What makes a great concert film? Is it a big event with dozens of stars, like Woodstock or Wattstax? Is it chancing into horror, like Gimme Shelter? Is it a gathering for a noble cause like The Concert For Bangladesh? Or is it a heartstring tugger like The Last Waltz?
Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense makes the argument that the key to greatness is catching a group at just the right time. In December 1983, Talking Heads were riding a wave of creativity that had started at CBGB's in 1977. Rhode Island School Of Design dropouts David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz, along with former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, were the art rock center of the punk movement. Their tour in support of Speaking In Tongues incorporated all of the band's advances into a loose narrative stage show inspired equally by Japanese Noh theater and Twyla Tharp modern dance. Demme shot three shows over one weekend in Los Angles with eight 35mm cameras and edited together the mountain of footage into something that is not quite narrative, not quite documentary, and not quite rock show. Byrne is scarily committed to his onstage persona, the wide-eyed, borderline autistic geek, an alien reporting on the human race through twisted, polyrhythmic songs that stretched the definition of punk and Western pop music. Demme treats him like a leading man in a musical, making brave choices like holding on a single shot of Byrne for four minutes of "Once In A Lifetime" and not showing the audience until the very end of the film.
In Byrne's book How Music Works, he downplays the myth of musical genius in favor of the genius of scenes — groups of artists who push each other to greater heights. Stop Making Sense is the perfect meeting of musicians at the peak of their power and a director finding his voice. Catch it on the IMAX screen Thursday, October 23rd at 7pm to see what it looks like when all of the pieces come together perfectly for an artist.