- Stop Making Sense
- Directed by: Jonathan Demme
- Starring: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison
- Documentary/Music| PG | 1 hr 28 min
By Reed Ripley
Stop Making Sense opens with Talking Heads’ front man, David Byrne, walking out on stage alone with a boom box and an acoustic guitar. Dressed simply in a grey suit and beaten-up white sneakers, he deliberately steps his way to center stage through the ladders and scaffolding of an exposed backstage, sets the boom box down, and matter-of-factly states “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play” before pressing play and ripping out an absolutely banging acoustic performance of “Psycho Killer.” It’s a perfectly calibrated opening that grabs you right by the throat, and for the ensuing 85 minutes, Stop Making Sense doesn’t let go.
What distinguishes a great concert film from a great concert? It’s more than just sticking a few cameras around a stage and pressing record. Heck, if that qualified, I would submit the collective Taylor Swift Eras Tour TikToks as this year’s blockbuster entry. It’s simple, really, and it’s the same thing that engenders greatness in films across all genres—intentionality. The musicians have a story to tell, and it’s the filmmakers’ job to get that story across in a captivating manner.
Of course, it makes it a lot easier when the musicians specifically craft their performance not only for a live concert, but also for film. That’s clearly the case with Talking Heads, as every part of the concert at the center of Stop Making Sense screams with intentionality and specificity. It’s not that everything is meticulous and sharp—quite the opposite, as a good chunk of the concert is borderline chaotic. It’s the controlled chaos that makes it so captivating, because it’s extremely clear that every movement, every instrument, and every prop (Byrne’s iconic big suit included) is there for a specific, artistic reason.
The way the camera moves, and the selective use of close, medium, and wide shots, are the reason those choices shine. The camera shows the physicality pure energy of the performers, and it also allows their personality to burst through. All the musicians get shining moments—Tina Weymouth smiling slyly and bouncing her heels to the rhythm; Chris Frantz dutifully keeping time in his simple polos and khakis; Jerry Harrison bouncing back and forth between keyboard and guitar and smiling through it all; Steve Scales on the bongos and various percussive instruments absolutely loving life and the crowd; Alex Weir undeniably slaying guitar up front; Bernie Worrell seemingly lost in his own synth world; and Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt belting behind Byrne and using their movement stabilize Byrne’s off-the-wall gyrations.
But really, Stop Making Sense orbits Byrne, and rightfully so. He’s like a tent revival preacher except instead of the spirt of God flowing through him, it’s the spirit of pure artistry (he literally raises his hands to the heavens during “Once in a Lifetime.”). He’s a sheer force of creative will, and the three performances at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater at the heart of the film collectively stand as one of the greatest mixes of live artistry and recorded work that’s ever been put to film.
Days after watching Stop Making Sense, I can’t stop thinking about it. It just lives with you, popping into memory every now and then as a warm reminder of what music can do when it’s paired with film. True, I’m about four decades late (Stop Making Sense is re-releasing this year remastered in IMAX for its 40th anniversary), but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling as fresh and exciting as it presumably did in 1984.