Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"Hi. I've got a tape I wanna play."
Now here's a worthy show -- Jonathan Demme and David Byrne's Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense was a blast in theaters and on DVD, and its new incarnation on Blu-ray is a delight from beginning to end. The 1984 film is more like Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz than the earlier documentary concert films Monterey Pop and Woodstock; the show is edited from more than one performance and the performance is designed specifically for the camera.
Talking Heads is a New York new wave group whose key members were graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, a fertile arts college just down the hill from Brown in the center of Providence. With the expressive and eccentric David Byrne in the lead, the group was definitely into performance art; at a certain point their concerts evolved from stand-still-and-play gigs into full-on musical experiences. Stop Making Sense captures TH after the group's split from major contributor Brian Eno and the release of their album Speaking in Tongues, which contains their one top ten American hit Burning Down the House". The band, we are told, got much more front-rank pop attention in England.
David Byrne designed the concert for film, minimizing glitz that might detract from the core appeal of the music. The lighting is all white, interrupted for a song or two by backlit colored panels that place performers in silhouette. The audience is always present and felt but cutaways are not used until the finish; the camera instead stays in "heightened audience" POV with as few interruptions as possible. Stage "dialogue" is kept to an absolute minimum. Shots are held rather than montaged for effect; the visual flow is not imposed through cutting. The coverage never deprives editor Lisa Day of an ideal angle, and indeed the film finds its own visual rhythm instead of cutting to whoever happens to be "on" at any given moment. Lead singer Byrne of course dominates but during his vocals the camera is just as likely to use two- and three- shots, or to riff on the wild dancing of the backup vocalists or the lead guitarists.
It takes six songs to assemble the full contingent of TH personnel on stage. David Byrne begins solo playing guitar and singing Psycho Killer to the backup of a boom-box drum track, after which a band member is added with each successive song. Tina Weymouth is the first to join Byrne on stage. She has a highly distinctive presence singing and playing from underneath full blonde bangs. Only when Burning Down the House arrives on the playlist does the entire band turn the stage into a wonderfully coordinated music machine.
Stop Making Sense never has a chance of becoming boring. Not only are no two songs alike, band members are constantly changing instruments and positions on stage. They also dance as a coordinated unit, sometimes proving that they can play their instruments while literally jogging in place to the beat. The rhythms and dancing are infectious; if you're not the dancing type, Stop Making Sense is an excellent disc with which to learn to loosen up.
The band generates a highly likeable group personality. Each player seems to be in a special personal groove and none of the various performing interactions seem forced -- the accumulated energy is fed into the audience and the music, instead of egos. Actually, we can't tell with David Byrne, a dancing, strutting, face-pulling enigma. His eccentric dancing is straight from conceptual performance class in art school. Let me rephrase that -- Byrne's dancing is the work of an art school wonder that quit after a year, presumably because the structure was slowing him down. Depending on the song, he might be grimacing and pulling major reflex tics as if the microphone were zapping him with static electricity. Byrne's spastic body language for Once in a Lifetime has been described as a dance interpretation of Brownian Motion -- he twitches and staggers as if being bombarded by invisible subatomic particles.
Near the end of the show Byrne performs in his attention-getting "big suit", an oversized costume that transforms him into a whimsical piece of abstract art. If attempted by most any other rocker the big suit would come off as a weak attention-getting stunt. As everything about Byrne and TH elicits an alternative arts vibe, we instead enjoy the gag as a wholly self-conscious experiment. Given Byrne's impenetrable stage persona we don't what his point is. He seriously believes in what he's doing, and most definitely communicates his joy in performing.
The Last Waltz marks the twilight of The Band's association but Stop Making Sense was filmed right when the Talking Heads was a harmonious musical unit. TH members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz gave birth to an alternative group called The Tom Tom Club, and a brief respite from the full TH complement lets the Tom Tom Club take the stage. Genius of Love stands out as a distinctive novelty among the more Byrne-driven music.
This history of Talking Heads post- Stop Making Sense is the same for most groups ... in just a couple of years came a disharmonious breakup. Although credited to David Byrne, the group came back together in 1991 to record Sax and Violins, a "futuristic" (1999) song for Wim Wenders' superior science fiction film Until the End of the World.
Stop Making Sense is unique among rock concert movies. As it's devoid of noise and distractions extraneous to the music itself it provides excellent background music while working. But I'll still pull it out whenever the evening threatens to become too dull -- it's a lift for the spirits.
Palm Pictures' Blu-ray of Stop Making Sense ups the Talking Heads experience considerably, especially for home viewers conscious of their audio setups. The uncompressed Blu-ray audio is the dealmaker, with two DTS-HD Master Audio mixes (feature and studio) and a 2.0 stereo mix.
The Blu-ray image is definitely sharper, showing far more detail in wide shots. The transfer is clean except for the opening titles, which have more than their share of flecks & schmutz. Perhaps some of this is printed into the optical for Pablo Ferro's hand-inked main titles.
The extras add one new item to the impressive stack of goodies from the 1999 DVD release. The comedic David Byrne self-interview video piece is there and the same three songs appear as bonus tracks. A storyboard extra explains the preplanned aspect of the shooting, while four band members and director Demme contribute a full commentary track.
The new extra is an hour-long press conference recorded at a publicity event for the 1999 theatrical re-release. The band members are all a little older but just as vital in their responses. All that's missing from this release is the original DVD's card insert folder.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stop Making Sense Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Commentary, new press conference (1999), storyboard comparisons, David Byrne "interview", bonus tracks.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 4, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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