Friday, March 16, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.6: Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 97 (A)

Jonathan Demme has a greater appreciation for and knowledge of music than any director short of Martin Scorsese, so it’s no surprise that he shares Scorsese’s penchant for directing rock documentaries in between features. Great as Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is, however, it pales in comparison to Demme’s exquisite 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.  Most concert films are just that- concert films. They give a sense of the time and place and try to recreate an experience from the past. Stop Making Sense , however, feels like something more. It has the narrative drive and excitement of a non-documentary film and the unmistakable touch of its director.  There’s no shortage of great films about rock, from Todd Hayne’s unconventional David Bowie/Bob Dylan tributes Velvet Goldmine/I’m Not There to High Fidelity to A Hard Day’s Night. Make no mistake, though: Stop Making Sense is the greatest rock and roll film ever made.

Led by guitarist/singer David Byrne, the art-punk/New Wave band combined influences as diverse as punk, avante-garde, funk, world music, and straightforward pop for a unique sound that influenced later bands such as Radiohead and Arcade Fire. The film was shot over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, the film follows Talking Heads during their tour for their fifth album, Speaking in Tongues. The band was at the height of its creative and commercial peak, and Demme captures them at their liveliest.

He does not, however, feature backstage footage or band interviews the way The Last Waltz and other concert films do. Demme has clarified that Stop Making Sense is not a concert film, but rather a performance film. It does not look at a past event, but rather brings a you-are-there-and-this-is-happening-now feeling to the proceedings, and breaking up the footage with interviews would only serve as a distraction. It’s all about the joyous ecstasy of performance.

As a documentary filmmaker, Demme yields the floor to his subject rather than exert creative control over the events. Yet Stop Making Sense has that elusive Demme touch all the same- warmth for its oddball “characters”, celebration of music, offbeat humor, a strong sense of collaborative feeling, and an exploration of a kooky side of America that most filmmakers wouldn’t think exists, let alone consider exploring it.

Stop Making Sense barely feels like a documentary, considering how seamlessly shot and edited the performance is.  Where most concert documentaries feature rapid-cutting to different angles, Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenworth choose fluid long takes reminiscent of Demme’s narrative films: extreme close-ups on faces and upper bodies, fade-ins, elaborate shots that rotate around performers, and wide shots that give a good sense of what’s happening around the stage. The infrequent cutting gives each edit purpose, and the long takes let the performers build kinetic energy as each song progresses. What’s remarkable is that Demme manages to feature virtually zero cameras in the shot- rather than capture one or two songs a night, Demme picked one night for wide shots and the other nights for closer takes. It’s a miraculous technical achievement that makes the film feel less like an event and more like a story.



Demme’s narrative features often feature unique, kooky characters at their center, from Melvin Dummar of Melvin and Howard to Lulu of Something Wild. This trait carries over to his documentaries, and at the center of Stop Making Sense is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Gawky, neurotic, and nerdy, Byrne brought his personality and hang-ups to his music and his performance. “Performance” is a key word- the Byne of Stop Making Sense is an exaggerated form of the real Byrne. It’s clearly a performance, but what a performance it is: the film opens with a mystique-building close-up on Byrne’s feet as he enters the stage.  Anyone unfamiliar with Talking Heads would be prone to ask, “who is this odd character?”. Throughout the film, Byrne gyrates, dances, preaches, purrs, and yelps in his distinct fashion. This is our protagonist, so to speak, and Byrne deserved some sort of a special award for whatever one might call his performance.

That said, it wouldn’t be a Demme film without unforgettable supporting “characters” as well, nor without the feeling that those characters could take over the film at any time. The other members of the band- weirdly angelic bassist Tina Weymouth, quirky guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and good-time goofball drummer Chris Frantz- join Byrne onstage, along with additional performers- backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, percussionist Steve Scales, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and guitarist Alex Weir. Each performer has their own distinctive talent and quirky demeanor, and though Byrne is the focus, he gladly relinquishes the spotlight to highlight the talents of his collaborators (sadly, the band would later break-up when Byrne started to exert almost complete creative control). Byrne even goes so far to bring the crew out onstage to thank them publicly before the last song finishes. It’s all part of that Renoir-like democratic feel Demme brings to all of his films- whenever the camera cuts to even the slightest bit player, it’s their film for just a moment.

The additional performers bring the Heads’ (and Demme’s) appreciation for music outside of rock and roll full circle: Worrell and Mabry were in Parliament/Funkadelic. Scales plays bongos and other exotic percussion instruments. Talking Heads were four white performers, but the other five are all black, making this a Demme film that subtly promoting 60s-ish “good times and harmony beyond racial barriers” messages that would show up in later works (Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Rachel Getting Married). It’s all good in Demme’s word- we can get along, work together, and make some pretty damn great music.

But what of the music? While the songs don’t tell a literal story in a concept-album fashion, Byrne’s stage show and Demme’s filmmaking brings the songs together in a story-structure that’s hard to define but relentlessly gripping. Byrne starts onstage alone, guitar in hand, tape recorder playing a backing track, as he yelps out the Talking Heads’ breakthrough hit “Psycho Killer”. The song focuses solely on our neurotic main character, on his psyche, and on his bizarre, herky-jerky movements. The terrific opening culminates as Byrne ends the song stumbling around like Paul Muni in Scarface (or Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless). This guy is something.



Over the course of the next few songs, the band builds-up: Tina Weymouth enters for the lovely “Heaven”, in which sweet relief comes after the nervy opening. Frantz enters on the exciting “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” as Demme focuses on his impressive but not ostentatious drumming skills. Two more funky numbers, “Found a Job” and “Slippery People”, play as Harrison and the additional performers enter, culminating in the end of the “first act” when a rowdy version of the mega-hit “Burning Down the House” plays.

With the next song, “Life During Wartime” (my favorite), Byrne puts down his guitar and brings a new energy, as if to say “lemme show you something”. He gyrates during the first verse, pulls back like a marionette during the choruses, and in the second verse Demme cuts to a wide shot as Byrne begins an indescribable dance that has to be seen to be believe.

As the film/concert continues, changes in lighting, camera placements, and performance bring a uniqueness to each song, from the dark lighting of  “Swamp” to the silhouettes of ‘What a Day That Was”. For “This Must Be the Place”, one of Byrne’s few literal love songs, all extra lights are cut as Byrne brings out a lamp that gives natural light to his performance. There’s real warmth and a more personal feeling to this song, and Byrne’s dance with the lamp in a mesmerizing piece of performance art at the end of the song only highlights it. Byrne also brings elements of Noh theatre in his performance of “Girlfriend is Better”, during which he wears a comically oversized suit. Demme shoots “Once in a Lifetime”, the midlife-crisis song to end all midlife crisis songs, with a long, nearly unbroken take on Byrne, wearing Buddy Holly glasses and preaching the neuroses of growing artists with unrealized ambitions.

It isn’t until the very end of the film, during the final song “Crosseyed and Painless”, that Demme finally reveals the crowd living it up to the sounds of the Talking Heads. There’s a reason: Demme had wanted the audience to make up their own minds rather than be influenced by the vibes of crowd. By now, you’re either with it or you’re not, and it’s far more fun to be with it.  Stop Making Sense is a concert film like no other: a film fascinated with the wide range of music and the possibility of performance, full of offbeat sidetracks, lively kook, and an agreeably anarchic spirit. It is, in short, a film that could only have been made by Jonathan Demme.


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