Talkies began with the musical “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, and filming musical performances has been an artistic battlefield ever since. For great performers, recording simplicity is a virtue. Film plays an archival role in preserving staged songs and dances that would otherwise be lost to history. But cinema is an art unto itself, and when performances are filmed without aesthetics, the results can be mind-numbing, as reflected in the rise and fall of early musical theater films. After the success of “The Jazz Singer,” the genre was overused and ignored, quickly becoming box-office poison until Busby Berkeley reimagined and reinvigorated it with the highly stylized songcraft of “42nd Street.” its vitality. 1933). This conflict persists, especially in the subgenre of concert films, where the director has limited control over action and camera position, making it difficult to produce stylish cinematography. The late Jonathan Demme was one of the few directors to overcome these obstacles and create a concert film that artistically rivaled his fiction films, with his 1984 The Talking Heads perform in the movie Stop Making Sense. (Now in theatrical re-release with a new restoration.)
Demme, both in his previous films, such as “The Citizen” and “Melvin & Howard,” and in his more famous later films, including “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia” and “Rachel Gets Married,” Both do an excellent job tracking the complex interactions of the ensemble cast. The same artistic impulse is at the heart of Stop Making Sense, which splices together portions of three Talking Heads shows at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983 to evoke the effect of a concert. With Demme’s dramatic signature, the ensemble creations are a product of his actor-centered directorial ethic, but in Stop Making Sense he achieves that feeling by creating a unique repertoire of images that emphasizes the interplay of the band members and provide clear visual representations of their connections, both physical and intangible.
At the beginning of the concert, the band’s frontman David Byrne stood alone on the stage, wearing a light suit and white sneakers, playing an acoustic guitar and playing pre-recorded beats from a nearby speaker, singing Psycho Killer. He’s not alone (the crew can be seen behind him), but he looks like a piece that’s fallen out of the puzzle with his intelligence and focused performance. It’s a meaningful performance that highlights the inadequacy of his isolation, and the film only bursts to life on the next song, “Paradise,” where he’s joined by the band’s bassist Tina Weymouth. Demme places the two musicians together: Byrne, expressive in the foreground, and Weymouth, in the background, wearing a jumpsuit, watching as Byrne plays.
Meanwhile, the crew rolled risers and drum kits onto the stage in preparation for the next set, which began when the band’s two other founding members took the stage: guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Jerry Harrison is very professional, but drummer Chris Frantz, with his polo shirt and broad smile, looks like a member of the high school golf team, as he was invited to join the artsy Rich children were delighted and surprised by improvising together. Demme’s framing adjusts to the configuration, shooting diagonally from behind the musicians so that the screen fills the screen with their overlapping and contrasting rhythmic movements—visually aligned with the galloping of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and the rhythm of “Get a Job” “Opposition”. Finally, the band’s five new recruits surfaced: keyboardist Bernie Worrell (co-founder of P-Funk), vocalists Lynn Mabry (also from P-Funk) and Ednah Holt, guitarists Alex Weir and Percussionist Steve Scales. The five musicians are all black and their sounds are primarily rooted in funk, while the four founding members of Talking Heads are white, a fusion in which the band proclaims a meeting and fusion of styles as core of their musical and intellectual project. As a nontet, Talking Heads became a passionate and joyful collective whose musical and expressive range expanded, and Demme expanded his cinematic vocabulary to match.
The Talking Heads and other musicians who emerged in the nineteen-seventies—Blondie, Elvis Costello, Television, the B-52s, and the Ramones—were called the New Wave for a reason. The word is more than just a generational marker. Like the French New Wave filmmakers, these rockers had a historical perspective on their art and incorporated it into their music. Having grown up as rock music moved from the fringes of disrepute to solid mainstream, they inherited a genre whose new status gave them the courage to create boldly forward-thinking music based on a rich inner musical encyclopedia.
Talking Heads, in particular, is fundamentally referential in its approach, referencing the styles and tones of rock and pop without fully belonging to either. Byrne, for example, captures and embellishes the essential loneliness in Roy Orbison’s music. The loneliness of Orbison’s music is rooted (or unrooted) in vast spaces, while Byrne’s music is one of substantial loneliness, an isolation amidst the inevitable alienating effects of urban crowds and complex technology. Stop Making Sense captures in expressive close-ups the self-consciously mechanical clumsiness with which Byrne brings his technological alienation to life. In “Once in a Lifetime,” he starts repeating himself and then breaks the cycle by banging his head, as if he were a defective robot.
The band’s expanded lineup on Stop Making Sense is similarly self-aware. In the collective imagination, forming a band was a salvation from the inner loneliness of white, middle-class suburbanites. Artistically speaking, the arrival of five black funk musicians in the lineup is not dissimilar to Jean-Luc Godard’s casting of American actress Jean Seberg in Breathless. The Talking Heads are no more likely to make a true thriller than Godard is to make a Hollywood noir, but they do more than pay homage to the far-fetched ideals of their influences and inspirations; they create The art of documenting the transformative power of these influences. Once the quintet joins in, the band becomes a powerful machine, and Demme embellishes it with panoramic, front-facing images that capture the energy that fills the stage. An ever-expanding array of camera angles captures the almost synaptic connections elicited between individual musicians. Byrne’s interactions with Marbury and Hoult push his dramatic imagination to new levels of madness. After they playfully imitated his antics while running in place in “Wartime Life,” he upped the ante and started running in a giant oval around the stage. On “Crosseyed and Painless,” he interjects over the singer’s choral riff, combining verbal wit with a sarcastic style of gestural invention.
The show has come a long way from Bourne’s lonely opening, but his grim intensity is always balanced by the pathos and humor he extracts from exaggerated awkwardness. In fact, his dramatic loneliness seems Jacques Tati-esque—his dance with stick lights in “This Must Be the Place” could even serve as a reference to “Playtime.” (The oversized, boxy suit Bourne wears in several performances in the film has become iconic, but it’s also redundant: He’s already expressed its essence throughout the concert’s performance.) Demme’s juxtaposition of the lonely Bourne and the droning orchestra is expressionistic: Bourne, in “Once in a Lifetime,” tightly lit from the side, looks possessed, like a manic preacher sergeant; as the gospel erotica of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” brings the entire band to a peak of ecstatic energy, the cinematography seems to join in, with a thrilling A series of contrasting angles and dynamic panning shots.
The drama Demme evokes in Stop Making Sense is the artistic self-transcendence that emerges from performative collaboration. The idea’s time had come, and two other filmmakers, Godard and Chantal Akerman, were exploring it around the same time. Godard’s Carmen is an updated film noir version of the opera, in which much of Bizet’s music is replaced by Beethoven’s string quartet, performed on screen with bold, painterly visual counterpoint Sensational shooting. Akerman’s documentary “One Day Pina Asked.” . .” depicts a performance by Pina Bausch and her company Dancetheater Wuppertal, showing a similar concern for overlap and crossover between performers. To the more affable and artistically restrained Demme It may seem odd to have Godard in the company of Akerman – but, in “No More,” he reaches the audacious limits of his own artistry. The film is not only a testament to an inspired collaboration that goes beyond itself power, and as a work of art, it embodies this. ❖