Pop Culture

The Real Thing and Other Stories: On the 30th Anniversary of Stop Making Sense

It’s been thirty years since the release of the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense.  The film attracted critical praise right out of the gate. Pauline Kael, in a rapturous review for the New Yorker, name-checked Godard, Joseph Beuys, and Japanese Noh theater on her way to calling it “close to perfection.”; and Roger Ebert described it as “a little like rock ‘n’ roll crossed with “Jane Fonda’s Workout.” (He meant it as a compliment.) Time has only deepened critical appreciation for the film: it’s routinely listed as one of the top ten music documentaries of all time.

Even in 1984, when MTV was still in its infancy—and still showing music videos—Stop Making Sense was out of step with rock-doc conventions. Director Jonathan Demme, still nearly a decade away from the career-making Silence of the Lambs, eschewed quick cuts, audience reaction shots and close-ups of soloing musicians, opting instead to let the Heads’ performance speak for itself.MSDSTMA EC007

Lead singer and songwriter David Byrne was deeply involved in the production of the film, and the end result is, at times, less concert than performance art. The show opens with Byrne all by his lonesome, playing an acoustic version of “Psycho Killer,” accompanied only by boombox. The stage is bare, the lighting harsh, but Byrne is absolutely electric, careening around the stage like Jean-Paul Belmondo at the end of Breathless.Each song brings with it a new band member: bassist Tina Weymouth for a spare rendition of “Heaven,” drummer Chris Frantz on “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” keyboardist Jerry Harrison for “Found a Job.” By the time they make it to “Burning Down the House,” the band’s first and only US top 10 hit, they’ve been joined by a slew of other musicians, including backup singer Lynn Mabry and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell. From that point on, the mood is nothing short of celebratory. The band is in near-constant motion, grooving to the music, joyful, energized, having fun.

And through it all you have Byrne front and center, giving a master class in movement. Critics and fans have a tendency to lose their shit any time a white guy in a rock band makes an attempt to step out from behind the microphone. Mick Jagger got a song written about him for strutting around stage, waving his arms like a chicken. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke nearly blew up the internet with his loose-limbed groove in the video for “Lotus Flower.” A few months ago, Samuel T. Herring, the pasty, balding singer of Future Islands garnered his band over a million Youtube views and a shot at the festival mainstage with a few awkward steps on Letterman. I hesitate to describe Byrne’s moves—on paper they sound terribly awkward, even deliberately so. He stumbles around the stage! He runs in place! He dances with a lamp! (A great way to spice up the mid-tempo “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” it turns out). After all, the man went out of his way to wear a massive suit.  And yet there, on stage, on film, Byrne is anything but self-conscious. It’s as if he’s shed his ego, traded it in for that now iconic suit, as if that suit’s the only thing keeping him tethered to the ground.

The truly extraordinary thing about Stop Making Sense is just how ordinary it is. As a general rule, rock documentaries tend to fall into a couple of categories. You have your big event docs: D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop and the sprawling Woodstock. And you have your valedictory docs: The Last Waltz, then billed as the Band’s last ever live performance, Scorsese’s late-late period Rolling Stones doc Shine a Light! and Demme’s own trilogy of Neil Young concert films. Stop Making Sense documents nothing more than a band touring in support of a new album. Filmed over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, Stop Making Sense may find the Talking Heads at the height of their powers and fame, but they still had a long run ahead of them. The Heads never tried to explore big themes in their lyrics and never took themselves too seriously; a group with any kind of self-important streak would never dare to name an album More Songs About Buildings and Food. They wore their influences lightly, too, easily incorporating African polyrhythms  and Funkadelic grooves into their music without stirring up the outrage that greeted Paul Simon’s Graceland a few years later. When discussing Talking Heads, you’re likely to hear words like “critically-acclaimed” and “influential” long before “popular” enters the conversation, but popular or not, there’s still a populist tendency in Byrne’s lyrics—all of those songs about building and food—and in some of their musical choices. Hell, they share the same taste in Al Green covers—that’d be “Take Me to the River”—as Big Mouth Billy Bass.

The sad thing is, no matter how influential the Talking Heads are, no matter how well-regarded their music is or Stop Making Sense is, the film seems to have little impact on the way music, performance or otherwise, is treated on film. A need for valediction is part of it—people seem to like their music with a side of gravitas—but there’s a greater, more distressing trend afoot. In his recent essay “Should documentaries stop searching for the next Sugar Man?” the A.V. Club’s Jason Heller explores the recent surge of documentaries about obscure artists, “noble losers” who came close to the big time but never quite made it. Heller traces things from 2008’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil to Searcbing for Sugarman to the more recent A Band Called Death. What Heller finds most troubling about it all is the filmmakers’ attempts to insert themselves in the proceedings, to impose a familiar arc—the brush with stardom, the fall from grace—and engineer a triumphant return to the spotlight. Searching for Sugar Man rode that narrative all the way to an Academy Award. Dozens of imitators are no doubt in the works, spurred on by the promise of awards show recognition.

Heller mourns the loss of these bands originality, sees their unique qualities flattened under the weight of an attractive underdog story. I’m more concerned that the popularity of these films will spell the end for any kind of pure, mainstream concert documentary. Sure, with the rise of YouTube and, to a lesser extent, sites like Pitchfork and Noisey, there are more opportunities than ever to watch your favorite band perform live. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the opportunity. But these are small-screen pleasures, unlikely to make their way outside of your browser window. And that’s a shame.

Ironically enough, the Talking Heads did play a small part in last year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom, another take on the burgeoning unappreciated artist genre, explores the trials and tribulations of being a backup singer for a major act. The first concert footage shown in the film comes from Stop Making Sense, but in this case the Talking Heads are the ones outside of the spotlight. In this case, nobody cares what David Byrne has to say. Lynn Mabry, backup singer, is the star of the show.

Stephen Tyler is a writer living in Los Angeles.