Few bands have achieved the same level of success as Talking Heads. Even fewer bands have managed to create such a diverse, intricate and even downright strange discography as this New York rock outfit.
Their music is so diverse, in fact, that no one is really sure what to call them. Punk? Post-punk? New wave? Art rock? They have such an eclectic mix of genres and themes, changing from album to album and even song to song. If there’s one thing that ties it all together, it’s the unmistakable voice and songwriting of frontman David Byrne.
Yes, it’s really no shock that this film, “Stop Making Sense,” is the brainchild of Byrne. Known for his broad body of work and unfettered sonic exploration, this film not only embodies his musical persona but takes it to a new level. Right from the start, the film grabs hold of its viewers and doesn’t let go for the entire 90-minute runtime.
After a short credit sequence, the film opens with Byrne performing a fiery solo acoustic version of “Psycho Killer,” complete with a Roland TR-808 beat underneath. With each subsequent song, a new piece of the band is added. “Burning Down the House” is the first song that features the entire band, which comes nearly halfway into the film. From there, the movie is a dazzling stitch of four concerts in Los Angeles edited together so well that it’s very easy to confuse the film for a single show start to finish.
The band frantically dances and runs around the stage like some kind of jazzercise class while they nail each note of each song. Members of the band switch instruments frequently and Byrne changes clothes between several different songs. During the band’s performance of “Girlfriend is Better” towards the end of the film, Byrne appears on stage wearing a massive, rectangular gray suit, like a big playing card dressed in business casual.
It’s hard to pinpoint the meaning of anything in this film, or Talking Heads’ songs in general. Living true to its name, “Stop Making Sense” ceases to make sense very early in the film. Images and words flash on the backdrop behind the band with seemingly no meaning while the band’s wild movements and incomprehensible lyrics seem to just be for the sake of weirdness. The band refuses to take themselves seriously, a quality that was lacking from many bands pursuing concert films at the time. The humorous and ironic nature of the film is what makes it stand out and why it’s commonly referred to as one of the greatest concert films of all time.
Though this is a film review, it’s about a concert film, which means there’s a live album paired with its release. The live album is quite fantastic and stays completely faithful to the band’s studio albums while also crafting its own unique versions of the songs. Take the aforementioned opener, “Psycho Killer,” for example. By 1984, this song was undoubtedly seen as the quintessential Talking Heads song (though it doesn’t showcase the band’s raw ability in any way). The song still retains its nervous energy and infectious groove, but stripped down to a mere skeleton of its studio counterpart, it is transformed into something new and creative.
The goal of the film often seemed to be taking what the audience knew as Talking Heads and redefining it into something new. It’s theatrical, noisy, neurotic and a completely unique take on what a concert film normally is. “Stop Making Sense” is equal parts broadway play and concert film — unsurprising considering Byrne’s later dive into broadway with his play “American Utopia.” Unlike its contemporaries, films like Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” or Rush’s “Exit… Stage Left,” the theatrical elements of the band’s performance seem to take center stage, with the music coming in second. The film is a perfectly off-kilter performance for music’s most beloved off-kilter group.