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Friday, April 28, 2017

Stop Making Sense

The sad news of Jonathan Demme's death hit the film world this week, and while his most famous film, Silence of the Lambs, for which he won an Oscar, is probably his most lasting legacy, he was an amazingly eclectic director. He started in the Roger Corman school; his first film was a women-in-prison flick, Caged Heat.

I think to the cognoscenti, Demme is remembered for his documentaries and concert films. So last night, in his honor, I watched Stop Making Sense, his 1984 film of Talking Heads at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. I saw the film upon its release, when Talking Heads were arguably at their peak, after their best album, Speaking in Tongues, came out.

Stop Making Sense is called by some, including Pauline Kael, the best concert movie ever made. I can't argue with that--I suppose some may say Woodstock, or others The Last Waltz--but it's an hour and a half of jubilation. David Byrne and his band mates, whether you like their music or not, will get you feeling good. It's almost like a religious revival.

By this time Byrne, along with Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison, had moved from punk/new wave to incorporate funk and Afro-Caribbean music. In this film, the band is joined by funk musicians Bernie Worrell (who was in Parliament, the greatest funk band of them all), Alex Weir, and Steve Scales, a percussionist who has his own stockpile of instruments in the back of the stage. The back-up singers, wearing what look like school jumpers, are Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt.

The film actually has something of a narrative. One by one the band comes out. First it's only Byrne, strumming a guitar and singing "Psycho Killer," accompanied by a boom box. Then he's joined by Weymouth, on the bass, with "Heaven." Frantz, the drummer, comes out for "Thank You For Sending Me an Angel," and Harrison, who plays both guitar and keyboards, completes the foursome with "Found a Job." The entire band is on stage for the incendiary "Burning Down the House," which should get you moving or pumped, unless you are comatose.

Now the band is complete, and it rolls through several recognizable hits, such as "Life During Wartime," when the band, and Byrne, jog in unison, before he can't seem to help himself and does laps around the stage. "Once in a Lifetime," which I believe introduced the band to the mainstream via their trippy MTV video ("Same as it ever was") is another motion motivator, while "This Must Be the Place," my favorite of their songs, a moving, slower song, is sung by Byrne next to a floor lamp.

Weymouth and Frantz's side project, The Tom Tom Club, is given a song, "Genius of Love," which is great as ever, and the finale is Al Green's "Take Me to the River," which was my introduction to the band way back in '78. The encore is "Crosseyed and Painless," and Byrne is matted in sweat. He's always been a thin guy, but he must lose weight at each show.

Probably the most famous part of the film is when, after "Genius of Love," which Byrne does not participate in, he comes out wearing the "big suit," a white suit that is several times too big for him, making his head look minuscule. He sings "Girlfriend Is Better," a cynical song about relationships, that also contains the line that makes the title--"Stop making sense."

I saw Talking Heads in concert in 1979, on their "Fear of Music" tour. I don't remember much about it, but they were only edging into funk in those days, and I think the only musicians were the four of them. By '84 they were a joyous, raucous explosion of happiness. What Demme and Byrne, who conceived the staging, do here  is make the viewer feel not only that they are in the audience, but also on stage (Byrne at times interacts with the camera people, letting one sing a line).

I've always thought A Hard Day's Night could cure anyone of the blues, at least temporarily. Add Stop Making Sense to that list.

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