A lone man walks on stage as a crowd cheers. He walks up to a microphone and puts down a boombox.
“Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play,” he says.
The man is David Byrne. The band is Talking Heads. The film is “Stop Making Sense.”
From that one moment, you know you are in for a concert film like no other.
Concert films haven’t changed much over the years — shots of the stage, close-ups of the band, shots of the dancing crowd. They’re meant to impart the experience of the concert to your eyes and ears as clearly and objectively as possible. “Stop Making Sense” is not interested in these conventions.
The film is not so much invested in documenting a concert, but in capturing pure, visceral Talking Heads energy. From a purely visual standpoint, it is stunning, especially with this year’s 4K IMAX remastering. Rich colors and vibrant lights explode out of the screen, burning into the audience's mind.
The lighting frequently shifts from spotlight to silhouette to under lighting, constantly creating new and interesting images to be engaged with. While the crowd is audible, it is rarely seen — the focus is all on the band. Instead of a live performance, it’s closer to a music video.
If you’ve seen some of the Talking Heads music videos from the 80s, you’re probably familiar with their somewhat surreal nature. That is not lost when they step on stage. Costume changes, running laps around the stage and assembling the stage as they perform are some of the antics you should expect.
But despite all the chaos, everything is controlled. It might seem impromptu, but everyone hits their mark. The band has a strong grasp on aesthetics, and their stage direction reflects that. Whether it’s a lamp positioned on stage or words like “sandwich” and “facelift” projected behind them, they know what looks good and how to utilize it.
In the middle of everything, as always, is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Byrne does not dress conventionally. He does not move conventionally. He does not sing conventionally. But he has more charm and charisma on stage than anyone.
If you’ve only listened to Talking Heads, they might seem cerebral or unemotional, but watching them onstage, they are aggressively alive. The energy is infectious, and it’s visible through the smiles on their faces, the herky-jerky dance moves and lots and lots of sweat.
Jonathan Demme, who later became famous for directing “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” directed the picture. Demme brings a storytelling instinct to the film. Through shot choice and pacing, each song feels like a scene of a larger narrative story. There is a distinct narrative rhythm, creating a beginning, middle and end. It is not simply a list of songs, but an assembly of beats — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of “Stop Making Sense,” the remastered film is returning to IMAX theaters on Sept. 22. In the decades since the filming and performing of Talking Heads’ concerts in Hollywood, concert films don’t seem to be going away. With all the concert films out there, before and since, “Stop Making Sense” is surely one of the greatest — a testament to the band that made weird cool.