[12 October 2009]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
David Byrne had just flooded his hotel bathroom and needed some help. It was late 1980, and the idiosyncratic guitarist and front man of the rock band Talking Heads was staying at San Francisco’s Miyako Hotel while his band toured in support of their new album, “Remain in Light.” I was knocking on Byrne’s door to do an interview with him for a music magazine.
Byrne opened the door soaking wet and upset. “My bathtub overflowed,” he said frantically. “Can you help me?”
It turned out that Byrnes’ hotel room had a Japanese-style sunken tub which he had managed to fill beyond its capacity. Water was flowing onto his bathroom floor and seeping into the main room. We both got down on the floor with towels and anything absorbent we could get our hands on. We eventually stopped the flood and dried ourselves off. He changed into dry clothes and we started the interview.
Although I tried to make light of the incident and Byrne did his best to concentrate during our interview, he was, in the words of one of his band’s most popular songs, tense and nervous, and he couldn’t relax. Byrne seemed even more uncomfortable than he sometimes appeared on stage, where, eyes bulging, his neck moving back and forth like a chicken’s, he came across as one of the most awkward-looking, ill-at-ease lead singers in rock ‘n’ roll.
I remembered that day while watching the 25th anniversary release on Blu-ray of “Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary of Talking Heads in concert, on sale this week (Palm Pictures, $34.99, not rated). Shot during three nights in Hollywood’s Pantages Theater during Talking Heads’ late 1983 tour, “Stop Making Sense” illustrated how much Byrne had developed as a performer and how far Talking Heads had evolved as a band.
One of the finest rock documentaries ever made, “Stop Making Sense” presents a concert from start to finish, except for a few songs that had to be left out because of time constraints. (They are included among the DVD’s bonus features.) The format was conceived for the stage by Byrne, who provided storyboards and notes for each song (also included on the DVD), and then implemented perfectly by Demme, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and their crew.
As the core members of the band (Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz and guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison) explained in a 1999 joint press conference at the San Francisco International Film Festival marking the film’s 15th anniversary re-release — included here on DVD for the first time — Demme and the band decided to keep the film sharply focused on the musicians. Unlike other concert films, “Stop Making Sense” includes no interviews with performers or audience members, and eschews shots of the crowd until the very end of the concert.
As Byrne says in a joint audio commentary with Demme and the other band members, the director “treated all the musicians as if they were characters in an ensemble piece ... You get to know (the musicians) as people” as the crew’s seven cameras capture what’s going on.
“Stop Making Sense” builds in intensity and complexity as the movie proceeds. It begins with Byrne walking onto the stage by himself, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and a tape recorder/beat box, and performing one of the band’s earliest songs, “Psycho Killer.” He’s joined next by Weymouth on “Heaven,” then by Frantz for “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” and then by Harrison, rounding out the core group, for “Found a Job.” In these four songs, we get a brief tour of Talking Heads’ development from a minimalist, arty band (labeled New Wave more for their early performances in punky venues like New York’s CBGB’s than for their sound) to a funky ensemble playing uptempo rock and R&B with African overtones.
The band’s musical transformation is aided by the addition, with each new song, of other performers — percussionist Steve Scales and backup singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry join the fray first (on “Slippery People”), then keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Alex Weir come aboard for “Burning Down the House.” Each of these additional performers had extensive R&B credentials — Worrell, in particular, was famous for his work with Parliament-Funkadelic — and they merge tightly and seamlessly with Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison.
Demme and company brilliantly capture the energy and excitement created by this large ensemble. The visuals are spectacular and the music fun, funky and irresistibly danceable.
Speaking of dancing, Byrne shows himself to be a gifted showman and veritable dynamo in “Stop Making Sense.” He had always been a visually compelling performer — his skinny frame, nerdy appearance and offbeat vocals complementing his ability to make jittery, propulsive music, pushed along by his James Brown-influenced “chicken-scratching” guitar style. But for “Stop Making Sense” Byrne runs and jogs in place, at one time doing laps around the band’s stage set. He dances with a lamp as his partner. He performs such maneuvers as a “Staggering dance,” a “Jogging dance,” a “Possession dance,” a “Vibration dance,” a “Jittery dance” and a “Leaning back dance.” Most famously, for the song “Girlfriend Is Better” he does a hilarious dance while wearing a huge, wide custom-made suit which gives him the appearance of having a shrunken head.
In the never-before-seen 1999 press conference, the audio commentary and a very funny self-interview by Byrne, the members of Talking Heads discuss their band’s beginnings, their musical development, the origin and meaning of specific songs and much more. The only issue they evade is why the group broke up in the late ‘80s — when Byrne left to work on solo projects.
“Stop Making Sense” was originally filmed using digital audio. Combined with the Blu-ray edition’s high-definition remastering, this is a wonderful disc for home viewers. It’s almost as good as being there.
In the commentary, Byrne describes his own performance in “Stop Making Sense”: “My character starts off as Mr. Stiff White Guy and does his very, very best to get down and get loose by the end of the show, to kind of shed his inhibitions.”
It’s a David Byrne who would have laughed at a little water spilled on a hotel room floor.
STOP MAKING SENSE
Band members: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Edna Holt and Alex Weir
Director: Jonathan Demme
Distributor: Palm Pictures