Cropped cover of the Talking Heads album Talking Heads: 77 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Of all the Talking Heads lyrics, the line “Stop Making Sense” from their track ‘Girlfriend is Better’ stands out for summing up a lot at once, and it’s understandable why the band’s 1984 concert film was named after this line.
The deliberate inversion of the expected “make sense” or “stop not making sense” has a resonating simplicity, and it can be interpreted in many ways. On one hand, “stop making sense” could speak to turbulent politics during the late ‘70s to early ‘80s which unsettled the ways people approached the world that previously made sense to them. In the context of the song, the line could also allude to substance abuse: the singer prefers to be with a girlfriend (arguably a euphemism for a drug-induced state) instead of facing a lived reality which continues to make sense. But more personally, the line could be an abstract way of saying that the pollution of everyday makes it harder to see the spiritual. In any case, the line explains Talking Heads’ intentions and ethos better than an entire book and it’s unsurprising that it was used as the title for their film.
Stop Making Sense is a 1984 concert film featuring a live performance by Talking Heads at Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It stars the core members Chris Frantz (drums, vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass, synth bass, guitar, vocals), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, vocals), David Byrne (guitar, vocal), alongside their extended lineup: Alex Wier of the Brother Johnsons, Bernie Worrel dubbed the Thelonius Monk of synthesiser, percussionist Steve Scales, as well as Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt on vocals.
Recently, A24 remastered the film for its 40th anniversary, bringing the experience again to a new generation on the big screen. Directed by Jonathan Demme of Silence of the Lambs (1991) fame, it was shot over three nights at the Pantages Theatre during the band’s 1983 tour in promotion of their album Speaking in Tongues. Why is this concert film considered seminal? Why is it selling out cinemas 40 years after its release? The film’s lasting power is in how it captures Talking Heads’ timeless spirit and lets the band tell the story themselves; this collaborative process redefined how a concert film could be done.
The band’s live performance has a clear development, and the film intimately captures this trajectory and its intentional stage effects. Opening up with a bare stage, David Byrne walks on with an acoustic guitar and a portable tape player to sing ‘Psycho Killer’. Immediately, it feels naked and confrontational considering how we are used to bands starting with the full gear already on stage to make a grand entrance. Gradually one by one, members join with their instruments and visible stagehands roll out lighting and stage equipment onto the stage until finally, all the elements are in place. Audiences witnessed a vacuum build up to become a fully-fledged entity; watching this spectacle grow was engaging for everyone, even to those coming in with fresh eyes without prior knowledge of the band. It was almost like watching an accident—visceral and thrilling to see it unfold—but it’s also a carefully organised chaos, all of which grounded by a bodily groove.
What makes Talking Heads so special is how they were confident in their lack of confidence. In the pursuit of authentic communication on stage, Talking Heads’ live performance antics tread new ground. The band rejected ‘80s music tropes that were all taken, like the certainty of punk rebellion, the smoothness of blues and the heap of rock imitators. Byrne elaborates on the band’s intentions in his book ‘How Music Works’: “it was a performance defined by negatives: no rock moves or poses, no “Ohh, baby”s, only words that I would use in daily speech, except ironically.” What was left after their series of eliminations was a unique and organic expression based on new territory. In the film, we hear Byrne’s distinct vocal delivery characterised by awkward yelps, disjointed lines and desperate shouting; contrasting the trend of clean vocal techniques. Sometimes, ugliness feels more sentimental than prettiness because the latter can be too infallible. Byrne sums up concisely: “The better the singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.”
The emphasis on getting the meaning across as opposed to looking good is also reflected in their choreography, which consists of nervous twitching, frenzied running and flailing. These fluid body movements contrast the sharper and more confident gestures of disco dancing. Furthermore, Byrne’s outfit choice adds to the concept; a suit is a commonplace New York male uniform allowing him to put bodily performance to the forefront. But later when he wears a comically oversized suit, he becomes less concerned about being defined and instead embraces the parody. Their performance antics combine this ironic humour with sincerity tastefully.
Listening to the lyrics whilst following the visuals of the film allows the words to come to life in an immersive experience. Rather than using coherent sentences, lots of their lyrics are spewed out phrases and images of urgent ideas that preoccupied them, which come together like a collage. I want to draw attention to how the band’s liquid-like dancing parallels the fluid imagery in their lyrics: take, for example, “lost my shape”, “once in a lifetime/ water flowing underground”, “pulled out the plug/ the water was runnin' out” “take me to the river/ drop me in the water”. Perhaps this loss of solid form reflects contemporary anxieties that urged profound epistemological and political change; be it Reaganomics, the Watergate scandal, the eminent Cold War and paranoia surrounding urban life. The film allows us to appreciate these feelings caused by disrupted worldviews: hesitation comes to life through abrupt body movements, and nervous self-examination is captured by close-up shots of band members that literally reduce them to talking heads.
Above all, what transfers to the audience most is how much fun they are having on stage. The film portrays each member individually before capturing their magnetic interaction with one another, and there is an ecstatic feeling of collectivity that transcends the inward-looking angst. As more instruments are brought onto the stage, the layered texture of sounds, rhythms and effects resemble a community. Meanwhile, the intimate camera shots of eye contact between members and their facial expressions make the audience feel like we’re on stage with them. David Byrne reflects on the charming group interaction in his book ‘How Music Works’: “Everyone was both musically and visually part of the whole. (…) While individual band members might shine and take virtuosic turns, their identities became submerged within the group. It might seem paradoxical, but the more integral everyone was, the more everyone gave up some individuality and surrendered to the music. It was a living breathing model of a more ideal society, an ephemeral utopia that everyone, even the audience, felt was being manifested in front of them, if only for a brief period.” The joyful group dynamic leaves the audience with a feeling of lightness, much like a parable of solidarity and heart-to-heart connection.
When watching his performance 40 years later, David Byrne said it felt like he was watching somebody else. The band reunited to do press together for the first time since their notorious break up 30 years ago. It was surprising that they got together again considering the contentious atmosphere they left off: when asked in an interview around 15 years ago whether he stays in contact with the band, Byrne replied: “Oh yes, I talk to them all the time. Through our lawyers, of course!”
Despite previous friction, the band did an interview together for the anniversary where they acknowledged how much love went into the project from the audience, band, film crew and sound crew. It’s heartwarming to see videos from around the world where the film was shown of audiences dancing and singing in the cinema, proving how they have cemented themselves in the history of music. Talking Heads will always transcend generations because their performance and music have a human point of entry that speaks directly to the contradictions of humankind. Today, the film’s restoration allows us to relive the experience as though we are in the best seat of the venue, allowing us the privilege to witness the once-in-a-lifetime performances at the Pantages Theatre of December 1983 all over again.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Film Editor