For many a devoted Talking Heads fan, 1983 was either the best year ever for their favorite band, or the telltale beginning of a slow and often painful end. It marked a break with Brian Eno, the producer extraordinaire who helped guide the group’s seminal albums More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and most importantly, Remain in Light. It was the moment when David Byrne went from wiry wizened frontman to egomaniacal despot, shaping both the sound and the visual representation of the music and its members until their break-up eight years later. They even scored their first Top Ten hit that year, “Burning Down the House” becoming a favorite among the burgeoning MTV generation and fratboys everywhere.
It was also the moment in time when the foursome expanded into a nine-piece and let director Jonathan Demme film their performance art like concerts. Twenty-five years later, Blu-ray technology is ready to reintroduce Talking Heads’ seminal Stop Making Sense to fans far too young to recall the group’s post-punk no wave reverie, or its eventual spiral into shameless squabbling and infighting. For nearly 90 glorious minutes, the band reduces the stage to a symbol-filled symposium on musicianship, craft, sonic bliss, group jams, individual acumen, and balls out greatness. It also offers enough sweat-filled dancing to inspire even the most stoic member of the fanbase to get up and shake their groove thing.
Honestly, the new digital update really isn’t necessary. From an audio and visual standpoint, nothing can beat Demme’s definitive work. Redefining the concert film for decades to come, the filmmaker manages the stage in ways that today’s modern quick cut stylists can’t even comprehend. Instead of using multiple angles and editorial overemphasis, Demme lets the lens linger. He follows certain segments of the band as a song simmers, allowing bassist Tina Weymouth or drummer Chris Frantz to steal the spotlight. Original fourth Jerry Harrison is often seen trading keyboard fills with former Parliament-Fundadelic ace Bernie Worell as backup divas Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt give Byrne a running in place rave for his vocal mania. With Steve Scales bringing the percussive noise and Brothers Johnson sideman Alex Weir working his six stringed magic, the movie is a collection of creative calling cards, skills all rolled into one amazing amalgamation of harmony and heroics.
Byrne has to be credited for the “design” of this show, utilizing a highly suggestive structure that sees the band grow from its original minimalist art school roots (the frontman solo, followed by the gradual inclusion of bass and drums) to is then current multicultural co-op. By the time “Found a Job” arrives, we have the initial Talking Heads available, the entity that turned a hardcore CBGBs into a head scratching experience with this rhythmic preppy posing. Slowing adding more “spicy” to the mix, we eventually find all nine touring members onstage, driving such amazing songs as “Life During Wartime”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and “Take Me to the River” to stunning rock and roll heights. The highlight for many remains the infamous ‘big suit’ sequence, set to another classic workout from the Speaking in Tongues LP, “Girlfriend Is Better”. Quickly becoming the film’s most iconic image, it is also the first indicators that Byrne was bypassing the rest of the group to focus on his own ideas and image.
In fact, it’s easy to see Stop Making Sense as one man’s attempt to exorcise his celebrity demons while searching for his true ‘self’. Byrne plays many “parts” here, from solo showman to solid sideman to over the top center of attention. Each persona comes across organically and naturally, an outgrowth of the music being made and the lyrics being sung. Sometimes, Stop Making Sense is nothing more than the skill of perfect recreation. Many of the early numbers resemble their album counterparts, down to specific sequences and changes. But once Byrne is free to follow his own growing insanity, the paranoia becomes part of the subtext. Soon, as the rest of the group is headed into overdrive, he is reluctantly reduced to playing sideshow geek, given over to his insular flash dance-ability and transformed into something almost inhuman. As a journey through one man’s many mental states, Stop Making Sense is an eye (and ear) opener. It’s also Byrne unhinged and unhindered by the nature of playing nicely with others.
From a presentation standpoint, the Blu-ray doesn’t change much. The film still looks great, the slightest amounts of grain resulting from Demme’s lo-fi shooting style. The lighting was also intense (per Byrne’s instructions) leading to a loss of color throughout. No need to worry, however, the remaining imagery more than makes up for a lack of rainbow brightness. The 1080p does reveal more detail, like the copious amounts of perspiration generated by the band, or the various technical adjustments going on in the shadows. The aural reproduction is equally adept, the DTS HD Master Audio mix providing tons of dynamic display. As for added content, the new format mimics the old DVD by providing some bonus songs (“Cities”, “Big Business/I Zimbra”) and a commentary track featuring Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, Harrison and Demme (all recorded separately, sadly). The best new bit is the 1999 press conference for the film’s theatrical rerelease. Several years since the break-up, the band is personable yet tense as they take questions from an audience eager to dispel myths while creating new ones.
In fact, Stop Making Sense is the kind of concrete legacy maker that’s hard to live down. Should they ever reform - and the mountain of animosity between the band members is a hell of a range to overcome, even for professed professionals - recreating what they accomplished back in the early ‘80s would be a daunting if not impossible task. The reason this concert film remains so revered, the explanation for its lasting impact and appeal remains that clichéd concept of capturing lightning in a bottle. When they took the stage in 1983, none of the band could envision the reception they’d receive, or the fact that it would be the last time they’d perform together until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. In many ways, Stop Making Sense would come to represent the apex of the group’s appeal - both commercially and as a personal concern. From then on, things got very complicated indeed. Luckily, we have this reminder of when things were practically perfect, a rarity for almost any artistic collective. That’s the magic in Demme’s movie. That’s the brilliance of one of music most memorable acts.