The Origin Story of “Stop Making Sense”

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When it first opened in theatres, in the fall of 1984, “Stop Making Sense,” directed by Jonathan Demme and starring the rock group Talking Heads, was quickly recognized as one of the finest concert films ever made. Reviewer after reviewer settled on the word “exhilarating” to describe the experience of watching an expanded nine-member iteration of the four-piece group perform sixteen of their best-known songs in an uninterrupted sequence of dynamically staged and photographed musical vignettes. In the pages of this magazine, Pauline Kael praised the film as “close to perfection,” and described the Heads front man, David Byrne, as “a stupefying performer.” “He’s so white he’s almost mock-white,” Kael wrote, “and so are his jerky, long-necked, mechanical-man movements. He seems fleshless, bloodless; he might almost be a Black man’s parody of how a clean-cut white man moves. But Byrne himself is the parodist, and he commands the stage by his hollow-eyed, frosty verve.” Similarly effusive sentiments were echoed by critics across the country. If such a thing as Rotten Tomatoes had existed at the time, “Stop Making Sense” would surely have ranked in the high nineties.

Based on the band’s insistence that the film be seen only in theatres, they initially refused permission for it to be made available on videotape or shown on cable TV. In the decades since, each release of “Stop Making Sense” on a new medium––VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming––has been greeted with fresh praise from succeeding generations of viewers and critics. Now, in anticipation of the film’s fortieth anniversary, the original negative has been reprocessed in a high-resolution 4K format, and reissued, once again, for theatrical release. In the interests of promoting the film they collectively own, the four former Talking Heads––Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz––have taken part in a series of panel discussions and media events at screenings in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles. This marks the first time that the band has appeared together in public since 2002, when the group, which officially dissolved under contentious circumstances in 1991, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The New York-based film director Jonathan Demme, who died in 2017, was forty years old at the time that he made “Stop Making Sense.” He had been an avid fan of Talking Heads since he first saw the band perform at Wollman Rink, in Central Park, in the summer of 1979. (“The four of them stood there like statues on this platform,” he recalled.) The following year, Demme achieved his breakthrough as a director with “Melvin and Howard,” a bittersweet comedy about a chance encounter in the Nevada desert between an unemployed factory worker and the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. He next saw Talking Heads perform in Los Angeles in the summer of 1983, and was stunned by the change in the band. The four former statues had turned into a dynamic, interracial troupe of singers, dancers, and instrumentalists performing exuberantly arranged and choreographed versions of their songs. He quickly contacted the group through a mutual friend and pitched the idea of filming their show. As fans of “Melvin and Howard,” the Heads agreed to work with Demme after hearing his thoughts about how––and how not––to present them onscreen. On the advice of their manager, Gary Kurfirst, the group financed the film themselves, with the help of an advance from their record label, in order to retain ownership and full creative control.

For his part, Demme made it clear that he wanted to focus the whole production solely on the band’s performance. Unexceptional as this might sound, it was a departure from the way that rock concerts had previously been presented on film, from Richard Lester’s mock-documentary “A Hard Day’s Night” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” by dispensing with a “backstory” of the musicians coming and going; the logistics of staging the show; interviews with the band members, promoters, and fans; and the fervent response of the crowd. Instead, Demme proposed to simply film the band onstage, expertly, while avoiding the rhythmic, fast-paced, jump-cut style of editing associated with the music videos being shown on the recently established platform MTV. The apparent austerity of this approach conformed to the minimalist art-school aesthetic that Talking Heads had embraced since they first emerged as the albino in the herd of ragtag bands that got their starts in the mid-seventies at CBGB, the dive bar on the Bowery that served, for a few brief years, as the breeding ground of punk. In those days, surrounded by posturing rock romantics such as Patti Smith, Television, and the Ramones, the Heads sought to make a virtue of their musical and theatrical limitations by adopting a performance style that was initially “defined by [its] negatives,” as Byrne described it, consisting of “no rock moves or poses, no pomp or drama, no rock hair, no rock lights . . . no rehearsed stage patter,” and, perhaps most telling, “no singing like a Black man.”

By 1983, Talking Heads had come a long way, musically and otherwise, from the austere, frozen tableau they’d presented during their incubation at CBGB and their early concerts. They added a capable fourth member on keyboards and guitar, Jerry Harrison (whose Harvard degree burnished their highbrow reputation), achieved a hard-earned proficiency on their instruments, and recorded five critically acclaimed and commercially profitable studio albums, three of them made under the aesthetic spell of the polymath British producer Brian Eno. In the course of that evolution, they jettisoned many of the musical and theatrical restrictions they had originally placed on themselves, beginning with the proscription on singing like a Black man, which yielded to a brilliantly understated rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” that earned them a Top Forty hit and revealed their musical affinity for the stately, churchy backbeats of Memphis soul.

The expanded version of Talking Heads that appears in the film was the culmination of a process that began in the fall of 1980, following the release of the band’s fourth album, “Remain in Light,” when Byrne and Harrison realized that the densely layered arrangements on the record, many of which reflected the polyrhythmic influence of Afro-pop artists like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé, could not be reproduced in concert by a four-piece group. This led to the addition, on short notice, of five additional members—Adrian Belew on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Steve Scales on percussion, Busta Jones on bass, and Dolette McDonald on backing vocals—all but one of whom were African American. This gave the band a biracial composition that was highly unusual at the end of a decade when the audience for popular music in the United States had become substantially resegregated into the tribes of white punk and hard rock on the one hand, Black funk and disco on the other. The expanded Heads toured the U.S. and Europe that fall to an enthusiastic reception.

They then took a year-long sabbatical, during which Byrne burrowed deeper into the downtown avant-garde by collaborating with the choreographer Twyla Tharp on a dance piece called “The Catherine Wheel,” Harrison recorded a solo album, and Frantz and Weymouth formed a band of their own called Tom Tom Club, whose willfully inane single “Genius of Love” became a dance-club standard and radio hit. Talking Heads reunited with slightly different personnel in 1982 to tour in Japan, Europe, and the States, after which they recorded their first self-produced album, “Speaking in Tongues,” which spun off their first and only Top Ten single, “Burning Down the House.”

The 1983 tour documented in “Stop Making Sense” began in August and ran through the end of the year. The four original Heads were joined by two mainstays of the expanded band, the keyboardist Worrell and the percussionist Scales, along with an ebullient new guitarist, Alex Weir, and a pair of backup singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, who added a fresh jolt of kinetic energy to the group. But the most dramatic change was the transformation in David Byrne, who drew on the lessons that he had learned in his work with Tharp and the choreographer Toni Basil (with whom he had made a number of music videos) to turn the songs in the band’s live show into a series of individual set pieces, each with its own distinct choreography, lighting, and, in one spectacular instance, costume design. Byrne then arranged these songs into three half-hour segments, tracing a loose narrative arc that reflected the formation and artistic evolution of the band.

The film begins with Byrne alone on an empty stage with a solo version of what he considered the first “real” song he ever wrote, “Psycho Killer,” sung to the accompaniment of a boom-box rhythm track. A throwback to the calmly deranged persona with which he entered the musical world, this signature number is followed by a series of selections from the Head’s early repertoire, each one accompanied by the addition of one or two band members and the stage risers that hold their instruments, culminating in a thunderous full-band arrangement of their biggest hit, “Burning Down the House.” Byrne then unstraps his guitar, loosens the top buttons on his shirt, and launches into “Life During Wartime,” a paranoid political fantasy whose aerobics-class choreography mocks the self-importance of the song’s lyrics and ends with Byrne circling the stage at a dead run, as if in orbit around the band.

After the introduction of its full cast of characters, the midsection of the film begins with the sexy, lighthearted groove of “Making Flippy Floppy,” and goes on to present a series of stylized vignettes. This includes a soaring, up-lit production of “What a Day That Was,” a song from “The Catherine Wheel”; a heartfelt rendition of “This Must Be the Place,” the Heads’ equivalent of “Home Sweet Home,” featuring a pas de deux with a floor lamp that’s lifted from Fred Astaire; and a transcendent reprise of Byrne’s music-video impersonation of a televangelist in “Once in a Lifetime,” whose rapturous synthesizer coda lifts the roof right off the song. Byrne then leaves the stage while a radiant Weymouth minces her way through the funky fantasia of “Genius of Love,” only to return for the show’s finale encased in the Big Suit, as it came to be known, a vast expanse of creamy off-white fabric, ten or more sizes too large, that turns him into a cartoonish, two-dimensional box of a character who proceeds to sing a boastful number about his supposedly hot girlfriend that includes the film’s title line: “As we get older and stop making sense / You won’t find her waiting long.” Having tested the limits of romantic absurdity, Byrne then wades into the metaphorical water to join Mabry and Holt on an upbeat, full-gospel version of “Take Me to the River,” in the course of which he removes his suit jacket to reveal his sixty-inch waist, shake his sixty-inch hips, and introduces the members of the band by name. Finally, with their singer restored to his original size and shape, the Heads end with the delirious Afro-funk of “Crosseyed and Painless.” “Lost my shape, trying to act casual,” it begins, as the cameras at long last turn around to offer glimpses of the audience, and then of the crew, as they join the band onstage.

What no one could have imagined in 1984 was that “Stop Making Sense” represented not only the culmination but also the conclusion of Talking Heads’ nine-year career as a performing band. That same year, Byrne wrote the music for “The Knee Plays,” an experimental theatre piece by the director Robert Wilson, and Talking Heads reverted to their original four-piece configuration to record “Little Creatures,” an album of tightly arranged, brightly melodic songs that cried out to be performed live. Yet Byrne showed no interest in touring, choosing instead to try his hand at writing, directing, and starring in a feature film, “True Stories,” which is set in a small Texas town and presents, with an uncertain degree of irony, a distinctly lower-Manhattan perspective on middle-American life. The soundtrack includes nine songs that Byrne sang with Talking Heads, but were written to be performed by the actors in the film, which made the band’s seventh album something of an afterthought. Both the film and its soundtrack proved to be critical and commercial disappointments.

In the long run, Byrne’s celebrity in the burgeoning New York arts scene would erode the last vestiges of camaraderie in a band whose members, now in their mid-thirties, were otherwise settling down with families of their own. Talking Heads had always been absolute darlings of the press, but Byrne’s extreme shyness and eccentricity had once served to inhibit him as an interview subject. Now that the shyness was abating, he responded to the glare of media attention with a kind of unbridled delight. In 1985, to the consternation of his bandmates, the New York Times Magazine focussed on Byrne alone in a feature story titled “David Byrne: Thinking Man’s Rock Star.” Time magazine followed a year later by celebrating Byrne on its cover as “Rock’s Renaissance Man.” And, in 1987, when Rolling Stone finally got around to putting all four Talking Heads on its cover, the subhead read: “The world’s smartest rock group talks about confronting the David Byrne media blitz.” The band’s last album, “Naked,” was released in 1988. Recorded in Paris and New York with a cadre of African musicians and Latin American horn players, it includes some of the most enthralling and ominous music they had ever made. The popularity of the record matched those of their previous albums, but the absence of tour support or a hit single caused it to have less impact than their comparable earlier work.

Both the Beatles and the Band established the principle that great rock groups don’t always end well, and Talking Heads was no exception. It was not until three years later, in December, 1991, that Byrne offhandedly told a pop columnist for the Los Angeles Times that the band had “broken up, or call it whatever you like.” By that time, his furtive, noncommittal behavior regarding the future of the group had thoroughly frustrated and infuriated his bandmates. This led Weymouth, in particular, to issue a number of statements over the years that amounted to a revisionist history of the group, according to which she and her husband, Frantz, had effectively nursed Byrne out of his shell into becoming the extraordinarily distinctive singer, songwriter, and performer the world had come to know. Weymouth and Frantz’s sense of grievance was amply reflected in the memoir that Frantz published in 2020, “Remain in Love,” in which he rarely misses an opportunity to point out instances of Byrne’s awkwardness, obtuseness, aloofness, and grandiosity.

All of this turned the announcement that the four former Heads had agreed to appear together to promote the reissue of their film into a source of both anticipation and trepidation among their devoted fans. The recent screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music affirmed that the new 4K restoration is indeed a wonder to behold, and the soundtrack, which was exceptional to begin with, has gained a new depth and clarity that lends even greater force to the rhythmic foundation of the band. Throughout the film, there was a certain amount of dancing in the aisles, and clapping at the ends of songs. But the sheer visual power of the performances also tended to keep most people, in the best sense, on the edge of their seats, captivated by the images onscreen.

The panel discussion that followed the film was, for the most part, an anticlimax, thanks to the fanboy ravings of the moderator, the political journalist John Heilemann, who talked more than the four Talking Heads put together. In response to Heilemann’s questions, Weymouth was notably gracious in expressing what a “riveting front man” Byrne had been, Frantz was profusely grateful for the release of the film, and Harrison was philosophical about the way things worked out in the end. Byrne seemed considerably more guarded than he’s been in his many public appearances of late, perhaps reverting, like a family member at a reunion, to his former self. (Byrne stopped doing press interviews with the rest of the group in 1979.) He may have been anticipating the one subject that Heilemann couldn’t resist bringing up, ending a delightful evening on its one sour note by first asking, and then imploring, the four of them about the possibility that they might perform together again. Each member of the group responded by deflecting or ignoring the question. But, in a way that acknowledged the integrity and the finality of the band’s remarkable legacy, Byrne had already provided a definitive answer many years ago, when he remarked, “It’s like being told, ‘You should get back with your first wife––you guys were good together.’ Well, I think most people would pass on an offer like that.”  ♦


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