The twin beginnings of my Talking Heads fandom were organic and inorganic. In 1996, I was watching an episode of Muppets Tonight and Kermit performed a version of “Once in a Lifetime” in a giant suit. At the time I thought that it was an original Muppets song and also that it was incredible. It was only later, when I saw the Talking Heads version on VH1, that it clicked for me that the song might have existed before I saw a frog puppet perform it. Oddly enough, VH1 continued my Talking Heads education when their show Pop-Up Video featured “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere.” And really, that’s where it stopped. For a good few decades, those three songs were my go to Talking Heads tracks and that was fine.
The inorganic fandom creation came around my thirtieth birthday when, one day, I found myself trying to listen to my MP3 player and instead just spent the time skipping track after track after track. The problem is that I’m not great with music. I’m not someone who is good at discovering bands or hitting trends when they’re trendy. Most of my core music tastes are inherited from my parents, my older brother, or the area I grew up in. I mean, try and grow up in Northern England and not end up being a fan of The Smiths. After realising that my music collection had grown stale and played our, I just one day decided that I would be a fan of Talking Heads. I don’t know why I chose them, after all I only really knew the three songs above. But choose them I did, and after dropping some cash on iTunes, I listened to Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Speaking in Tongues over and over until I was hooked. I developed a crush on bassist Tina Weymouth, I considered getting a tattoo of some lyrics, and I even got a new favourite song out of the experience, which I will tell you more about later.
This love of Talking Heads led me to pitching to my editors an article about Stop Making Sense, their seminal concert movie, just a few days ago. Unfortunately, I had only written the two paragraphs above before I saw the news about director Jonathon Demme passing away. Demme, whose Silence of the Lambs is perhaps one of the few completely perfect movies, created something with Talking Heads that stands head and shoulders above any other concert movie. This is the Godfather, the Exorcist, and the Star Wars of the concert movie. It should be the template or the goal for any filmmaker who sets out to film musicians. They should watch it with their breakfast, during editing, while planning, while filming, while showering. It is a masterpiece from a filmmaker who made quite a few in his career.
The movie isn’t like other concert movies where the filmmaker points a camera at a group of performers and lets them do their thing (with occasional crowd shots to show how much fun everyone is having). In fact, Demme hides the audience away. We hear them only during the gaps between songs, and those gaps are short as the pace is killer in this film. Everything is operating on high adrenaline so the artists are running around the stage or dancing or kicking or jumping at all times. It looks exhausting but we don’t have time to catch our breath between songs, especially when the songs are this good.
The quite amazing thing about Stop Making Sense is how much it improves on the album versions of some of these hits. My favourite song, “Life During Wartime,” is a great track off of Fear of Music. It is a post-punk hipster’s version of the revolution where making sure that people know that the resistance isn’t a party or a disco is just as important as avoiding the authorities. I love how funky it is, I love the story it tells, I love the words, and I love the way it fades out at the end while David Byrne is still singing as though the story is never going to end. With Stop Making Sense, the version they perform of “Life During Wartime” makes the album version look like shit. The energy with which they perform the song is infectious to the point of exhaustion. They run on the spot, they hop around, Byrne shows off his rubber body by gyrating, wobbling, wriggling, writhing on the floor, and eventually, just running a circuit around the stage like a mad man. It is hilarious and fun, but it also adds so much to the song with the extra elements brought about by Talking Heads’ usual line up being supplemented by Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt, Alex Weir, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell who is the absolute MVP for this whole endeavour. The added singing voices, keyboard work, percussion, and an extra layer of funk all comes together to make something that is both incredibly wonderful and also forces me to say at parties that my favourite song is “Life During Wartime” – [lowers sunglasses] – “…the live version.”
If time and my word count allowed, I would break each track down one-by-one. Alas, it does not. And if I spent my words doing that I couldn’t write about some of the incredible flourishes that Demme puts into the whole thing. The opening intro to the band is a lovely touch. Talking Heads, like The Smiths with Morrissey, are most of the time personified in David Byrne. It is fitting that he comes out on stage first by himself but it is good to see each band member join him for a song one by one as the stage is constructed behind them. The opening tracks are slower, quieter songs as the band builds up and more and more talent comes on stage until everyone is assembled and they can kick into “Slippery People,” which features a quite indescribable dance off between Byrne and his back up singers, Mabry and Holt.
Another great move by Demme, which I mentioned briefly earlier, is to focus on the band. He keeps the camera moving and shifts constantly between band member. He also sometimes gets right up close and stays there for a while, something that concert movies usually avoid in order to keep the atmosphere of the live event and the crowd, so they will regularly cut to wide shots and crowd reactions. Demme understands though that we’re not here to see crowds, we’re here to see the band, and as stated above he keeps their involvement to little snippets between songs.
Overall, the thing I find most intriguing about Stop Making Sense is that it doesn’t feel real. The people on stage are having too much fun. They’re being incredibly dorky but immeasurably cool at the same time. Watching it again before writing this I was struck with how much the whole thing felt like the end credits for an ’80s movie. It’s like Talking Heads just won the battle of the bands against the rich kids and now we’re seeing them celebrate. Demme had an incredible way for live performance, after all this is the man who made Swimming to Cambodia, a riveting and dramatic movie that is basically one man sat in a chair reading a story from a McDonald’s notebook. If he could make that into edge of seat stuff, it’s no surprise that when he turned his talents to one of the most interesting, dynamic and eccentric bands, he was going to make a classic.
Featured Image: Cinecom Pictures/Palm Pictures