Stop Making Sense is routinely described as “the best concert film ever made.” But is it really?
(Spoiler alert: yes, it is.)
There are plenty of films that capture more historic concerts (Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Monterey Pop). There are plenty that encapsulate an iconic artist’s career and the culture that surrounds them at a certain point in time (The Grateful Dead Movie, Madonna: Truth or Dare). And there are probably some that preserve for posterity arguably better performances.
But it’s the film part of the equation that sets Stop Making Sense apart. And in the newly restored version of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 masterpiece, the perfect marriage between Talking Heads’ brilliantly kinetic, utterly tight performance and Demme’s acute cinematic eye is even more apparent.
Filmed over three nights in December 1983 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, the band runs through a greatest-hits set list, with David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth backed by the incredible Bernie Worrell, three backup singers, guitarist Alex Weir, and percussionist Steve Scales. It doesn’t start out that way, of course: the film famously opens with a shot of Byrne’s feet as he walks on stage alone, sets down a boom box, and says “I have a tape I want to play for you.” He then launches into the band’s first hit single, “Psycho Killer.” Over the course of the next few tunes, the rest of the band joins him on stage, until the full ensemble is assembled.
That assembly, and its focus on Byrne as the indispensable core of the band, hints at the tensions the Heads were experiencing at the time Stop Making Sense was made. Byrne has admitted to being “a little tyrant” in those days, as he enforced his creative diktats on the other three members. Clearly, he felt at the time that he was outgrowing the band, and, to be frank, his creative flowering since Talking Heads’ 1991 breakup stands in stark contrast to the trajectories of Harrison, Frantz, and Weymouth. Regardless, this is a chance to see them at the peak of their prowess. (And it’s been interesting to watch the four, appearing in public for the first time since their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002, as they promote this re-release. There are still some unhealed wounds, it seems.)
From their art-school origins, the band gradually added more polyrhythmic, soulful elements, and Stop Making Sense captures the glorious friction of that combination. Byrne’s movements are carefully choreographed, his costumes (including the legendary Big Suit) specifically chosen, his mannerisms theatrical. And yet, he sweats. He runs. He’s anything but some sort of New Wave robot. He’s having FUN. That, to me, is the source of Byrne’s, and this film’s, magic: the blending of the Apollonian and the Dionysian into something that can shift from the staggering, chanting pace of “Once in a Lifetime” to the tenderness of “This Must Be the Place” to the straight-up transcendence of “Take Me to the River” without missing a beat.
With all that happening onstage, Demme makes the brilliant decision to keep his camera focused exactly there. One of the reasons Stop Making Sense is the best concert film ever made is that it stays focused on the concert. There are virtually no crowd shots, no backstage shots, no bantering or commentary from the artists. Demme’s direction is pure and almost minimalist in a way that feels freeing, not confining.
Nothing I’ve said so far should be news to anyone who’s seen the movie before. What is new is the opportunity to soak up its splendidly remastered soundtrack and pristine visuals on a titanic IMAX screen. The close-ups of Byrne’s face take on an almost overpowering stature, the sound mix lets you pick out individual players with ease, and the sensory envelopment of the whole experience verges on the religious. It’ll still be an astounding experience someplace like Cinema 21 or the Hollywood Theatre, but here’s hoping Portland gets some large-format showings.
I’ve seen Stop Making Sense in a theater twice now (including its 15th anniversary re-release in 1999). Both times, people whooped and clapped and danced in the aisles. And that was in the antiseptic environment of a Regal/Act III cinemaplex. So get out there and sweat—it’s the least you could do. (Opens Thursday, Sept. 28, at multiple locations.)
Fair Play: Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are recently-engaged lovers who keep their relationship secret at work because of a strict no-fraternization policy. Work is the sleek, steel-gray offices of a financial trading firm. When the firm’s number two gets dramatically fired, the conventional wisdom is that Luke will replace him. But, and maybe you see this coming, Emily gets the surprise nod. Writer-director Chloe Dumont demonstrates a sure hand in her feature debut as she explores the gendered dynamics that threaten to undermine the happiness of this picture-perfect couple. Refreshingly, neither is a clear-cut victim or villain, and it’s okay to root against both of them because they profit off planet-killing, late-stage capitalism. (Salem Cinema, on Netflix Friday, October 6)
Flora and Son: The mother (Eve Hewson) of a troubled Irish teen (Oren Kinlan) gives him a discarded guitar in hopes that it will give him something to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt co-stars as a handsome online guitar teacher in the latest ode to the transformative power of music from writer-director John Carney (Once, Sing Street). (Salem Cinema, also streaming on Apple TV+)
Creator: In the future, a special forces agent (John David Washington) is tasked with hunting down the mastermind AI who could end the war between humans and computers. That standard plot, according to early reviews, yields a surprisingly powerful and stunning sci-fi thriller from director Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Sadly, not screened for local critics. (Multiple theaters)
Dumb Money: The absurd story of the Game Stop stock mania gets the Hollywood treatment, with Paul Dano as the underdog, Seth Rogen as a billionaire, and other familiar faces including Nick Offerman, Shailene Woodley, and Pete Davidson. Not screened for local critics. (Cinema 21, Laurelhurst Theatre, Regal Fox Tower, and others)
Rebel: When a Syrian émigré to Belgium decides to clean up his life by going back to his homeland to help victims of its civil war, he ends up impressed into service by ISIS and embarks on a harrowing series of encounters. (Cinemagic)
- Sabrina’s got nothing on the teen witches in 1992’s The Craft (Academy, continues all week)
- Fresh from its world premiere, the locally-made queer-horror campfest Evil Babylon follows a Christian race car driver who dies and goes to a very gender-fluid afterlife (Clinton St.)
- David Bowie creeps out Jennifer Connelly (and the rest of us) in 1982’s Labyrinth (Academy, continues all week)
- The 26th annual Manhattan Short Film Festival allows viewers worldwide to vote on their favorite of the ten finalists (Clinton St., Eugene Art House, Salem Cinema, Egyptian Theater in Coos Bay)
- The groundbreaking action epic from Brazil, City of God (Cinemagic, also Sunday)
- James Dean proves why he’s James Freaking Dean in the widescreen epic East of Eden (Cinema 21)
- The documentary Finding Her Beat spotlights female taiko drummers (Hollywood)
- Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough Mean Streets (Hollywood, 35mm)
- Director Neil Jordan’s baroque 2012 vampire flick Byzantium (Hollywood)
- The Portland Latin American Film Festival presents the coming-of-age story Sister & Sister, which follows two Costa Rican siblings who travel to Panama on summer break to search for their absent father (Hollywood)
- Carl Theodor Dreyer’s minimalist classic horror from 1932, Vampyr (Clinton St.)
- A drug-dealing witch finds a Magic Cop too much to handle in this 1990 Hong Kong B-movie (Hollywood)
- An extraterrestrial cat teams up with a novelist to battle malicious demons in the 1992 Hong Kong cult classic The Cat (Cinemagic)
- J.J. Abrams reboots a legendary franchise in 2009’s Star Trek (Hollywood)
- One of the most bizarre horror sequels in history, 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Hollywood)
- Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1989 Santa Sangre (Clinton St.)