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DVD Review: Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense

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The world certainly doesn’t need another review of Stop Making Sense, but unfortunately my review site did. No respectable concert video review site is complete without giving this masterpiece its proper due, so here goes my take on the thing. Since its original release in 1984, this Talking Heads film has already been hailed by many critics as "the Citizen Kane of concert movies". As preposterous as that may sound, I can’t say that I disagree – especially after watching this brilliantly re-mixed and re-mastered DVD from Palm Pictures.

What we have here with these Talking Heads is some post-punk, new wave, art-rock music that was influenced early on by the idiosyncratic production work of ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. He produced three of their most critically acclaimed albums, the second, third, and fourth ones, and then left them to their own devices. Throw in a little funk, some African world beat rhythms, and top things off with the quivery, frenetic vocals of frontman David Byrne, and you’ve got yourself quite an earful to absorb. I have never particularly liked the styles of music mentioned above, but for some reason, I have always dug the Talking Heads.

Stop Making Sense was filmed over the course of three nights in December of 1983 at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater by then relatively unknown filmmaker Jonathan Demme and already renowned cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. Demme, of course, went on to direct such award winning movies as Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia. When asked what were some of the things Demme did to make this film such a success, Byrne responded, "He knew what to not do, is what he did do". Exactly. He knew how to keep out of the damn way, and let you experience what the audience was experiencing. The band’s performance was electrifying enough that he didn’t have to resort to those hyper-fast camera angle changes and gratuitous audience shots that seem to be the norm today. How refreshing.

David Byrne dreamed up the stage show for this tour, and it was truly one of a kind. The bonus features include Byrne’s original storyboards for the Stop Making Sense tour, which meticulously spell out every detail of the stage show. If you are not expecting it, as I wasn’t, you will definitely be thrown for a loop at the start of this show. The film begins with the camera focused on a pair of white, tennis sneaker clad feet walking down a narrowly lit strip of the stage. This turns out to be Byrne, who is carrying a portable cassette player and acoustic guitar. He stops at a waiting microphone stand and matter-of-factly greets the audience with, "Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play for you", before bending down and pressing play. A repetitive electronic drum beat pumps out of the speakers and Byrne joins in on guitar, turning the first song of the night into some funky, stripped-down version of "Psycho Killer". My exact words at this point were "what the fuck is this?!". At first you are puzzled, next you are intrigued, and eventually you are captivated.

By the second song, "Heaven", Tina Weymouth joins Byrne onstage to lend some bass and vocals. Half way through the song, the stage crew wheels out the drum riser, as if this is all normal, and by the start of the third song, "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel", Chris Frantz is sitting behind his kit. Things progress in this manner, and by the sixth song, a phenomenal, energized version of "Burning Down The House", the entire band is onstage, including two female backing vocalists, an extra guitarist and percussionist, and legendary P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who had basically become the unofficial fifth member of the band by then.

As each new song is performed, more lighting, video and stage props are added until by the half-way point you are witnessing a full blown rock concert. The next song, "Life During Wartime", somehow manages to surpass everything that preceded it, as the energy of this version easily outshines the original. Each new song initiates a different look and feel, and seems to take on a life of its own. The entire band is continuously energized and animated throughout the show, incessantly jumping around and dancing wildly like some kind of new age hoedown.

Byrne steals most of the attention with his array of "spastic" dances and imaginative attire. During the highlight performance of "Girlfriend Is Better", Byrne takes the stage in his trademark "big suit", which, if you’ve never seen it, makes him look like a giant man with a shrunken head. He concluded "Wartime" with some not so standard crowd banter, "Thank you…does anybody have any questions?". You also get a full dose of this guy’s dry (weird) sense of humor during his "self interview" special feature.

The setlist runs like a best of Talking Heads compilation. The only stinker in the bunch is when Byrne leaves the stage to change into his "big suit", leaving the Tom Tom Club to perform "Genius Of Love". Since this tour was in support of 1983’s Speaking In Tongues album, it gets the most play here with six songs. It is one of my personal favorite Talking Heads albums, as its songs are generally lighter and more upbeat without Eno steering the ship. No essential songs were left out, and the only thing to really complain about is that the wonderful "Cities" and "I Zimbra" were only included as bonus tracks instead of in the main feature.

Along with a decent stereo mix, this DVD comes with two different Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes. One is the "Feature Film Mix" which provides stunning concert ambience, and is designed to place the listener in the front row of the audience. The Studio Mix 5.1 was created by the original mix engineer of the Stop Making Sense album and presents a razor sharp, less enveloping, studio account of the mix. These two mixes sound radically different but are both of the highest caliber. There are a few occasions where you may notice some audio/video sync problems, but you’d really need to be paying attention. The video transfer, although not perfect, looks pretty darn immaculate for a 1983 recording.

The special features are extensive and include an audio commentary track by Demme and all four band members, a storyboard-to-film comparison, promotional clips, a discography, and Byrne’s bizarre, but funny, self-interview. In this segment, a big-suited Byrne is interviewed by himself made up as a variety of odd characters ranging from a woman in a dress to a black man.

Hopefully this review will inspire a few readers to give this classic concert film a second look. If you are not the biggest fan of the Talking Heads, you can still enjoy this simply as a great Jonathan Demme film. If you could care less about artistic direction and great cinematography, then this is still one of he finest rock concerts ever performed.

Set List
Psycho Killer
Heaven
Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
Found A Job
Slippery People
Burning Down The House
Life During Wartime
Making Flippy Floppy
Swamp
What A Day That Was
Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)
Once In A Lifetime
Genius Of Love
Girlfriend Is Better
Take Me To The River
Cross-Eyed And Painless

Bonus Songs
Cities
Big Business
I Zimbra

Performance 10/10
Production 9/10

Read all of my DVD concert reviews at Roy’s Reviews

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About Paul Roy

  • http://perfidy.org John Owen

    Paul, nice work. Personally, one of my favorite things about this DVD is Chriz Franz totally blowing the distant-cool David Byrne vibe of the show by proving himself to be just a sort of nice dorky guy on “Genius of Love.” “Jaaaaames Brown, Jaaaaames Brown! He’s still the king, y’all!”

    Cracks me up every dang time.

  • Scott Butki

    That is definitely one of the best live shows recorded. I used to listen to it over and over.

  • Scott Butki

    Have you heard the new version of the soundtrack to this movie? It has new stuff and sounds great.

  • Paul Roy

    Scott, I’ll have to check that one out since I only have the original version of the soundtrack on CD, which only has nine songs.