Blog Directory CineVerse: Same as it ever was: a great concert film

Same as it ever was: a great concert film

Thursday, February 8, 2018

To conclude our current quick-theme quintet, we took a bit of a departure from the conventional rock doc last night at CineVerse, choosing instead to spotlight a long-beloved concert performance film: "Stop Making Sense," the Talking Heads' unforgettable 1984 movie that, for many, is the benchmark against which rock concert flicks are judged. Here are the main takeaways, based on our CineVerse discussion:

IN WHAT WAYS IS THIS FILM MORE CINEMATIC THAN OTHER CONCERT PERFORMANCE MOVIES AND HOW DOES IT LOOK, FEEL AND RESEMBLE A CLASSIC NARRATIVE HOLLYWOOD FILM?

  • Like a carefully constructed classic screenplay, “Stop Making Sense” is a three-act story.
  • The band members function as characters that each have unique musical personalities and serve a role that forwards the story or “narrative”.
  • The band members are introduced gradually. The first number starts with David Byrne alone; one by one and with each successive song, more musicians join the story until the first act ends with all musicians together on stage performing “Burning Down the House.” 
  • Act 2 concludes with arguably the band’s most famous song, “Once in a Lifetime.”
  • Act 3 builds to a strong climax with its final three show-stopping numbers, the first of which, “Girlfriend Is Better,” showcases Byrne in the famous big suit costume.
  • Because the film appears to gradually build in intensity, in terms of its songs, band size and cinematic techniques, you can make a case that “momentum is itself a character in Stop Making Sense,” according to Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen.
  • The filmmakers employ stark, expressionistic lighting, endemic of film noir, horror and mystery movies. 
  • This film is referential to cinematic history and classic movies: consider how the opening credits resemble those for “Dr. Strangelove” (the same title designer, Pablo Ferro, worked on both movies); Byrne riffs on dance moves made famous by Fred Astaire in movies like “Royal Wedding” (Byrne dances with a lamp like Astaire dances with a coat rack) and “Swing Time”; Byrne staggers around as if shot during “Psycho Killer”, similar to how Jean-Paul Belmondo staggers in “Breathless.”
  • Like an A-list Hollywood musical, this film is meticulously choreographed, not in terms of dance moves but in its editing style, shots and camera angles, lighting and cinematography. This is a carefully crafted work that was tediously planned and staged.
IN WHAT OTHER WAYS IS STOP MAKING SENSE A VAST DEPARTURE FROM OTHER ROCK CONCERT FILMS YOU’VE SEEN?
  • Rarely is the crowd shown; many concert movies prominently pepper in shots of the audience and their fawning reactions to the performers.
  • Smack dab in the early MTV era, when music videos were known for rapid-fire cutting, this picture veers away from a fast-paced editing style, instead choosing to linger on extended shots of one or more musicians.
    • “We didn’t want the clich├ęs. We didn’t want close-ups of people’s fingers while they’re doing a guitar solo. We wanted the camera to linger, so you could get to know the musicians a little bit,” said Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz in an interview about the movie. 
  • David Byrne is an enigmatic, unpredictable and fascinating performer. His sheer kinetic energy and infectious enthusiasm powers this film. Think about the offbeat, unusual and sometimes unnerving body movements, gestures, poses, and dance moves. We see him writhing and spasming about on the floor, jogging around the stage, flailing about like he’s being electrocuted, dancing with a floor lamp, making playful shadows on the screen in back of him, and trying to look rhythmic and natural inside a gigantic suit that makes his head looked tiny. 
  • “The actual physical impact of the film is…exhilarating: Watching the Talking Heads in concert is a little like rock ‘n roll crossed with “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • About the big suit, Byrne said in an interview: "I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theater — Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku. A fashion designer friend said in his typically droll manner, ‘Well David, everything is bigger on stage.’ He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman's suit. 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."
  • Director Jonathan Demme and his collaborators were careful to film three different Talking Heads concerts from virtually every angle possible using multiple cameras. The result is an abundance of coverage and interesting angles and close-ups that you typically don’t see in your standard concert movie.
ARE THERE ANY THEMES THAT CAN BE EXTRACTED FROM STOP MAKING SENSE?
  • The title speaks for itself: the music, lyrics and style of this avant-garde band will require viewers to abandon logic and reason and just give in to the music and energy. Put another way, trying to make sense out of everything can kill art, spontaneity, mood and magic.
  • Revenge of the nerds: David Byrne in particular looks like the ultimate 1980s adult geek, but one who has found salvation and purpose in exploring different musical genres – including funk, gospel, country, reggae, new wave, punk and rock ‘n roll.
  • Rock ‘n roll doesn’t always have to be sexy: Byrne certainly doesn’t exude any sex appeal, nor do his songs; yet, Talking Heads’ music can be quite alluring and ecstatic.
  • According to Bowen: “Byrne’s theme, and his empathy, meshes with the theme of many of director Jonathan Demme’s other pictures: life as a fleeting, varied ride of odd little things, too texturally varied to invite self-pity. Byrne, especially in “The Big Suit,” is a potentially dwarfed white man who finds catharsis in everything.”
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS BY JONATHAN DEMME:
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Melvin and Howard
  • Something Wild
  • Philadelphia
  • Rachel Getting Married
  • Married to the Mob
  • Swing Shift

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