David Byrne is showing me why a lamp isn’t usually a good dance partner.
“A normal floor lamp is meant to go alongside a chair,” he says, springing up and placing his hand on an imaginary object level with his seat. “So it would be about that high off the ground, which, if you’re standing, that’s not a good place for illumination of your face.” Then he points above his head. “We want it to be about here. So we had to artificially extend the lamp to still have it look like a floor lamp.”
Talking Heads guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, who’s been watching this demonstration from across a marble table in an airy Los Angeles conference room, smiles and then distills his old bandmate’s explanation: “A floor lamp for Shaq.”
Byrne’s Fred Astaire–esque, extra-tall light fixture routine, scored by “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” is still understandably fresh in his memory. Four decades later, it’s one of the many surreal moments in Stop Making Sense that are impossible to shake. Shot over the course of a handful of Talking Heads concerts at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, the late Jonathan Demme’s film is as transfixingly propulsive today as it was when it came out in 1984.
There are no interviews, no breaks, and no fooling around. It’s pure performance. But the way Byrne sees it, the show isn’t just a show. It’s a journey toward selflessness. “As the show builds, the music becomes funkier, and it becomes harder to maintain this self that’s outside of that,” he says. “You just have to surrender to it.”
The frontman starts out on a bare stage, alone with an acoustic guitar and a boom box, and ends up as part of a collective. “As a musician, you strive for that,” Harrison says. “You’re entirely in the moment of that music. You stop being self-conscious because you’re just all there.”
This month, Byrne is back jiggling around in his big suit on the big screen. Thanks to the discovery of the movie’s original negative, A24 is releasing a restored version of Stop Making Sense in 4K in IMAX and standard theaters. Years of tension led Byrne to officially break up the band in 1991, but the members of Talking Heads know that their film will always be around to bring the party. “We’re very proud that this is our legacy, that we have this,” says bassist Tina Weymouth, who’s been married to drummer Chris Frantz since 1977. “And we’re so grateful that Jonathan Demme was the one to approach us and say, ‘Hey, this needs to be shot.’”
Part 1: “What Is This Guy On?”
In the early 1980s, Jonathan Demme was still a decade out from receiving an Academy Award for directing The Silence of the Lambs, but he had already earned a reputation as an artful filmmaker. After his dramatic comedy Melvin and Howard won two Oscars, he was hired to make Swing Shift with Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Christine Lahti, and Ed Harris. The production was a disaster: frustrated stars, rewrites, reshoots, and one miserable director. Demme needed a palate cleanser.
Around the same time, Talking Heads was preparing to go on the road to support its new album, Speaking in Tongues. The conceptual tour, which featured a series of slides and images on projection screens and an expanded lineup—including singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Alex Weir, and percussionist Steve Scales—reflected Byrne and the band’s art school roots.
Adelle Lutz (creative consultant and Byrne’s former wife): The show had been on tour for quite a while. I’d been going to Lincoln Center, the Library for the Performing Arts, quite a bit. I said to Dave then, “Even if it’s only for our records, even if it’s only me with a VHS machine at the back of the theater, it should be documented for the library.” And so he said, “Well, let me talk to our manager.” Gary Kurfirst was everyone’s manager—the Clash, the Eurythmics, Ramones—and so David mentioned to Gary the possibility of filming this. And one of his ideas was “Let me talk to MTV.”
And so David said, “Before you talk to them, I have to watch concert movies on TV.” And so he watched everything. All we had was this little Sony Trinitron. And it had my sticker on it that said, “Kill Your TV.” It was seriously puny. And nothing looked good. Altamont didn’t look good. The Last Waltz didn’t look good. And then he saw Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps. All of a sudden, he knew that it was possible to do a show and film it and project it.
Sandy McLeod (visual consultant): David actually made a concert tour that had a narrative to it, which was pretty unusual.
David Byrne (vocals and guitar): It starts with one person, various band members and their gear comes out bit by bit, as well as all the lighting equipment, and the screens for the slide projections. Everything you see comes out little by little.
Lutz: As far as Jonathan coming into the picture, my good friend in L.A. Nadia Ghaleb was [producer] Gary Goetzman’s first love. She was one who said to me, “Let me take Jonathan Demme to Talking Heads at the Greek Theater.” And that did it.
McLeod: Jonathan and I actually saw them in Central Park with the B-52s. I knew who they were and he knew who they were, but somehow that was such a seminal moment for us.
Chris Frantz (drums): I can’t recall any other director approaching us and saying, “I’d like to make a movie of this concert.”
Tina Weymouth (bass): He was the only person.
Byrne: It wasn’t like we were going for some bold-faced star director. We went for somebody who really seemed to like what we were doing and was also doing really interesting, very human-oriented stuff.
Frantz: All four of us felt a real kinship with Jonathan right away. Not just personally, but also aesthetically. And we felt like he was a trustworthy guy and that we could put this project in his hands and have a pretty good chance of it coming out well.
Weymouth: Our largest trepidation at the beginning was “How are we going to pay for this?”
Byrne: I’m surprised that a lot of people don’t realize this, that the film is basically a document of the tour that we were doing but with a few songs cut out to streamline it a bit. So it’s not like Jonathan came in with the concept. It was there. That’s not to take anything away from what he did, but what you see is what we were doing, and what he did was to bring out the relationships and interactions between all the band members throughout the show and the characters of each, as if it was acting, as if it was a story.
McLeod: Even though it’s very subtle and not a narrative in any traditional sense, it still has this story that evolves with the lighting effects, the music, and the stories that David tells of the songs. I think Jonathan really got that, loved it, appreciated it, and helped bring that forward.
Byrne: That’s what he saw, and I thought, “That’s not something I would’ve seen.”
Jerry Harrison (guitar and keys): It brought an intimacy to it. The camera blows up interactions that you wouldn’t see.
McLeod: Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Blade Runner, was our DP. He was phenomenal.
Harrison: Bringing in Jordan was just a masterstroke for us. We were all fans of Blade Runner, so it’s like, “Oh boy, I feel a lot of confidence in this.”
Jeff Cronenweth (second assistant camera): I was in film school at USC at the time. And I think our winter break had already started, and I had done different projects over the years with my dad as a camera assistant. And so when this came up—with a multi-camera shoot—he asked me to be part of it. He kind of sensed that it would be something special.
Ednah Holt (backing vocals): I can tell you that I’m getting chills as I talk to you. This is years later, and I still get the chills.
Lynn Mabry (backing vocals): It was really a collective, of course. David being front and center—I think his take on his own style and music and the way he delivered it, or at least shared it with the audience, was very unique and very entertaining. Then you had the band, you had the musicians, and us, the singers, and we added a new flavor. It was a mixture of retro pop and rock ’n’ roll, and then you had R&B in there. It was soulful.
Frantz: We rehearsed on the West Side piers. Now they’re all fancy. They call them the Chelsea Piers. There were rats running around. But it was a great place to rehearse, and I remember Malcolm Forbes tied up his yacht there.
Weymouth: Right there in front of us.
Frantz: His yacht would go out every day with Forbes magazine clients. But the crew happened to be Talking Heads fans, so they would listen to our rehearsals.
Weymouth: We had the bay doors wide open.
Frantz: They would send us trays of Bloody Marys.
Steve Scales (percussion): We rehearsed, and we rehearsed, and we rehearsed, but nobody inside quite could get what the heck the picture was in David’s head.
Mabry: At rehearsal I would be watching David performing, and then watch him in front of a mirror, coming up with all of those crazy moves. That was weird. It was like, “What is this guy on?” And he was completely straight. He never drank. He never smoked. Water and clean food.
Scales: He would be in my room at night, or somebody else’s room, doing these crazy little things. We said, “Man, you should do that in the show.” And he would do that in the show. He put it in.
Frantz: David had this idea that it would be a show with rolling risers, and it would be a show that would expand as the show went on.
McLeod: The crew is in black. They build the stage.
Lutz: I dragged him around to all of those things because I was living there.
Byrne: I noticed two things. One was the stagehands were plainly visible. They didn’t try to hide them, so that if there was a costume change, they’d come up quietly behind someone and just do the costume change right onstage. They dressed in black, and they didn’t try to hide. And I thought, “Oh, make a note of that.”
Weymouth: I thought it was really weird. Why do we have to anodize all the drum hardware black? But that was part of the aesthetic. We just went to the amazing Ed Ruscha retrospective at MoMA, and I might be paraphrasing, but he said, “People say, why did you do it this way?” And he said, “Well, good art should make you scratch your head.”
Scales: When we did Forest Hills, Mick Jagger changed his seat five times trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.
Weymouth: This stuff does make you scratch your head. Why choose this? And it’s just sort of like, “Well, it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s just part of the entertainment factor.” And so we just thought, “The people who are working with us, they liked it. The crew liked it. We liked it. Hopefully the fans will like it.”
Scales: The first show we did was in Hampton, Virginia. When we finished playing, we were in the dressing room for at least an hour, and the crew said, “You got to come out and see this.” The upper deck of this arena, one side of it was still there, still singing.
Holt: We had fun every night. Every night. It was so much fun that I actually said, “We’re going to die. This is it. This is our last gig.”
Part 2: “Brilliantly Different”
The American leg of the Talking Heads’ 1983 tour built toward filming Stop Making Sense in December at the Pantages, a historic former vaudeville theater and movie house. From the first song, Byrne’s solo rendition of the band’s sinister-sounding hit “Psycho Killer,” the movie is full of kinetic energy. But while they had prepared for the shoot for most of the year, it still took some time for the band and Demme to find their groove.
McLeod: We were going to shoot at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, and it just seemed too small.
Weymouth: All stages that we worked in had to be a minimum of 60 feet wide, 40 feet deep. And the Pantages was just so culturally beautiful. It’s part of the history of film.
Frantz: We’ve always been a band who appreciated a good theater as opposed to an arena or a larger kind of venue. That’s why when we played in New York at the peak of our touring fame, instead of one night at Madison Square Garden, we played two nights at Radio City Music Hall. It’s more fun for us, and it’s better for the fans, too.
Harrison: David was in the challenging position of having to not only be the performer and play his own parts, but also having to run out all the time and see what it looked like.
McLeod: One of the backup singers decided to get her hair cut for the show, and, of course, their hair was really important in the movement in the show.
Holt: I don’t even know what I was thinking. I had no idea that would be important for the movie.
Lisa Day (editor): David was so beside himself.
Holt: David was real nice. He never showed me that side, but he said, “I think it’d be best if you put your hair back. Because it really worked.” I said, “OK.” He had Lynn find a hairdresser to match what we had.
McLeod: That’s an incredibly laborious situation, to replace the missing locs. It didn’t seem to impair her energy at all. She was incredibly vivacious on stage.
Day: There were a lot of articles that said we shot four nights, but we didn’t.
Frantz: Three nights of real filming. The first night was kind of a rehearsal.
McLeod: We had very little time to light the show, and Jordan, because he was a man of beautiful light, really couldn’t quite understand what David wanted for the first shot, which was what David called “gymnasium light.” Jordan wanted to put a bare bulb on the soundstage. A big, huge bulb, which would make it look very beautiful, but there would be no place from a narrative standpoint to go to from there.
Lutz: My brother-in-law, William Chow, came out of Peking opera. And after he left China, he was teaching classical theater at Stella Adler’s in New York. So David and William sat down for dinner at our family’s restaurant, which still is called Mr. Chow, and William went over what David’s ideas were. He said, “You’re giving away too much at the beginning. You have nowhere to go if you start this way.” And that became David with a boom box.
McLeod: The first day of shooting, I went to dailies with David. He and I watched them at Technicolor on a wall. The first scene that came up was the one with the light bulb. David watched it, then he looked at me and he said, “OK, I’m pulling the plug on this because I don’t know who you are. You’re the only one who’s ever around. Jonathan only comes at night when we shoot, and this isn’t what I thought it was going to be at all.”
I was ready to faint, really, but I’m Scottish and David’s Scottish, so the only thing I could think to say was, “OK, you’re perfectly within your rights to do that. But no matter what, you’ve lost the money because we’ve committed to the Pantages for three days. We’ve booked the crew, we’ve booked the equipment, and we can continue and try to get it right, but if you pull the plug, then the whole thing goes down the drain. You lose your money.” I remember debating whether or not to call Jonathan because Jonathan was already in such a shaky place.
Day: He was finishing up Swing Shift at the time, and he was pretty depressed about it.
McLeod: To David’s credit, David said, “Let’s try again.” I talked to Jordy, and he got it. He got the gymnasium lighting thing. He understood it. It looks like a bare stage. Filmmaking is like that. It’s collaborative.
Holt: First, David comes out doing “Psycho Killer.”
Cronenweth: Just the bare set walls of the stage, naked. David and his little radio.
Byrne: That was my boom box. I used to travel with it. I remember going to Brazil with that boom box.
Mabry: We had a rehearsal for something, and he was in this little production room that was probably for ballet dancers. It was just, like, a barre and a mirror. He literally had his boom box, and he would play it, and he would just sit there and watch himself do certain things. And he would be like, “No,” and he would do something else.
Byrne: It was one of those things where you find something really cool, some song on the radio. You just press record and later on go, “What is that? What is that music? What is that?” And we used it all the time when we were rehearsing. We’d just stick it on a table and press record. And as Jerry has pointed out, it has this built-in compression where it squishes the sound, brings some things up, and does all this stuff where it kind of sounds really good, even when you’re just jamming. It really flatters the sound. Drum machines like the 808 had come out. That’s what was used to program that beat.
Mabry: He was coming up with things that were just brilliantly different, and it made you watch him. Then it made you appreciate it more because it felt right in the song.
McLeod: I remember when we were shooting that opening shot, seeing David standing behind the curtain with the guitar neck and the shadow on the floor, saying to Jordy, “Let’s start there. Let’s have the shadow come into the frame, and then we’ll bring him out.” Jonathan had already designed the shot where we dolly up to his face. It’s an embellishment. Everyone agrees on the basic sentence, and then you put in a little more punctuation and better wording.
Byrne: It’s me as a character—or me as myself—being anxious and isolated in the beginning, and then gradually finding himself with this little supportive community. And little by little, he starts to relax and become a little less anxious and has a little bit more fun.
Part 3: “We Couldn’t Keep Them in Their Seats Anymore.”
After a rough first night, Demme’s film started to take shape.
Weymouth: [Jonathan] was like, “It’s going to be great, guys. It’s just going to be great.” He was just in our corner the whole way.
Mabry: We were instructed, “This is a show, just do what you do. Don’t do anything different.”
Weymouth: We were admonished not to look at the cameras directly, but I mean, David uses the camera, and so does Steve Scales. I mean, they play right to it. But otherwise, we became quite used to it.
Scales: Jonathan came to me after the first night, and he said, “Steve, keep doing what you’re doing.” He said everybody reacted kind of uptight with the cameras and stuff. He said, “Steve, you have a marriage with the camera. You just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Harrison: We filmed it over multiple days, but one of the reasons for that was for dolly shots. One day was on the left, one day in the middle, one day down the right.
Cronenweth: Often in a concert film, especially a live experience, you have cameras on both sides. You have no choice, but the light is going to suck. On one side, it’s going to be flat. So what my dad did was: On one night, everything was lit one direction. On the next night, everything was lit in the opposite direction. People, including myself, copied that for years.
McLeod: Once the show started, the pact that we all made was that we would not stop it for any reason. We wanted the energy to build in the same way the narrative would build. That was a really smart choice.
Frantz: There’s one moment in the film that I adore, and that is the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” when it’s Tina and David and myself, the original trio of the band. I love seeing that because that’s how we began, just three of us. And those were the days. But the next song, when Jerry comes out, “Found a Job,” is really something.
Weymouth: That was Jonathan’s favorite shot, where it’s shot from the side and David and Jerry kind of go in and out. And the three of us, you see us. It wasn’t intended or choreographed. It’s one of those just beautiful things that just serendipitously happens.
McLeod: To me, it felt like a natural show.
Frantz: We figured out very quickly that these audiences don’t want you to be laid-back.
Weymouth: We had the moniker “Thinking Man’s Dance Band,” and our fans already liked to dance. But when we got the big band, there was a lot more sort of joking and showbiz.
Lutz: To see Alex, to see Steve Scales just traversing the stage, and Bernie clacking his teeth up there. I mean, it’s so joyous.
Weymouth: Steve Scales was very effusive, with giant expressions. And then with Bernie Worrell, and with Lynn and Ednah singing, everything got bigger. And Alex Weir’s such a dynamic force to play with. It’s unbelievable that he’s playing like that and dancing like that, with those high kicks. And so that egged us on, too.
McLeod: The audience danced. They went wild. At a certain point, we couldn’t keep them in their seats anymore. That energy was great for all of us, especially for those on the stage.
Weymouth: When we went to England, I picked up this fanzine that had republished a letter to an editor. It was a complaint by a BBC viewer who said, “And then that woman did the most hideous dance and I dropped all the stitches to my knitting.”
McLeod: She was just adorable. There was something about the way she moved with the instrument. It was really, really good.
Scales: The way the songs went and built up, by the time I came on “Slippery People,” and Alex came out on “Burning Down the House,” and then “Life During Wartime,” it was over. We had them. They were in the palms of our hands.
Day: When David starts doing “Life During Wartime,” I’m like, “Who does that?” I mean, running around. Continuing to run around.
Mabry: I was in the best shape of my life by the time we did the film. All that running, whether it was around or in place—that took a lot of stamina.
Holt: Lynn and I actually ran around the stage. We were around the whole auditorium. We’d go out the door and come back and run around the stage. I said, “Well, call an ambulance after we’re finished.”
Harrison: On “What a Day That Was,” I’m behind Ednah and Lynn, and half my face is in the dark. It’s like the light’s coming up from the bottom to me. Sort of like up from the crypt in a horror movie.
Byrne: It looks like the camera’s going to go down Ednah’s throat.
Harrison: That’s right.
Byrne: You’re just going, “Whoa. That’s a point of view the audience does not always get.”
Lutz: JoAnne Akalaitis was a theater director that came out of Mabou Mines. And she was the one who said, “I think we should put an armchair and a lamp there” for “(Naive Melody).” So David sat down in the chair and [said], “Excuse me, this is a rock ’n’ roll show.” It killed it. So funny. And so later, I said, “I think you have to lose that armchair, but you should do something with the lamp.”
Weymouth: He was watching old Fred Astaire films. In one film, Royal Wedding, he’s falling in love with the girl and he does an ecstatic dance with a coatrack. For this one song, David wanted to create the atmosphere of home. He thought a lamp would be appropriate, and he could do these dances. I mean, if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. So it is also an homage. It’s a synthesis of our pop culture.
Cronenweth: It was weighted so that it made those perfect tips and hung a little bit before it kind of fell.
Lutz: What he did with the lamp … none of us would’ve thought of that lamp dance.
Mabry: “Once in a Lifetime” was definitely a favorite. The way Jonathan shot that thing with the light on the side of us and us having our arms out. That was amazing.
Holt: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Didn’t that remind you a little bit of The Exorcist?
During “Genius of Love,” an oft-sampled track by Frantz and Weymouth’s side project Tom Tom Club, Byrne left the stage for a costume change. When he returned to perform the final three songs of the night—“Girlfriend Is Better,” a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” and “Crosseyed and Painless”—he was in the wildest formal wear the world has ever seen.
Byrne: In Noh, they’d come out with these really broad-shouldered outfits that were very rectangular looking, at least from the front. Like a band, they would perform facing the audience, rather than like a lot of times in Western theater, when they face one another. But anyway, that shape struck me, and then I thought, “But yeah, what if it’s a Western suit done like that?”
Harrison: I actually knew [artist] Gail Blacker and introduced Gail to David. It was like, “There’s this need for a big suit, where are we going to get it?”
Lutz: I was working with a designer who saw David’s shows, and he asked [David], “Are these clothes all going to be that big in the department stores?” And he said, “No, it’s stage. Stage is always larger.”
Byrne: We discovered things in touring and improvising and rehearsals. You discover that if you wiggle it—it’s made of linen—it would make all these weaves and wiggles, and all this kind of stuff. That’s just stuff you discovered, like, “Hey, that’s good. Let’s do that.”
Cronenweth: David in his fat suit dancing around, it’s pretty striking.
Holt: I thought it was great. He was so creative. We never knew what he was going to do.
Mabry: I thought it was goofy, but it fit David’s personality. It was like, “OK, that’s hilarious.” But see, I come from a different world. I have been with Parliament-Funkadelic. If you’ve ever seen any of those outfits, I had no right to laugh. I did a show where I was literally a worm.
Weymouth: He goes from so serious to being a total clown. And then somebody in the audience gave him a red hat, and he’s got his jacket off at this point, and he’s got that wide waist with that big—well, should I say it? The big ass.
Cronenweth: I was on the center camera, so I got to watch more of it. But it was groundbreaking, then mesmerizing.
McLeod: You feel that in the film: goosebumpy moments. And that’s just because we captured what was really in the room. There was some alchemy going on there.
Lutz: The beauty of Stop Making Sense is that it’s a real celebration. And I don’t know if other rock ’n’ roll films are the same or have that same, frankly, joy to them.
McLeod: There is a process to creation, to thought, and to music. You start scratching things out on paper, picking them out on a guitar or piano, and the film shows the process.
Byrne: And part of that process is this idea of losing yourself, losing your identity as a lone individual. It’s also your sense of “No, I belong to a larger group.”
Day: It’s like internal thoughts of some guy. And then his life goes on, and his life goes on, and it gets crazy and war breaks out. And then, finally, things settle down. He gets a girlfriend and everything’s happening, and then he dies at the end. Take me to the river.
Part 4: “There’s Something That Happens Between the Audience and the Performer That Can’t Happen Without Each Other.”
After shooting, Demme and Co. had a little more than four months to get Stop Making Sense ready for its premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April 1984. That winter, Talking Heads played a series of shows in Australia and New Zealand. The band never toured again.
Day: When I got a call to work on the picture, I had cut the Hal Ashby picture Let’s Spend the Night Together. It was the first thing I had a sole credit on as an editor. I was working on a TV show, and I got a call from, I guess, Gary [Goetzman]. They said, “We got your name from Hal, and we’re doing this Talking Heads show. We’re trying to get information about how Ashby shot Let’s Spend the Night Together,” because it was kind of unusual the way the cameras were lined up and the way they had transferred it to videotape.
They said, “Can you come over this afternoon?” So I went in a room, and there were a lot of people hanging around. I met Jonathan. And then Gary started talking to me. When they explained what it was, I was flabbergasted. It was like I had drawn this thing to me. I said, “Oh yes, of course I’d be interested in doing that.” Jonathan said, “Where do you want to cut?” And they said, “We might as well cut out of Hal Ashby’s place because it’s all set up for it.” That’s it. I mean, from that time it was just plowing through to the end. It happened fast, but it was more intimate than other jobs I’d been on.
Byrne: I remember being at Hal Ashby’s editing suite, and Jonathan invited us to come in. It was very generous of him because often it’s like, “No, the talent does not get to see the editing because they’re going to have all these opinions. It’s not their job.” But he was very generous about inviting us in there, which turned out, I think, to be really good because we knew the show so intimately that we could say, “Oh, oh, at this point Steve Scales is doing this really interesting thing. Did any of the cameras catch that?”
Day: When we had that first little screening and there was a big close-up of [David], I remember saying, “Do you find this a little scary?” He said, “Well, yeah.” He wasn’t joking.
Harrison: We had great, great shots, and going out and seeing what Lisa and Jonathan were doing was fabulous.
Day: [Jonathan] would come in at the end of the day, and sometimes we would look at what I’d cut, and then we’d go out and get dinner. Other times we would look at it, we’d talk a little bit about it, and then he would leave and I would edit, and then we’d meet again the next day.
I had a Polaroid camera, and I really liked taking these Polaroid pictures. And Jonathan would invite people to come by. There were always actors or musicians or people coming by, and they’d sit for a while and talk. But it resulted in a big board with all these Polaroid pictures on it. It was like a clubhouse. Ed Harris and Amy Madigan were there. And then Hal would come in once in a while. That’s when we still hadn’t decided what the name of the movie was going to be. We had a list up on the wall, and when people would come up with an idea, they’d write it down and write their name next to it. It was a long sheet of paper we had Scotch taped together. Whoever’s title was chosen, the prize was a date with Steve Scales.
Scales: They were all putting in.
Day: Stop Making Sense was one that went up pretty early. I think it might’ve been Jonathan. It was probably an idea that a lot of us had. I don’t recall exactly who got a date with Steve Scales.
Harrison: Once the whole thing was finished, we were very confident.
Day: We cut “Psycho Killer,” and then we cut “Heaven.” And we took that to Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, and we put it up on that big soundstage and screened that much. We had whoever wanted to come. Maybe there were 20 people the first time. We’d have 10 minutes. Then the next week we’d have 15 minutes. And every time, there were more and more people coming in.
We were screening the whole thing, but it wasn’t completely mixed. And at the studio, they were saying, “You cannot have this many people in this room.” They probably should have had 60 people in the room—we had, like, 200. I walked out just to do something in the projection booth, and this red Porsche came zooming up right at the door. I thought, “You can’t park there.” And Rod Stewart and his wife got out. “Where’s the screening?” And I had to wiggle myself out of that door because his car was in the way.
After hitting the festival circuit, Stop Making Sense was released in American theaters on October 19, 1984. At the time, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it “close to perfection” and wrote that “seeing the movie is like going to an austere orgy—which turns out to be just what you wanted.” The film made $6.5 million at the box office during its original run and, before long, became a cult classic.
Demme went on to direct other slightly larger-scale classics, including Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs, and Philadelphia. Talking Heads released three more studio albums before breaking up. A24’s rerelease of Stop Making Sense, which in addition to sharpened visuals features a new sound mix that Harrison oversaw, brings the band together since its 2002 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The party kicked off in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, but without one of its guests of honor. In 2017, Demme died of cancer at the age of 73.
Byrne: It was a small independent movie, really. So we knew it was not going out like a blockbuster into thousands of theaters or anything like that. It was going to have to get out there slowly.
Weymouth: At that time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a cult favorite that showed every weekend, say, in Boston, in Cambridge. And so we thought, “Well, that’s the way for us to go.” And it was good to do it that way because then people, well, they’re in on it. That makes it more fun.
Harrison: We thought that that would probably extend the life of the film. I don’t think we had any idea that it would have such a lasting impact, or that we would be here in 40 years.
Frantz: I’m very grateful about that because it means that maybe we’ll get a whole new audience all over again while, of course, still retaining our much-loved audience that we already have.
Cronenweth: Jonathan was a special talent, and my dad was really having a good time. And he gave him so much freedom, and I think he was very proud of it. And he was proud of it later, of course. And people would say it’s, if not the best, one of the five best concert films ever made. So that sticks with you, and you carry that. But I think if he could see its legs now, both him and Jonathan, I think they would be amused and shocked, you know what I mean?
Scales: I did Something Wild after that with Jonathan. Then I did Philadelphia. I went to the screening of Ricki and the Flash. He was with Meryl Streep. And the guards were in a little roped-off area. And I said, “Yo, Jonathan.” He said, “Hey, let him in.” He introduced me to Meryl. She hugged me. He hugged me. And I said to him, “Look, man, I need a movie.” He said, “You got it. I got one coming up.” And he passed away before I heard from him. He is a radiant kind of guy. Always smiling and talking about what we did. You get the feeling that he was extremely proud.
Lutz: There is not another rock concert film that I think captured what JD did and how much fun the band had.
Holt: That band was kicking. We would have so much fun. It was fun. Fun.
Mabry: It is actually some of the most fun that I ever had playing with an artist or a band.
Day: I so love the picture, and I so love to watch it. Maybe five years after I finished it, I put it on. I thought, “I haven’t looked at this for a while.” I was housecleaning, and I started saying, “This is really so fun to watch.” And finally, I just quit doing my housework. I just sat down and watched it.
Byrne: You can put it on like a record, and whether it’s in a cinema or somebody’s house, it’s like you’ve got a DJ there.
Harrison: You don’t even have to watch it—you could just dance to it.
Frantz: We did a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival back then [in 1984]. Then we came out here [to L.A.], and we did one at the Palace Theatre. And then we finally had one at the Ritz in New York. Not the hotel, the rock ’n’ roll club. Both of those parties, the one here at the Palace and the one at the Ritz, were really something because we could see that the audience was jumping up on their feet and moving toward the screen. I wouldn’t exactly say rushing the screen, but definitely getting up and moving down front and on their feet, hopping, dancing.
McLeod: Which is why we love to go to concerts, because that can happen. There’s something that happens between the audience and the performer that can’t happen without each other.
Harrison: We went to Florence. I have this picture that’s Susan Sarandon and Bernardo Bertolucci and me.
Byrne: Jerry mentioned Bernardo Bertolucci. This was a screening at a film festival. And the audience, as they often do, got up and danced. And they filled up the space in front of the screen. And we’re all dancing around, and he was like, “They don’t do that to my movies.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed.