’t just an ensemble snapshot or a chronicle of its time. This is instead a living portrait of performance joy and invention in fascinating motion. And that makes outstanding sense.

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