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Stop Making Sense: How Talking Heads made the greatest concert film of all time

(L-R) Tina Weymouth, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, David Byrne, Alex Weir  (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24)
(L-R) Tina Weymouth, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, David Byrne, Alex Weir (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24)

A man in a beige suit walks across a bare, undecorated stage, the backstage junk and scaffolding exposed and strip-lit. He places a Eighties boom-box on the floor and tells the crowd: “I’ve got a tape I wanna play you”. He presses play and, head-bobbing along to a taped 808 back-beat, launches into a stark acoustic rendition of a song written from the perspective of a psychopath, sung partly in French.

As he starts stumbling and slipping around the stage to clattering beats, it all starts to look like an audition for a Kookpop 101 class at the school from Fame, or a clip from a zero-budget edition of America’s Got Mildly Deranged Talent. Yet this is the iconic opening of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film, shot over three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in 1983 by director Jonathan Demme and widely accepted as one of the greatest live music films ever made.

As it receives a 40th anniversary cinema re-release this week, presented by uber-trendy producers A24, and newly restored in 4K – with singer David Byrne’s legendary wide-shouldered business suit rendered the size of a bus on IMAX screens – the arthouse brilliance of the conceit remains virtually unsurpassed in live music.

David Byrne (PR Handout)
David Byrne (PR Handout)

First released in 1984, it upended the onstage expectations of an era when major live shows were increasingly about largesse. While the rock behemoths of the Seventies and Eighties arrived onstage inside gigantic UFOs, built 40ft walls across arenas or staged Arthurian legends on ice, Talking Heads tore down and reconstructed the live music spectacle – quite literally – with a very new wave panache.

From that spare, solo opening Byrne is gradually joined, song by song, by his bandmates. Bassist Tina Weymouth arrives for Heaven; a drum riser is wheeled out for Chris Frantz to join on Thank You for Sending Me An Angel; guitarist Jerry Harrison completes the line-up for Found a Job. And still the show grows. Keyboard and percussion podiums, backing singers and a slogan-festooned backdrop screen arrive like a roadie strike being gradually resolved mid-show.

By Burning Down the House, the full kinetic band is in place and on funk-pop fire. Arty lighting effects and synchronised aerobic routines kick in; when Byrne isn’t dancing with a standing lamp or doing microphone-to-5k laps of the stage, he becomes a rubber-limbed performer, bending, jolting, quivering and contorting his body and finally donning the giant business suit inspired by some traditional Kabuki, Bunraku and Noh theatre he’d caught in Japan between tours.

(L-R) Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, David Byrne, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24)
(L-R) Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, David Byrne, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24)

“I wanted my head to appear smaller,” he said in an interview on the 1999 DVD release of the film, “and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.”

Filmed on the tour to promote Talking Heads’ fifth album Speaking in Tongues, Stop Making Sense captures the band at the point of mainstream breakthrough. Having emerged from New York’s original CBGBs punk scene as art-minded pioneers of new wave, their shift towards funk and worldbeat rhythms – particularly on 1980’s Fela Kuti-inspired Remain in Light album – had helped them break into charts worldwide with 1981’s Once in a Lifetime single and their only US top 10 hit Burning Down the House in 1983.

But success and its arena-level expectations hadn’t dampened their artistic tendencies. Before Stop Making Sense, the use of arthouse techniques onstage had generally signified underground provocation in the rock sphere. The Velvet Underground having Andy Warhol’s films screened on them as they played. Early Pink Floyd dousing themselves in kaleidoscopic visuals. Even David Bowie’s Kafkaesque Isolar tours of the late-Seventies were aligned to his Berlin-era retreat from the populist spotlight.

(L-R) Ednah Holt, Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24.)
(L-R) Ednah Holt, Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry (Jordan Cronenweth, Courtesy of A24.)

Stop Making Sense proved that art rock performance and mainstream success could be bedfellows; that a big idea could be just as striking and effective as any number of outlandish costumes, pyrotechnics, ostentatious sets and oversized props. The sheer style of the film – a critical sensation and cult hit on its 1984 release, making $5 million at the box office – helped Talking Heads reach the status of leftfield pop figureheads. Subsequent hits such as Road to Nowhere, And She Was and Wild Wild Life only served to bolster their standing ahead of their 1991 split.

That a live show, poised at the midpoint between Devo and James Brown, could be at once so energised, joyous and inventive had a major impact on arena performance for decades to come. Many major acts were inspired to reinvent what the live stage itself is capable of. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 This Way Up tour saw him fighting his own giant, angle-poised lighting rig. Bowie was soon to be spotted emerging from the head of a 60ft glass spider in angel wings. Pet Shop Boys’ debut tour in 1989 was a theatrical extravaganza full of set-pieces and films directed by Derek Jarman. Art rock hit the big time.

 (Sire Records/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Sire Records/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Forty years on, that Lady Gaga performs multi-act concerts set in futuristic brutalist slaughterhouses or Billie Eilish leaps out of a minimalist stage set consisting of one giant LCD slope is, however tangentially, thanks in part to the breakthroughs of Stop Making Sense. But the buzz and hoop-la around the film’s re-release (a Q&A with Spike Jonze to launch the film at the Toronto International Film festival last week was the band’s first appearance together since 2002) is testament to the ingenious simplicity and febrile energy of the film. Which only one act has truly managed to capture in large-scale performance since: David Byrne.

Byrne’s celebrated American Utopia show, which toured the world before settling in for several Broadway runs, and which produced a film of its own, is something of a spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense. Taking the concept of the unrooted band to its utmost extreme, musicians danced around a chain-draped stage carrying their instruments with them, making for a total deconstruction of the fixed traditional rock stage. In its vibrant, challenging way… Sense is restored.

Stop Making Sense is in cinemas from Friday