Required Listening: Stop Making Sense

by Andrew Marvin on March 28, 2012

Here’s another Required Listening (and watching!) recommendation from Andrew Marvin.


The first time I saw Stop Making Sense, I was riveted from the moment the opening credits began to roll. The film had me dancing in my seat for 88 straight minutes. I’d never heard — or seen — anything like it.

To say there’s a reason why Leonard Maltin calls Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film “one of the greatest rock movies ever made” is an understatement. There are in fact too many reasons to count. The music is jubilant, the filming is masterful, and the performance is iconic.

Conceived for the stage by lead singer David Byrne and directed by Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense was filmed in December 1983 over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater. These shows were part of a tour — the band’s last — supporting their commercial breakthrough, Speaking in Tongues.

One of the preeminent New Wave bands, Stop Making Sense captures Talking Heads at the peak of their powers. The songs are energetic and punchy. Byrne’s lyrics are quirky and esoteric. The staging is purposefully minimalist, creating space for a powerful performance that never fails to render its audience rapt.

Stop Making Sense is as much about sight as it is about sound. Visually, the film is very sparse. No colored lights are used. Microphones are painted black. There are no fancy costumes or special effects. At first, the stage looks unfinished, adorned only with ladders and scaffolding. David Byrne, carrying an acoustic guitar and a cassette tape player, greets his audience with a simple, “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play.” The opening chords of “Psycho Killer” are all he needs to commandeer his listeners’ attention, and the film never lets go.

With each successive song, Byrne is joined onstage by one of his bandmates until all nine musicians are present to perform “Burning Down the House”. Even with a large band, the film maintains a sense of minimalism. The camera is patient, moving between lengthy closeups, full body shots, and wide angle views. We only see glimpses of the audience. Every shot is intentional. The film is content to capture the performance naturally and with purpose. Free from the distractions that plague today’s live acts, the music is free to speak to us.

Stop Making Sense has no need for quick, jumpy editing because the band provides all the energy we need. Byrne and his bandmates sing, dance, and play like there’s no tomorrow. The music is celebratory, commanded by Byrne’s incredible stage presence. He jogs in place, rolls on the floor, and does laps around the stage, all while his band delivers what would eventually be known as one of the finest examples of concert film.

The spirit of Stop Making Sense is one of pure freedom. The music is infectious, and the performance inspiring. It’s not that the musicians are the most technically proficient players, it’s that their energy is so joyfully contagious that we cannot help but get caught up in it.

Only at the end of the film do the houselights come up to reveal the audience, a moment that explains the magic behind Stop Making Sense. We witness a sea of fans, every one dancing and grinning from ear to ear. We see children bopping up and down in their seats. We see people of all sizes, shapes, and colors united in their love for the music. We are reminded of music’s ability to lift us up and cast away our fears, which makes us happy to relive this performance again and again.


Amazon Links: Stop Making Sense Concert Movie on DVD and Blu-Ray

Live Album Version: Stop Making Sense: Special New Edition (1984 Film)

iTunes Album Link: Stop Making Sense: Special New Edition


More Required Listening

The Required Listening: Stop Making Sense by Andrew Marvin, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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