June Butler takes a look at one of the greatest concert films of all time.
Shot over four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre by director Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense (1984) features a live concert performance by the American rock band, Talking Heads.
Footage in opening scenes shows close-up images of a pair of white loafers as their owner ambles across an empty stage. Sneaker-wearing man places a cassette player on the ground, declares he wants to play a tape, and presses the switch. Tapping a foot in time to the beat, a camera pans to disembodied hands strumming an acoustic guitar – up and up the image goes, finally focussing on the owner of the shoes, boombox and guitar, David Byrne. Coming into the frame with his wide-eyed stare and fixed, slightly demented gaze, visual cues are now set for Talking Heads opening number Psycho Killer, as he querulously sings “I can’t sleep, ‘cause my bed’s on fire. Don’t touch me, I’m a real live wire”. David Byrne’s reedy voice starting high in the octave above middle C, combined with singing in a minor key, symbolises disconnection, a separation from reality – the ‘Psycho Killer’ subject of the song has reached the edge of reason and beyond. Bit by bit, Byrne ramps up the pressure – an anthemic (and deliciously meaningless) chorus is belted out ‘Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est? Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, far better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away’. As Byrne continues with his determined quest for lyrical answers, he ponders the fact that the aforementioned Psycho Killer starts a conversation that he cannot even finish. It’s perfectly aligned with one of those interactions at a party where empty, nonsensical dialogue revolves in a never-ending loop, fuelled by egos, alcohol, and who knows what else.
Towards the end of Psycho Killer, the track plays sounds of multiple shots ringing out, causing Byrne to stagger around centre stage as if he has been hit by gunfire. The noise stops and starts with bursts of popping sounds, like bullets. Amid the melee, bass player Tina Weymouth enters the arena. Born in 1950, Weymouth’s self-taught approach to the instrument is synonymous with the unique sounds of Talking Heads. She has a minimalist style that sets her apart from other musicians of that era – frequently using percussive catchy rhythms to capture the melody of the moment. Together, Weymouth and husband Chris Frantz founded the Tom Tom Club in 1981 as a side project from Talking Heads. David Byrne and Lou Reed both made guest appearances with the group and Genius of Love, one of Tom Tom Club’s song’s features in Stop Making Sense.
In the background, stagehands push black, felt-covered podiums into view. They connect microphones, unroll wiring across the floor, place drumkits onto the rostrums. Drummer Chris Frantz enters to wild cheers. Jerry Harrison, guitarist, and keyboard player comes on stage. With each progressive song played, a new band member – be they backing vocalist or musician makes their appearance. Alex Weir jams on stage with David Byrne, who in turn dances hypnotically in a synchronised fashion with backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. Percussionist Steve Scales makes himself known to the audience and they erupt in wild cheers.
The quiet early beats of Psycho Killer evolve on to a softer, more poignant theme in Heaven with Byrne and Harrison singing the chorus in harmony. Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt join the group on stage for the fourth song Found a Job. Their edgy, hip-hop dancing in line with Byrnes jerky movements, make a cohesive visual impact. The sound explodes into an up-tempo anthemic shout with the lyrics of Burning Down the House swiftly followed by Life During Wartime.
Once in a Lifetime was probably Talking Heads best known song at the time. When the tune finally makes an appearance 12 songs in, the atmosphere is raised to fever pitch. Byrne hams it up and pulls faces for the camera. He comes on stage wearing a pair of black rimmed glasses and goes on to emphasise the mind-numbing drudgery of living the same life every day with the heated, panic-stricken claims of sudden disconnection “This is not my beautiful house”. Followed by an even louder cry “This is not my beautiful wife”. To dull the lyrical crisis, the soothing chorus repeats ‘Same as it ever was’ over and over. What is so mesmerising about Byrne are the mechanised movements whether it is jabbing a finger into his forehead and jerking his head back to every ‘same as it ever was’ or other repetitious actions, he gets across the banality of boredom – the weariness of waking up every day and repeating almost the same words, reliving skirmishes and clashes, battles lost and won, a torrent of identical encounters. It is so grindingly awful, that listeners can understand the screams of anguish from surviving a mirrored, unchanged moment without any end in sight. This is not a life. This is the end of wanting to exist. It amounts to inner annihilation and the loss of hope.
If there is one iconic moment in Stop Making Sense, it is the appearance of Byrne’s giant suit for the song Girlfriend is Better – a suit that was so absurdly outsized, it is recognised as that pivotal point in which Talking Heads went from a rising musical act, to becoming a fully-fledged art-house, innovative band, combining punk and funk with simple melodic guitar chords. Byrne claimed to have seen Japanese Kabuki theatre, an art form of extremely stylised drama (played entirely by male actors), where costume was central to the narrative. Byrne wanted the rectangular feel of an almost two-dimensional form, where his head appeared tiny by comparison to the overall outline. Using the suit as prop, David wobbled, waved, bobbed, and swayed. It almost appeared as if the singer was enslaved by his clothing and his apparel had assumed a life of its own. The outsized suit cemented their status as the stuff of legend. Talking Heads had simply ripped up the rule book and played it their way.
In 2021, drummer Chris Frantz published his memoir, Remain in Love, describing his time in Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. He recounts days spent at the Rhode Island School of Design where he met both his future wife, Tina Weymouth and David Byrne. He tells of Byrne’s awkwardness in social situations – upon suggesting they form a band, David murmured “I guess so” without looking Frantz in the eye. Chris narrates one story about a time when he invited Byrne to dinner at his parent’s house. He says that David spent his time lining up peas on a knife and rolling them into his mouth. What his parents made of their son’s new friend is anyone’s guess.
Frantz soon recognised Byrne as egotistical and supremely self-centred but remained in awe of his ability to take chances both musically and physically while performing. In a short space of time however, it soon became apparent that Byrne was unable or perhaps unwilling to consider anyone else’s feelings, thoughts, or sensitivities other than his own. He was reluctant to acknowledge contributions by bandmates and even slower in conceding writing credits on songs. Frantz claimed that when the song Warning Sign was released, Byrne failed to acknowledge Frantz as songwriter, instead placing his own sole name as writer and singer. As Talking Heads fame augmented, Byrne’s efforts in becoming both oppositional and defiant increased in tandem. He seemed “strangely elated” when things went wrong, Frantz later states, such as one occasion when he was arrested for jaywalking in Los Angeles. Frantz says Byrne did not care to understand where he stopped and other people began and, in the end, David simply left Talking Heads without telling the people who most mattered, his bandmates and friends. It was a betrayal that rankled for years.
Stop Making Sense is probably the most famous of all concert-based documentaries – its unfiltered, boundless joy has prompted the footage to enter history ahead of any other similar concerts recorded at the time. Casting a long (and tall) shadow over the film, is Byrne himself. His duplicity and disloyalty to the people surrounding him was something that ran deep, and Frantz personally found unforgivable. It is unlikely that Talking Heads could have endured without David Byrne as its lead singer, but neither could David Byrne have survived without the driving force of Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison. Stop Making Sense was a concert film like no other – perhaps the unease that prompted Byrne to leave so suddenly in 1991, already existed when the documentary was made in 1984 and led into a natural level of tension – whatever. In the event of recalling past halcyon moments, when there is no other to compare it with, the impetus to always wonder could there have been more will forever lie dormant as an unanswered ‘what if’.