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Stop Making Sense (1984)

August 14th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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In December 1983, acclaimed art rockers Talking Heads concluded their “Stop Making Sense” tour, documenting the event by filming three shows at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Ambling onto a completely empty stage in a pair of white tennis shoes and carrying an acoustic guitar, singer/ songwriter David Byrne performs “Psycho Killer.” As the show progresses, Byrne’s band mates – bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist Jerry Harrison – join him on stage one at a time, one song at a time, while roadies assemble amps, instruments and an entire stage around them.

By the performance of “Burning Down The House,” the band has been joined by guitarist Alex Reid of The Brothers Johnson, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, and backup singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry. For the entirety of the film, focus is kept squarely on the performances taking place on stage. Highlights include Byrne doing jogging laps during “Life During Wartime,” and appearing in an oversized gray suit for the song “Girlfriend Is Better.” Only near the end of the show is the packed audience finally revealed, most of them up out of their seats and dancing.

Production history

After turning in his cut of the film Swing Shift in the summer of 1983, director Jonathan Demme was notified by Warner Bros. that they were bringing in Robert Towne to rewrite several scenes, steering the film away from the quirky period drama that had been scripted and turning it into a light romance, playing off the chemistry Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell had developed. “We had this hard-nosed feminist, all women together thing, and Kurt Russell was supposed to be a bastard, and suddenly all these scenes were being rewritten, and I found myself in a very awkward position because I had to cooperate with these new scenes.”


Demme and producer Gary Goetzman had seen Talking Heads perform at the Greek Theatre that summer as part of the “Stop Making Sense” tour the band had launched to promote their latest album. The way David Byrne had staged the show and sequenced the songs – evolving his demeanor as the evening progressed – floored the director. He felt that it was a movie waiting to be filmed. Equally enthused for any opportunity to hang out with Byrne, a mutual friend introduced Demme to the musician “to see if he’d be interested in putting a film together of the concert.”

The prospect of a movie intrigued Byrne in part because of technical challenges he’d encountered on the tour. Demme recalls, “He designed the lighting for the live show with a lighting director and found it very frustrating that he could never get the right lighting. He realized that on film he would finally get the chance to get the lighting right.” Demme had collaborated with Jordan Cronenweth on Handle With Care and suggested the master cinematographer – who had recently shot Blade Runner – to light the concert. A week later, Byrne got back to Demme with $1.2 million the band had agreed to put up themselves to bankroll a film.

While Robert Towne labored over rewrites for Swing Shift, Demme sought refuge on the road with Talking Heads. Byrne kept after him about how Stop Making Sense would be different from other concert films. The director approached each member of the band for input. Tina Weymouth recalls, “So, we said ‘We’re not crazy about split screen images and flashing images.’ There was always one camera straight on. The format was very flat. It was always like a painting – sort of like a Robert Wilson design in two dimensions, but also with four moving cameras. And even though there were cranes that would be observing things, a lot of the time we weren’t even aware we were being filmed. It comes across as being real.”


A great deal of what separated Stop Making Sense from other concert films was already in place on the tour. Chris Frantz recalls, “The whole staging of the show seemed to be the most obvious idea in the world: to construct a show where you saw what it took to construct a show, in the show. And you start with an empty stage with absolutely nothing on it, and you put the stuff on the stage during the show that it takes to make a show: the lights, the amps, the instruments, the players, everything, and then you proceed to use that stuff. So everybody sees what it takes to make a show when they see that stuff put into action.”

At the time, Demme stated, “There’s been a kind of curse on concert movies. They almost never do well commercially, and I’m very rarely excited by them. I wanted to eliminate two things that I don’t like about them: shots of the audience and backstage interviews with the singers.” Filmed over three nights in December 1983 on the tour’s last stop – the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood – the set ran two hours and fifteen minutes. Acknowledging the movie should play nowhere near that length, Demme left four songs on the cutting room floor. Editing the picture in six weeks, mixing the sound in another two, Stop Making Sense was completed only ninety days after Demme wrapped photography.

The movie was put before an audience for the first time in April 1984 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The response was overwhelming. Demme recalls, “Very quickly, people started leaving their seats and moving up closer to the screen and also standing up in their seats. By the end of ‘Burning Down the House’ the building was literally shaking and the manager of the theater was truly sincerely freaked out. He thought something terrible structurally might be about to happen, and it was a big struggle with him to not stop the show.” Screening the picture outdoors for the Venice Film Festival produced the same result of audiences dancing in the aisle.


Twenty-five years after opening in the U.S. in October 1984, Stop Making Sense routinely lands atop lists of the best concert movies ever made. For its reissue on DVD in 1999, David Byrne stated, “Another thing I noticed was my character – if I could call myself a character – he takes a kind of journey in this thing. He starts off as Mister Stiff White Guy and does his very, very, very best to get down and get loose by the end of the show, to kind of shed his inhibitions and get loose … And so he’s kind of changed as a person, just like would happen in a regular movie with a regular story with three acts or whatever, which I think helps make this movie work in a way that some other concert movies don’t.”

Unlike concert movies out to celebrate the pageantry of a musical event, or offer some glimpse into the mind of a musician, this is the first democratic concert film. Stop Making Sense is made expressly for the concertgoers who came to see a concert, producing a seamless, exhilarating document of a performance. The only reactions or insights to be taken away here are ones Jonathan Demme empowers the viewer to take away on our own.

Demme’s work seems almost effortless against David Byrne’s gloriously geeky staging, as well as the chemistry of Talking Heads themselves; enigmatic, witty and unpredictable. Instead of a band trying to blast you out of the arena, here we’re compelled to get as close to the stage as possible. Jordan Cronenweth strips the theatre of color and bathes it in gorgeous shadow – memorably during Byrne’s dance with a lamp in “This Must Be The Place” – while Pablo Ferro, whose hand drawn titles were scrawled over the credits of Dr. Strangelove, designed the opening titles here too.


Colin Jacobson at DVD Movie Guide writes, “No matter how hard I tried, I never could develop much of an affinity for Talking Heads. They are one of those acts that I always felt I should like but just never really did … I think SMS might finally have done it. Is it the greatest concert film of all-time? I don’t feel that way – I doubt anything will ever surpass Prince’s brilliant Sign O the Times – but this piece, directed by Jonathan Demme, makes a strong argument for the Heads’ case; the film presents the band cleanly, effectively and evocatively. It does what every good concert movie should do: it makes me really wish I could see the show live.”

“First let me say that the Talking Heads had a huge influence on me as a teenager. They were among my favorite bands and one of the reasons that I wound up learning the bass and spending the next fifteen years playing in bands of my own … Though considered an avant-garde art band the Heads put on a surprisingly energetic presentation that shows them to be both consummate performers and accomplished musicians. Stop Making Sense comes closer to capturing the feel of a live show than any concert film made before or since. If you let your self get swept up in the performance you may well be tempted to get up off the couch and dance around in front of your screen,” writes Chris Hughes at DVD Talk.

Dean Roddey at DVD Verdict writes, “There are a few times and places where the Universe or God or the Muse is caught on film talking to us through human conduits. On my short list of such religious musical experiences are Hendrix at Monterey Pop, The Band’s The Last Waltz, Sting’s Bring on the Night, and U2’s Rattle and Hum, and, last but not least, The Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense. These films, for those of us who appreciate such things, contain transcendent moments that definitely peg the Chill Bump Meter.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Concert · Cult favorite · Documentary · Music

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Aug 15, 2008 at 7:23 am

    I know this is a minority opinion, but as much as I have tried, I have never liked this film. At all.

    I like the Talking Heads, but the film just bores me. I have seen video bootlegs of concerts that people shot with hidden video cameras that are more exciting visually. And musically, I can’t say I became a bigger fan of the band after seeing it.

    That said, everyone else calls this the greatest concert film of all time. I guess it is a matter of taste.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 15, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Moviezzz: Whoa. I feel the same way about The Last Waltz. It sounds like you’ve given this flick a try more than once, which is more than I can say for the Scorsese movie. I’ll look for another film with music you might enjoy …

  • 3 AR // Aug 19, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve seen parts of this but never the whole thing. Over the last few years I’ve become a big Talking Heads fan, so I plan on seeing it eventually. Your review echoes the many other positive reviews I’ve read.

  • 4 Jacey // Apr 10, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Where did you get these pictures from? I’m looking to buy an original?
    THank you!

  • 5 Kelley Davies // May 2, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    ya’ll obviously do not appreciate music today. The Ten more!!alking Heads started the movement of pop intertwined with funk! Talking Heads are the shit, the supreme, the beginning of funking sick electronica today….I loved the Talking Heads before seeing this movie and Stop Making Sense is absolutely beautiful and makes me love them more!!

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