Johnny Cash stomping out the footlights dressed head to toe in black. Mick Jagger whipping the stage with his belt to the strains of “Midnight Rambler.” David Bowie crooning “Cracked Actor” to a human skull. Images so iconic that once seen they can scarcely be forgotten. Add to that a slender, even frail man in a large suit jacket and slacks. Not simply large—but comically consuming. The film’s original trailer implores us to wonder: “Why a big suit?” But the mystery endures. Same as it ever was.
More than three decades after Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense represents not only the definitive document of this most idiosyncratic and forward-looking of rock acts, but also a landmark cinematic achievement. Assembled from footage of four December 1983 performances at L.A.’s Pantages Theater, it’s a masterfully executed and profoundly ambitious reimagining of the concert film genre, achieving something at once wildly theatrical but unpretentious, endlessly bizarre but utterly legible, and publicly joyous without resorting to pandering.
Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (generally considered the relevant competition in the category of Best Concert Film Ever) was a collaboration between the filmmaker and The Band’s erstwhile leader Robbie Robertson, Stop Making Sense is the by-product of the twin-engined genius of Byrne and Demme. Released 35 years ago this week, it remains an inimitable marvel and a fascinating time capsule: the fleeting intersection between two visionary artists whose propensity for sly, subversive takes on populist entertainments made them ideal compatriots in a sound and vision experiment as enduringly vital as any in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
I Find You or You Find Me?
It’s easy to see what drew Demme to Byrne and vice versa. There is a thematic rhyme to their life’s work (Demme passed away in 2017 at the age of 73), one that stems from a preoccupation with the tensions between post-war suburban ennui and the double-edged promise of the counterculture—a game of chicken with societal taboos that, once broken, cannot be reaffirmed. Both artists shared a skepticism toward their respective social contexts—in the case of Byrne, the nightlife of New York in the 1970s, and for Demme, the hedonistic Hollywood of the same vintage.
In some ways, the narrative content of Stop Making Sense—with its ebbs and flows and costume changes—acts as a kind of dry run for Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, where a straight-laced Wall Street banker played by Jeff Daniels is seduced and then gradually embraces a dangerous and exhilarating bender of sex and violence after encountering Melanie Griffith’s punky and impulsive Lulu.
A gestational version of this story plays out over the course of the three songs at the end of Stop Making Sense (where the big suit is featured). On a frenzied take of “Girlfriend Is Better,” Byrne is first seen in shadow, before the camera pulls back to reveal the ludicrous spectacle of his carefully tailored 10X Large. He wriggles and twitches bizarrely and mimes air guitar. He is the picture of a clean-cut, close-cropped, white-guy normie in garments ill-fitting from both a physical and psychological perspective.
Next, an inventive yet reverential reading of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” finds Byrne seeming more in his skin, even going so far as to shed his jacket in a moment of personal license.
Finally, on “Crosseyed and Painless,” Byrne is the picture of confident, privileged, lived-in comfort, presiding imperiously over a veritable colony of sympathetic musicians.
As he trades riffs with Brothers Johnson’s guitarist Alex Weir, it is clear that he has mastered his role as affluent hipster weirdo, an archetype that would gain even greater currency throughout the ’90s and anticipate everything from Comedy Bang! Bang! to Beto O’Rourke. Or, more concerningly, the barons of Silicon Valley. Or, horribly, Tucker Carlson. Like a goldfish expanding to fit the proportions of its enclosure, Byrne’s self-regard has swollen large enough to fit his preposterous tailoring. Going forward he’ll require more and not less. All that fabric is going to have to come from somewhere.
I Feel Numb, Born With a Weak Heart
While Stop Making Sense eventually resolves into a nearly limitless outpouring of kinetic energy, it begins with a menacing creep. A long shot of Byrne’s white sneakers, before he sets down a boombox and begins playing an acoustic guitar, launching into a solo version of “Psycho Killer,” the paranoid earworm from the band’s 1977 debut.
Here we recognize both performer and director’s wrangling with the song’s terrifyingly ambiguous premise (Demme would go on to direct the most disturbing and successful of psycho killer pictures with 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs). Over a skittering prerecorded beat, Byrne delivers a gestural performance suggesting Charlie Chaplin in the electric chair. The anxious, comic choreography animates the troubling subtext. Byrne’s narrator may be the killer or he may be killed. Either way, it’s a rock ’n’ roll homicide.
As the film progresses, horror and comedy intermingle and performances take on the character of composed paintings. On “Life During Wartime,” Byrne’s full collapse and near seizure recalls James Brown’s cape act. But in this instance no band members or backing singers come to rescue him. He just rolls on the floor while they sing along. “We make a pretty good team!” the refrain goes, with all the evidence suggesting otherwise. Then he jogs around for two minutes.
Shot for shot, pound for pound, you will not see many concert films that play out more like an ’80s exercise tape than Stop Making Sense. And for those of you who did not live through the ’80s, you must understand that exercise tapes were of great meaningful consequence at that time—like the Watergate tapes were in the ’70s. That too is a kind of expression of horror: The boomer-driven fitness craze of the era was the first shot over the bow in their we-will-never-die campaign. Say one generation of people smothers two generations of their offspring? What would you even call a thing like that? It’s a rock ’n’ roll genocide.
Never for Money, Always for Love
From throwback ’50s-style sitcoms to the matinee idol in the White House, the entirety of the 1980s was a spasmodic two-step between emergent technology and couldn’t-we-get-it-all-back nostalgia for America’s previously simple, now increasingly muddled, moral and military stature in the world. No other songwriter or director of the era represented that tension more than Byrne and Demme.
The version of the Talking Heads featured in Stop Making Sense was meaningfully evolved from the taut four-piece that achieved its earliest bona fides as the most panoramic of the world-changing bands populating CBGB’s in the late 1970s, a group that included the Ramones, Television, the Dead Boys, and the Voidoids. As Talking Heads albums like the Brian Eno–produced Remain in Light and Fear of Music became more and more layered in synths and poly-rhythms, the group expanded to include satellite members like Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and in-demand prog-guitar virtuoso Adrian Belew.
In its self-consciously arch manner, Stop Making Sense progresses as a sentimental re-creation of the group’s long trajectory. Byrne first performs in front of scaffolding—a Dickensian setting—before the original lineup joins him on a bare-bones but exhilarating run through the early track “Found a Job.” As the stage slowly but excitingly becomes populated by dancers, backup singers, and additional instrumentalists, any notion of a traditional band recedes into a Byrne-led collective numbering anywhere from 10 to a hundred.
This is deeply beautiful music, but in its incandescence it is also a fracturing. A band functions as a band when it is fully symbiotic. It really doesn’t matter whether you like one another if you require one another. Then nature takes its course. And when you don’t require one another, then nature takes its course as well. The Talking Heads would persevere for six more years, but one key subtext of Stop Making Sense is the changing nature of what it meant to be in the Talking Heads. In the film, Bernie Worrell often feels more crucial to the action on stage than original members Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz.
Byrne’s great talent for bloodless unsentimentality suggests an enduring belief that the new thing is what matters and the old thing doesn’t matter at all. It is said that the Talking Heads have been offered ungodly sums for a one-off reunion—a letter never received. Their next nostalgic cash grab will be their first one.
I Guess I Must Be Having Fun
Much of the Talking Heads’ best music revolves around an earnest cost-benefit analysis of privilege. It’s not for nothing that “This Must Be the Place” figured prominently in Oliver Stone’s 1988 anti-Randian melodrama Wall Street, and it’s not for nothing that the background lighting for the Stop Making Sense performance of the song was dominated by the following slogans:
What does this remind us of? Twitter, of course. Codified non sequiturs rearranging whatever noncorrupted portion of our cerebral cortex still exists. Stop making sense indeed. Byrne and Demme were anticipating a time when language had broken down to its primordial basics. They were also referencing the dehumanizing and exquisitely American euphemisms of war and capitalism, the tissue-thin psychic remunerations for all of this gathering of treasure and exporting of misery.
In Demme’s brilliant 1987 rendering of the Spalding Gray one-man show Swimming to Cambodia, a similar visual technique is employed—except the words and images on the background mainly illustrate Gray’s experiences researching the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge before acting in Roland Joffé’s film of the same name. On “Life During Wartime,” Byrne projects a coming moment of permanent conflict. He worries over the sound of gunfire and the status of his passport. He is a refugee who recognizes he might never get home, if indeed there is a home left to return to. All of the acquisitive attributes of his cultural stature are rendered useless: “This ain’t no party / This ain’t no disco / This ain’t no fooling around.”
And so here we are: the last dance.
I Love the Passing of Time
To even attempt to catalog all of his movements feels impossible. He marches. He swings his arms and duck walks. He vibrates like a live wire, crying like a fire in the sun, in immediate need of hospitalization. The sheer physicality of Byrne’s performance is reminiscent of Keaton and Chaplin, but also Jerry Lewis and an acid-addled hummingbird.
And then, during “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne does something no major rock star has ever thought to do on stage: He smacks himself upside the head, repeatedly and with concussive force, to the song’s Sisyphean mantra: “same as it ever was.” As pantomime it is wildly funny and deeply troubling. He seems to be upbraiding himself, or trying to remember something, or at least trying to not forget something. It is the climax of the concert’s second act and its crucial action. Is Byrne attempting to wake himself up from a dream or is he intending to render himself unconscious?
What follows from there is sublime and analgesic. A beautiful rendering of “Genius of Love” by the Tom Tom Club, a Byrne-less Talking Heads side project. Then the triumphant Big Suit triptych culminates in the exhilarating thousand-yard-nowhere-stare of “Crosseyed and Painless.” And like that the ritual is over and the postmortem begins. What has happened here, after all the head slapping and the lunatic dancing and the houses burning and the psycho killers and the baptisms and portents of permanent war? How to make sense of it all? It is 1983 in America. An outsized future awaits.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.