****/**** Image B Sound A Extras A-
directed by Jonathan Demme
by Bryant Frazer Stop Making Sense opens sparely, with a close-up of a man striding onto an empty stage. By "empty stage," I don't mean a bare stage, exactly. I mean a big empty theatre space--it's basically a rectangular room behind a proscenium, illuminated by bare light bulbs dangling overhead--with furniture, ladders, scaffolding, and the like cluttered near the walls. It feels less like a performance is about to begin than like a rehearsal or, and maybe more to the point, an audition. And by "close-up," I don't mean a tight shot on the man's face. Rather, we are looking at his lower extremities--white shoes, white pants--in a SteadiCam shot that follows him to a waiting microphone stand. He plops a boombox down beside him and announces, in a faux-naïf voice, "I have a tape I want to play." If you know the Talking Heads, you'll recognize this immediately as David Byrne's shtick. But if this film is your introduction to the band--as it was for teenaged me--there may be something off-putting about the whole precious set-up. "What's up with this fucking twerp," I remember thinking, "and his art-damaged affectations?" I quickly learned the joke was on me.
This wasn't a concert doc in the traditional sense. In the 1960s and 1970s, the rockumentary had settled into precisely the form Christopher Guest and co. ridiculed so successfully in This Is Spinal Tap, which came out just a few months before Stop Making Sense. Seminal films like Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, and The Last Waltz interweave concert clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and interview segments as they strive to locate the larger story beyond the performances they document. Jonathan Demme and the Heads were having none of that--Stop Making Sense is conceived and edited to honour the concert experience. In Demme, the Heads were lucky enough to have a collaborator who believed that their performance qualified as a worthy narrative. And he set out not just to capture it on celluloid, but also to depict it in cinematic terms. Improbably, he made a concert film with a story and possibly a character arc.
The white-suited man opens the show with a nervous, uptight ode to a "psycho killer" that sees him one moment strumming assuredly as he sing-speaks the song lyrics, the next staggering wildly across the stage, apparently in thrall to the rat-a-tat drum-machine beats issuing from the tape deck (really the theatre's sound system). As he performs, roadies wheel a black riser onto the stage, and when "Psycho Killer" is finished, bassist Tina Weymouth joins him for an ethereal rendition of "Heaven," supported by vocals from an unseen back-up singer, hidden away in the wings. On repeat viewings, this sweet, low-key song proves to be one of the most thrilling performances of the night. The crew seems downright melancholy, pushing out another riser, this one with a full drum kit on it. As Byrne croons, "It's hard to imagine that nothing at all could be this exciting, could be this much fun," Weymouth looks like she could not be any fucking happier. It's not simply that the enthusiasm is infectious, but that something special is coming up: the room is about to be blitzed by one of the world's greatest live bands in polyrhythmic rock-and-roll mode.
Drummer Chris Frantz makes it a three-piece for "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel." With the fourth song and the arrival of keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison on stage, the core Talking Heads line-up is complete--but we haven't even gotten started, and the band keeps adding personnel. P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell shows up, as do guitarist Alex Weir from The Brothers Johnson, percussionist Steve Scales, and a duo of back-up singer/dancers, Lynn Mabry (from Brides of Funkenstein!) and Edna Holt. Eventually, a black curtain drops behind the performers, and the flat illumination is replaced by dynamic stage lighting. With the entire live line-up settling into a deep groove with then-current hit "Burning Down the House"--for my money maybe the fastest four minutes in movie history--the Talking Heads are at full strength.
That's when Byrne's various performance-art bits, backed by a full-on funk band, start to bear a greater likeness to incongruous genius than to forced weirdness. The white-suited man moves fitfully, then sinuously. He takes laps around the stage. He yelps and babbles. He falls abruptly, landing on his back, limbs in the air, like a dead bug. He cavorts. He dances with a lamp. By the end of the picture, as the band bangs its way through the Reverend Al Green's "Take Me to the River," a song of sex and salvation, the spirit has invaded him fully. In this way, Byrne's ironic goofing becomes a pretty great joke and, beyond that, even profound. Nerds can have sensuous-religious experiences, too.
None of this business was invented for the movie, of course. According to the band, Stop Making Sense, shot over a three-night stand at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, is somewhat shorter than their touring show at the time but otherwise an accurate representation. (Although three more songs were edited into the film for its original VHS home-video release, they were relegated to DVD-bonus-feature status before the 15th-anniversary reissue in 1999.) It's true that the Heads have art-school backgrounds, and while they clearly loved African polyrhythms and New York hip-hop, they also couldn't resist the opportunity to make their big rock show into a bit of a temporary art installation, drawing attention to how the theatricality of a concert is constructed, piece by piece, and to the artifice of the rock star himself. Byrne's incarnations here--paranoiac, mystic, company man--are multifarious. The remarkable thing is that, although Stop Making Sense is very much of its era, some of it resonates as clearly now as it did in the 1980s. Who knew that Byrne's big suit (he comes out to sing "Girlfriend Is Better" in a custom-tailored jacket with impossibly broad shoulders that make his head look absolutely tiny) would be such an enduring symbol of trouble in corporate paradise? The film even breaks down neatly into something like a three-act structure, with the stage-building first act culminating in the high-energy "Life During Wartime," the second act culminating in the epochal "Once in a Lifetime," and the third act kicking off with Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love"--basically a wardrobe break for Byrne, but executed with winning charm by Frantz and Weymouth.
Yet what makes Stop Making Sense so special isn't as much the genius of the performance as the craftsmanship of the filmmaking. It's shot and edited to give the performers room to do their thing. Demme avoids fast cutting and favours medium to wide shots that let you see what's happening on stage--how the musicians are moving, what they're doing with their instruments, and, critically, how they're interacting with one another. This also provides a physical sense of each member of the team--the way they're moving, when their facial expressions are most primal or blissed-out, or when they're obviously tickled by something someone else is doing nearby. You see Harrison working his keyboards with detached L.A. cool, Weymouth bopping her way up and down her frets, Mabry and Holt running an assembly line for sex appeal at full tilt. The stage is set so that the musicians face the audience in two parallel lines, thus the cameramen often work the sides, shooting up and across in order to often catch three, five, or more members of the band in the same frame. The cliché about MTV-style direction is that quick cuts became the default for filmmakers editing to music, but this film is more about mise en scène. There's no sense that the show was stringently choreographed or carefully rehearsed for the cameras. In fact, the most thrilling moments come when you get the sense the camera operator has no idea what's happening.
There's a shot during "Burning Down the House" that Demme holds for 68 seconds--itself an eternity in concert-film time, though nowhere near the longest shot in this film--that begins with the camera pointing over Weir's shoulder from stage left, facing Byrne as the two of them do a little dance together, bouncing up and down with their guitars. Weir turns away and the cameraman follows Byrne, battling to keep him in focus and then zooming in for a medium close-up. The camera jostles as Byrne finishes the refrain ("Burning down the house!") and, still zoomed in on him, starts towards centre stage to get a new angle. Remarkably, editor Lisa Day doesn't cut. As the camera moves in tighter on Byrne's face, the singer bounces a bit out of frame, but the operator recovers. Byrne is in close-up now, the beads of sweat visible on his skin, tendons stiff in his neck, a tiny twinkle in his eyes. A remarkable effort on the cameraman's part to keep this image in frame. Then, 48 seconds into the shot, Byrne disappears--plum drops out of the picture. There's about five seconds of blank screen--still without a cut--as the camera struggles to find him again. Suddenly, there he is, hunched over his guitar, hopping and twitching, grabbing at his collar, damp hair splayed across his brow. He stands up, strumming, once more bouncing out of frame as the camera works to keep up. Finally, there's a cut to another camera that is catching Byrne and Weir, engaged in that same bouncy dance which led into the shot in the first place. It's miraculous stuff.
Then there's "Once in a Lifetime." In some ways the signature Talking Heads tune, all about alienation from societal norms, its emblematic performance is captured with a deceptively simple approach. The camera starts on Worrell, noodling out the song's keyboard intro, and soon whip-pans over to catch Byrne, who appears, fidgeting and bespectacled, in the spotlight. The same camera holds on Byrne, going flat-out Pentecostal (he modeled his performance in part on Ohio-based faith-healing preacher Ernest Angley), for a full four minutes and 34 seconds. And when it cuts, it's a breathtaking cut, one of the greatest I can think of in any genre and a reminder that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Altered States, Blade Runner) was a world-class image-maker, even as a documentarian. Fans and zealots are fond of describing key moments from their favourite band's concert as "religious experiences," a descriptor often born out of sheer sensory overload, contact highs, and the electric quality of the live event--but this one, captured for posterity from a God's-eye view, truly is damned near transcendental. It's an amazing shot in an amazing film, a confluence of music, performance art, and rock choreography.
Demme was at a low point in his career when he started work on Stop Making Sense, as he was fighting bitterly with star Goldie Hawn over the final cut of Swing Shift, and it's possible that this film helped him recover and regroup in preparation for the late-'80s run that would peak with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. For the rest of his career to date, he has alternated studio filmmaking with documentaries, finding new subjects in Robyn Hitchcock, Neil Young, and Jimmy Carter without quite managing the trick of creating another feature film as invigorating and full of joy as Stop Making Sense. The looseness of Rachel Getting Married, with its wedding party shot vérité style, may actually come closest. (That said, lightning did strike twice: In 1985, Demme directed a music video for "Perfect Kiss" by New Order that, in only a few minutes, does for that band something like what Stop Making Sense did for the Heads. It's worth seeking out.) I like to think of the Demme who made Stop Making Sense as being in retreat and recovery mode from the not-so-nourishing world of big-time filmmaking, regaining a sense of wonder at the magic of performance, the power of music, and the qualities of the human face under light before heading once more unto the breach.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The new Blu-ray Disc from Palm Pictures is, essentially, a high-definition port of the standard-def DVD released in 1999, itself reflecting a remastering of the sound and picture for the film's 15th-anniversary theatrical reissue. To evaluate the quality of the new disc, it's important to understand what it's not. For example, it's definitely not a digital restoration of the film. This version of Stop Making Sense exhibits the same imperfections that have graced all its home-video releases starting with the VHS tape, from which we might infer that those flaws exist in archived versions of the film. I'm talking about gate weave, a noticeable amount of dust during the opening titles, and a few instances of scratches that would surely be cleaned up were the film to receive the Criterion treatment. The jacket copy indicates this new HD master was created from a 35mm interpositive, something that surprises me because cue marks, for instance, are visible throughout the movie and I wouldn't expect to see those on an interpositive. When I cued up the DVD to run a quick A/B comparison, however, it became apparent that the standard-def release--which I thought looked pretty good back in the day--is a train wreck compared to this new version. Like many documentaries shot under challenging lighting conditions, Stop Making Sense is a grainy film, and the Blu-ray Disc reflects that. (Although I suspect some processing was applied to soften the grain somewhat, it's still plainly visible.) The DVD, on the other hand, seems to have been scrubbed clean not only of grain but also of high-frequency detail, and has an overly flat, digital feel. The improvements are evident from the very first scene, in which you can clearly see the texture of Byrne's pants--something that isn't so much as hinted at in the DVD version. The Blu-ray is not perfect, but it's a big improvement over the DVD, and suggests a fairly close approximation of a 35mm print.
Where the Blu-ray shines is in the audio. I didn't get terribly excited over the prospect of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, particularly since my equipment is only capable of outputting the lower-bandwidth core audio, but also because I've always thought Dolby Digital sounded pretty darned good in my living room. Again, I synchronized the DVD for an A/B comparison and was startled at the difference between the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and the new disc's track. The DTS version is louder, to be sure, but there's more to it than that. There's a brightness that's missing from the DD that really brings the sound alive, and there's a much broader soundfield with apparently wider separation among the individual instruments and a powerful low-frequency wallop. The bottom line is that I heard things in the mix I had never noticed before.
Like the DVD, the Blu-ray contains two different versions of the 5.1 remix, one that's based on the original surround-sound mix for the theatrical release in 1984, and another "studio mix" that was reworked in 1999 with home theatres in mind. Because it gives you a better sense of the acoustics of the Pantages theatre when the concert was taking place, I prefer the theatrical mix and have long derided the "studio mix," as it sacrifices live ambience for a more aggressive use of the 5.1 soundfield for instrumentation. It always sounded to my ears like it was sucking the life out of the performances. But in this version, that mix has a thunderous presence and immediacy I can't discount. For the first time, I feel that I understand what producer Erik Thorngren was after when he embarked on the remix. From an audio standpoint, this is an amazing disc. My only quibble? Certain bits are altered from the original mix, such as Frantz's complaint (from "Genius of Love") about "too much of that goddamned Snow White"--a cocaine reference that's been overdubbed with an alternate lyric. A Greedo-shoots-first moment, I'd think, for hardcore Tom Tom Club fans. (Though if they didn't go apeshit in 1999, I guess it's not a dealbreaker.) There's also a 2.0 PCM track based on the theatrical mix.
The BD has one new feature--a press conference with all four band members taped as part of the 1999 San Francisco Film Festival, where the film's remastered debut took place. At 66 minutes in length, this sounds like a yawntastic extra, but the truth is, once you get past the padding at the beginning, it's absorbing, indispensable stuff, especially considering the sometimes fractious relations between the band members in the years following the release of Stop Making Sense. Some interpersonal tension seems to simmer just below the surface, as when Weymouth teases Byrne with a funny story about a show at Red Rocks that makes him the butt of the joke. Questions cover the making of the film as well as the band's unconventional route to success: declining to request marketing funds from the record company, they instead self-financed modest tours for enough years to build up a dedicated following. The video format is mediocre SD, upscaled to 1080i, and there are catastrophic glitches at 28' 22'' and 59' 11'', when video and audio cut out entirely for a second or two. The flaws are understandable and the quality is adequate for historic purposes.
The remaining extras duplicate the DVD supplements while upscaling the video-based ones to 1080i. There's a running audio commentary recorded by the four band members plus Demme, all speaking separately, that offers further insight into the film and what Byrne thought he was up to at the time. There's a "Byrne Self Interview" (5 mins.) that looks like a VHS-sourced artifact from the film's original EPK and consists of David Byrne in various costumes (including drag and blackface!) interviewing David Byrne in the big suit. It's full of self-conscious non sequiturs. "Montage" (3 mins.) is a collection of brief, ostentatiously-edited shots from the film--basically, it's a variant of the trailer (2 mins.), which takes a similar albeit less aggressive approach. "Big Suit," weirdly, is a few paragraphs of text on Byrne's signature costume, appearing in a couple of pop-ups within the bonuses menu. The three extra songs are "pillarboxed" to a 4x3 aspect ratio (they seem to be full-aperture, not cropped) and exhibit analog noise along with tape-based artifacts. The good news is they've been given a brand-new 5.1 "studio mix." (A 2.0 PCM mix is also available.) These clips are definitely worth watching, and I'd like to have the option of branching them into the film for listening purposes. They're not part of Stop Making Sense canon, though, and they lack the ruthless singularity of every other song in the finished product. It's a better, tighter film for their absence.
Lastly, 32 storyboard slides show Byrne's conception of the set design and basic choreography for different songs. Each one can be viewed either with Byrne's original notes or alongside a crappy still from the film; the slides are encoded at HD resolution. Rounding out the platter are "previews" for other Palm titles: the Patti Smith doc Dream of Life; the Roky Erickson doc You're Gonna Miss Me; and the Dandy Warhols/Brian Jonestown Massacre epic DiG!. All three are encoded at 1080i, though only Dream of Life appears to be in HD. Originally published: October 13, 2009.