Stop Making Sense (1984)

A brilliant, energetic, cerebral film that transcends the “concert movie” genre. It’s a film in its own right, not just a carefully orchestrated documentation of a live show with the requisite saccharine cutaways to interviews backstage or audience member testimonials (oh, how I appreciate how the film breaks away from the cliche and avoids shots singularly focused on the audience until the last song). The film has its own narrative, with the onstage musical family steadily growing with each song, and frontman David Byrne’s suit expanding and shrinking with the progression of the show.

I love how aware of its own construction the film is. The opening performance of Psycho Killer has Bryne announce “I got a tape I want to play”, and set down a stereo, ostensibly to play the tape. Of course, it’s pure performance – the thought of such a comparatively small playing a tape loud enough for that enormous audience and venue is crazy, but on my first viewing I didn’t even question it, the film sells the authenticity of the performance so well. The stereo is a microcosm of the film itself – it’s a simulation of musical performance that invites the audience to assume and enjoy intimacy with the performance, even though there’s an artificial distance. The stereo isn’t really playing the music to the actual audience present, and when I the viewer watch this film, I’m not really present at the concert, but the theatricality is convincing enough, and the music timeless enough, that it feels like I am. I can be awash in the joy of the musical theatricality, as director Jonathan Demme seems to intend.

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Bryne is clearly fascinated by theatrics, justifying the famous big suit he wears later in the film by saying “I like symmetry and geometric shapes. I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger. Because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head”, as seen in the video below.

The opening number also eschews another aspect of the typical concert film, the gloriously overblown presentation, with the whole band, guest performers, special effects like pyrotechnics and the like. Instead, it’s just a lone musician, a stereo, and stagehands still setting up the show! The film doesn’t just chronicle a concert, it works as a hybrid piece of art in its own right that tells its own story, from the growth of the musical family performing, to the liberation of those performers, which Bryne more comfortable and expressive as the show goes on, regardless of what size suit he’s in.

Setting aside the cinematic aspects, the music itself is enormously enjoyable, and the joy of the performers playing it is positively infectious. The songs here don’t feel particularly dated, and the stripped-down instrumentation and strong, timeless songwriting help contribute to that. The music isn’t the sum of the film though, the way the visuals are synthesised with it in a creative way so as to make a satisfying cinematic experience rather than just a visual accompaniment to the music is.

I give it four and a half large automobiles, and a beautiful house.

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