Saturday, 15 October 2011

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The name of the band is Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense is a rock concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme that captures them at their brilliant best. The film was actually shot over three nights in Hollywood's Pantages Theatre during the band's 1983 US tour to promote their album Speaking in Tongues. However the editing and continuity is so tight that you would never guess there was any break in the shooting schedule apart from what you see on screen. The band's performance is totally mesmerising. Led by the charismatic lead singer David Byrne, they take us through a greatest hits set covering their early punk and post punk classics up to the wirey new wave and Afro-funk of Speaking in Tongues, my favourite of all their albums.

The film starts as we follow David Byrne's white plimsolls onstage. With him he carries an acoustic guitar and a portable boom box tape player which he activates, telling the audience "I've got a tape I wanna play you." An electric drum beat kicks starts from the player and Byrne begins to strum the first bars of Talking Heads' classic "Psycho Killer", his head and body bouncing back and forth to the angular beat and jerky rhythm of the song. As the camera pulls back, we see the stage is bare. No backdrop, no speakers, no amps. No band. Just Byrne careering around an empty stage playing the song, every so often stumbling as the beat breaks down into staccato, and then regaining composure as the backing tape splutters back to a regular rhythm.

It's a beguiling performance from the singer, totally watchable for it's sparseness and Brechtian simplicity. Even more so when we catch sight of some backstage crew dressed in black who are fiddling about behind him, preparing more sound equipment. And lo and behold Byrne is joined on the next song Heaven by bass player Tina Weymouth who plugs into the newly arranged stack to add some resonance to the sound. As the gig progresses and the songs rack up more equipment and more of the band appear to join in the fun, including extra percussionists, some damn fine dancing backing singers and keyboardist Bernie Worrell from Parliament and Funkadelic. The band as a whole come together as one for Burning Down the House, an intense and brooding disco number, speeded up from the original for the live performance. From then onwards it's a rock and roll ride through the hits, via an interlude from Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz's hip-hop experiment The Tom Tom Club and David Byrne's infamous oversize suit, with some intriguing visual backdrops and stage props to boot. 

All of this is in keeping with the band's strong avant guard tendencies, and Byrne's art rock sensibilities. Throughout their career, Talking Heads have always been one step ahead of the game in their music, in Byrne's lyrics, in their album artwork and their pop videos. In fact Talking Heads were one of the first bands to take advantage of the pop promo as an art form. "Once in a Lifetime", from their 1980 album Remain in Light, depicts Byrne as an evangelist-like figure, chanting the lyrics and gesticulating wildly with his hands as though preaching a sermon to his flock, whilst in the background clones of the singer dance in perfect synchronisation. The video for their 1985 hit "Road to Nowhere" is one of the best of the decade, a visual feast mixing film stocks, special effects, colour tones and graphics without losing it's own unique sense of humour - something that that could never be accused of the band themselves either.

Stop Making Sense is one of the best rock concert films ever made, alongside Prince's Sign of The Times and Pink Floyd Live at PompeiObviously this one's for fan's more than anyone. If you have no desire to sit through 90 minutes of their greatest hits then don't bother! For the heads though this is far and away the best gig you never went to. This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no fooling around!

We're gonna move right now, turn like a wheel inside a wheel