In mid-December 1983, director Jon Demme shot several just-under-90-minute performances of indie art-rockers Talking Heads performing live in front of a sold-out audience at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. Cutting them together for what would become the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Demme and the band created an interactive, rhythmic palooza of a film, which was re-released this fall in honor of its 40th anniversary.
The show with its weird, hypnotic, non-stop off-Broadway vibe, played at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium (now Bill Graham’s) on December 6, 1983. It did not rely on a boring lead singer whining or brooding for a past love, mind you. David Byrne is captured running laps around the stage, interjecting jumpy twitches with awkward lower torso movements, as if some type of instructional dance video got jammed up in the living room VCR.
Byrne donned a big suit for the film’s centerpiece act “Girlfriend Is Better” in an attempt to make his head look smaller. I’m sure that in private, band members Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison joked about the look’s implications for the singer’s own ego.
There’s no doubt that Stop Making Sense was a concert movie like nobody had seen before. Demme, who passed in 2017, witnessed the band perform during their 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour, and probably realized mid-performance that they were “his people.” He approached the CBGB alums, and the band proved amenable to the idea of making a film. This group of intellectual art hustlers, who’d played gigs and started their professional career at Hilly Kristal’s birth cave of alternative in Manhattan’s East Village with The Ramones and Blondie, had the same fearlessness for maneuvering about the unknown as Demme.
I mean, what former quasi-punk band hires a pivotal member of Parliament Funkadelic? Bernie Worrell, the architect and solo player on the enigmatic slice-of-bump-to-go that is “Flashlight” boosted the Heads’ sound for live gigs. These same courageous art hustlers, who met and formed while attending Rhode Island School of Design, even adapted Dadaist poems for lyrics to the song “I, Zimbra.”
It all plays man, it all plays.
Demme mixed cross-cultural interactions with music throughout his film discography. Similarly, the Heads at their best were always somewhat difficult to pin down. Fire up your genre-twister game, Sparky: Here came the New Wave, the post-punk, art-pop, dance-rock. (I prefer nervous-fonk as a Heads descriptor, spelled with an “o.” It just fits.) The filmmaker saw a tuneful ally in this band whose curiosity—not pop sensibility—guided a level of whimsy as elevated as his own.
Forty years later Stop Making Sense, now updated with 4k quality, is selling out movie houses and IMAX showings all across the country, with Gen Z, oldster boomers, and millennials dancing their skinny asses off to “Girlfriend Is Better” and the blustering, killer final song of the film “Crosseyed and Painless.” With it, the Heads have reached a land that none of them ever envisioned: that of mainstream adoration. In 2023, the band has achieved its own version of a ubiquitous Barbenheimer moment. Only the Taylor Swift movie outshone this concert film—but hey, Taylor is even boosting the NFL at this point. Swift gonna Swift.
Listen, the Heads never actively pursued fame during their zenith of popularity. They coveted unforeseen amalgams, combos that in others’ hands were a bit rough and rigid. I mean, Fela meets Brian Eno.
Demme built a successful Oscar-winning directorial career and embraced ensemble performances in his cinematic projects. That unscripted chemistry possessed by the stiff and rigid-looking underground Heads comes to life in Stop Making Sense through unscripted pockets of gesticulation, aka joy.
Sometimes, the filmmaker’s attempts can feel a bit forced, as in his 2008 Anne Hathaway vehicle Rachel Getting Married. But in other instances, Demme creates magical realism. 1986’s underground sensation Something Wild takes viewers on an off-beat boho romp through New York City. It’s a rare glimpse of the real NYC in full-scale ’80s verve, when diverse genders, races, and working-class folks (not just MBA-chasing white folks) took up space in the city that never sleeps. Contrast it with the fabricated version of Manhattan portrayed in ’90s NBC sitcom “Friends” (RIP Matthew Perry)—those pals barely had Black ones.
Demme’s final, 2015 film Ricki and the Flash is a flawed-yet-lovable musical mish-mosh that features Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield leading a fledgling rock and roll bar band. Streep, the best actress of her generation (she got hardware like Home Depot) delivers a powerful performance that details the struggles of the working class in contemporary America.
Seeing Stop Making Sense once again on a big screen, one is reminded the Talking Heads, that hipster-nerd, post-punk, downtown New York bouillabaisse of influences, never got the proper farewell. Byrne broke up with the band in 1991 by announcing it in the press.
Speaking to People magazine in an interview this year, Byrne expressed regret for how things ended with the Talking Heads.
“As a younger person, I was not as pleasant to be around,” Byrne said. “When I was working on some Talking Heads shows, I was more of a little tyrant.”
Those snitching-on-thyself truisms are confirmed in 2020’s wonderful Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club book, written by Heads drummer Chris Frantz. It recounts how he came to the band via the relationship of his mighty wife Tina Weymouth, the bass player of Talking Heads and co-founder of Tom Tom Club.
As revealed in the book, it was Weymouth—not any of the dudes—who collected their money from the venue owners when the band was touring in a van during its salad days. She always got the band’s door money.
It’s the band that smiles in every inch of frame of this 4k film restoration beam. And I do mean everyone not named David Byrne. In those disbanded years these Byrne-less musicians were forced to tour under the aliases of Shrunken Heads, The Heads, of course Tom Tom Club, and No Talking Just Head. When you see Frantz shooting joy teeth in an Izod shirt every second the camera peers into the rhythm section during the film, the gravity of those inside baseball moments between him and Weymouth—partners on and off stage—are enlarged twentyfold.
Demme put each member of the band on stage as the songs played. So the drum kit, the percussion setup, the two synth beds, they all roll out like Wes Andersen stage pieces in Rushmore. Each song introduces another member and facet to the audience. These tactics are classic Demme. Such “let’s gaze at the wonder of collaboration and see what happens” tenets made him a favorite among improvisational performers.
In Stop Making Sense, Byrne is performative as a character. The other band members are merely performing the music—and the dichotomy plays out fittingly. Be amazed by the energy coming from backing singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, guitarist Alex Weir, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and percussionist Steve Scales. All are African American musicians giving cultural ground to the discography, and a bit of that cross-cultural, joyful subtext for Demme to play with.
But people, it’s Bernie Worrell, the synth Gawd, who puts this little art-rock petri dish into another cosmic realm. His comps, those quizzical lines on “Girlfriend Is Better,” soaring and speaking back to his bass lines, fuel the film’s synergic mojo. Those squiggly codes of information shared with other life forms at the intro of “Burning Down The House”?
Even Byrnes’s hammy gestures can’t redirect what your ear is processing. Hollering at your mind, WTF?
Demme and Worrell worked together again in Ricky and the Flash, in which a Worrell in declining health does funky things to wonder bread rock ‘n’ roll staples such as “American Girl” that still to this day remain, well, only things Bernie could do. (He unfortunately passed in 2016.)
But this 2023 revival moment for Talking Heads seems cathartic and organic. The group is once again making the rounds, doing the interviews as a band. And it’s about time. They’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, four of their albums appeared in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and three of their songs (“Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Once in a Lifetime”) were included among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
Byrne became an American treasure, creating both Broadway shows and a boutique record label that reissues priceless Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders wax. Even the much-respected, ever-no-bullshit director and professor Spike Lee championed him and this film.
But it’s the band as a unit, who never enjoyed a proper farewell, that most deserves love upon the film’s reissue.
In an appearance at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival before the release of Ricky, Demme summarized his own core inspirations with a humble deference.
“I do like making positive movies,” he said. “I sort of feel like at the end of the day I’d rather make pictures that have the potential for leaving somebody slightly on the upside of the experience as opposed to taking away something cynical or wrong. That’s such a fuddy-duddy perspective, but that’s just how I was raised, I guess.”
Stop Making Sense is showing through Tuesday at the New Parkway Theatre in Oakland and more Bay Area Theaters for longer—go here for more info. It’s also streaming on Amazon Prime.