Mention Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense (Palm Pictures), and a lot of people are likely to respond with a two-word summary — big suit. While David Byrne’s oversized suit is an effective and enduring image, he doesn’t don it until late in the show, and he doesn’t have it on for very long. Byrne accurately predicted that the big suit would make his head look small, but it’s a sideshow. The important matter is that Stop Making Sense is one of the finest concert films ever made, a nearly perfect blend of musical innovation, passionate performance, and cinematic brilliance.
It begins with an empty stage. Enter David Byrne with his acoustic guitar and boom box. Byrne treats us to a solo version of “Psycho Killer” that has all the dementia and danger you want out of that particular song. While Byrne is playing, Tina Weymouth’s bass riser is rolled on, followed by Weymouth herself, joining Byrne for “Heaven.” So it continues until all the core members of Talking Heads, including drummer Chris Frantz, and guitarist/keyboard player Jerry Harrison are present. The band is augmented by guitarist Alex Weir (of the Brothers Johnson), keyboard player Bernie Worrell (Parliament Funkadelic), percussionist Steve Scales, and backup vocalist Lynn Mabry (Brides of Funkenstein), and Edna Holt. Once everyone has arrived on stage, the full band blasts through a torrid version of “Burning Down the House.”
The film was shot by director Demme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”) over three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre. It’s surprising that a production which was so meticulously planned (the staging was created by Byrne, and among the bonus features are his original storyboards and notes) can appear to be so spontaneous and fresh, even 25 years later. The band is smoking as they run through a litany of their greatest songs including their hit cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To the River,” “Life During Wartime,” and the scintillating “Once In A Lifetime.” Byrne demonstrates why is he one of the most interesting and provocative frontmen ever to appear on a stage.
It’s worth noting that Stop Making Sense is the first film ever made entirely using digital audio techniques, and the sound on this new Blu-ray edition is fantastic. Among the other bonus features are a previously unavailable 1999 Talking Heads press conference to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the film. It is a rare appearance by the four together, and at times the tension seems palpable. They were asked several times, in several ways if they will be getting back together, and as far as I could tell, the question was ducked each time. There is also the comically bizarre David Byrne interview with … David Byrne, and two extra songs that were not included in the original film.
When it comes to Blu-ray, the question always seems to be whether it’s worth buying something again if you already own it on DVD. In the case of Stop Making Sense, I would answer with a resounding yes.