This important Talking Heads concert film has been digitally remastered and re-released to mark the 15th anniversary of the original film. I viewed, and heard, this new print at a special press screening, held in the Dolby Labs’ private theater near San Francisco’s Potrero Hill as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. As one might imagine, this is by no means a normal listening environment — this particular theater is an audio laboratory designed to provide the clearest, cleanest sound reproduction possible. A thin fabric veneer that covers nearly every wall hides a set of highest quality speakers. The film also has special significance for San Francisco filmgoers, because for its initial run at the famous Castro Theatre, the audiences danced in the aisles.
To have viewed Jonathan Demme’s brilliant concert film with such perfect acoustics was the next best thing to actually seeing the 1984 concert at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre. At that particular moment in time, the Talking Heads were at their creative and performing peak. Demme’s deceptively straightforward direction of Jordan Cronenweth’s (who lensed “Blade Runner” and “Altered States”) cinematography perfectly captures the band’s raw kineticism and infectious energy. Everything about Demme’s style from camerawork to editing was artfully and minimalistically designed to put all of the film’s focus on the band rather than to ever let the film itself draw the attention.
At the press conference, lead singer-songwriter David Byrne commented that Demme recognized that “What was important was the character development and the plotline of the show.” Bassist Tina Weymouth also noted that Demme recognized that their stage show had a “built-in narrative quality.” This in large part was due to Byrne’s conception of a show that gradually grew in size; for each song, a new musician and additional equipment were added until the entire nine-member band was finally onstage. At that moment in the film, the first song played by the group as a complete whole is “Burning Down the House,” and its impact makes you giddy. Later, during the electrifying rendition of “Once in Lifetime,” one of the greatest songs ever written about suburban existential angst, my eyes began to tear up with awed emotion. This was truly one of the greatest bands of their time.
The band was asked to recall some of their fondest memories. Drummer Chris Frantz noted that the band was “angular and jittery” during its early unpolished shows when they still struggled to be heard, yet were thrilled to play at such essential venues like CBGB’s in New York, and meet such rock luminaries such as Lou Reed and Patty Smith. Guitarist Jerry Harrison remembered fondly one of their first big tours, when they traveled across Europe as an opening act for the Ramones. “The Ramones are just the greatest tour guides,” he grinned. Byrne recalled an unusual show at the Philadelphia Zoo, and remembered, “We had to stop early, because it was the animals’ bedtime.”
When asked what allowed them to be subversive, Frantz pondered aloud, “Were we subversive?”
“We were, sure,” asserted Weymouth. “We went to art school, some of us.”
The Talking Heads had an exciting, adventurous career, and “Stop Making Sense” conveys that beyond their excellent and innovative musicianship, the band had a hell of a lot of fun.