Stop Making Sense is an exuberant, fully alive and fully realized watershed work by director Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. The Heads (including Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison) work together joyously, even though in long shots they’re positioned far apart.
Byrne was interested in the contrast of aerobic, mechanized, whitebread energy with soulful, multicultural energy, and he gives you both; in fact, the 88-minute theatrical cut is preferable to the longer version previously available on VHS (which added three songs that appear on the DVD as separate extras), because at 99 minutes you do get tired just watching Byrne after a while — not tired of him, but literally tired. That white boy works his ass off. He does take a break so that Tom Tom Club can perform “Genius of Love” (later stupidly sampled by Mariah Carey); Frantz and Weymouth, visibly happy to be front and center, rise to the occasion.
Practically all the numbers here can be considered pretty much the definitive performances. There’s the spooky, red-bathed “Swamp”; the orgiastic “Take Me to the River”; Byrne’s spasmodic reading of “Once in a Lifetime”; the take-no-prisoners “Burning Down the House”; the bare-bones “Psycho Killer,” with Byrne alone on the vast stage with only his guitar and a boom box laying down the impersonal yet insecure beat.
The design of the film, which Byrne meticulously storyboarded, is beyond reproach, too. In “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” we get art-school backdrop images and Byrne dances languidly with a tall floor lamp; for “Girlfriend Is Better,” Byrne breaks out the famous Big Suit. Byrne conceived the show with a definite eye for its cinematic possibilities — it was the next step in the ongoing art project that was the Heads.
The movie introduced Demme as a master of shooting and editing performance, in every way Martin Scorsese’s equal as a concert filmmaker. The smoothness of the unit onstage takes on an added poignance now, after the rancor and break-up, so that the film now seems not so much a snapshot of the Heads during their Speaking in Tongues tour as a record of what turned out to be their peak. They continued to make fun music after this (True Stories, etc.), but somehow didn’t seem to matter as much. The film is a summing-up of sorts (a successful blend of old and new), as if some part of Byrne knew it was the beginning of the end.
Byrne’s stage concepts are still cool after all these years; it’s always fun to watch the band literally take shape onstage, while roadies push parts of the set into place (Byrne and Demme graciously give the stage crew a shout-out during “Take Me to the River”). This is an uplifting movie in the truest, most basic sense — it just puts you in a good mood.