As incredibly invigorating as it was upon its initial release in 1984, the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense is still unlike any concert film made and yet it continues to influence the genre, becoming the singular totem of 80s-era music on film. Though there are plenty of other concert films that may rank higher in historical importance (Woodstock, Gimmie Shelter, The Last Waltz, to name but a few) as cultural touchstones for a generation, the Talking Heads concert, impeccably filmed in an unobtrusive manner by Jonathan Demme (though fully conceived by the Talking Heads) ranks far above them all in terms of cinematic importance as a pure document of rock n’ roll energy that transcends itself to become performance art.
One of the best things about Stop Making Sense is that it is really not about anything in particular. You can certainly go ahead and ascribe various analysis to it, and many have… finding everything from critiques of capitalism, an uptight white man’s place in urban America, Minimalist reaction to the less flattering Progressive elements of 70s-era rock and on and on. You can certainly play pin-the-influences on the Big Suit (many have) and find everything from Japanese Noh-styles to elements of the French New Wave in David Byrne ‘s non-stop, often spastic movements. It’s all there for analysis, sure. But in the end, whether you’re a fan of the band or not, what you cannot help but come away with is the pure, sweaty energy of a band performing onstage with no net… No quick cuts, no split screens. Save for on-stage background elements, most of Demme’s visuals are conducted in wide-shots with a good mix of close-ups and mid-shots that feature Byrne at his sweaty, spazmodic best. You won’t find those inane audience reaction shots common to some concert films. For those who feel the need to get to know the band there’s nothing onscreen except the live performance itself: a furious fusion of funk and New Wave that truly makes you wanna dance, or at least jitter around in a Big Suit.
Featuring all-around better production values than that other well-known concert film of the 80’s, Urgh! A Music War (which was really a series of concert clips, most of dubious quality), the Talking Heads with director Demme set out to capture the art of performance… seeing what the audience would see without cut-aways to interviews or off-stage moments and capturing the Talking Heads’ creative compulsions: background cycloramas featuring seemingly random words, funk influences, African rhythms and melodies, Japanese theater, unique lighting choices, and costuming– but always with a light touch. Years later, artists the likes of Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson and a host of other cerebral musicians would evoke the Heads’ cinematic treatment for their own performance films.
Shooting the film while the Talking Heads held sway over at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood for three nights during December of ’83, Demme, along with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, allowed for claustrophobic shots of Byrne that suddenly open up to reveal band members Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison along with former members of Sly Stone and Parliament Funkadelic including the incredible Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt. The famous opening song/sequence offers a wry comment on what’s to come with David Byrne being accompanied only by his guitar and a boombox (a clever aural illusion) and nothing but bare stage surrounding him. He sheepishly lets the audience know that “[he’s] got a tape to play,” as if inquiring or asking our permission, but by the time the “Psycho Killer” segment comes to a close he’s already shotgunning the audience with percussive guitar strumming and violent movements playing both aggressor and victim with a rubber-limbed abruptness. It’s fascinating to watch him as if he’s the focus, but Demme cleverly showcases the band while they slowly appear on-stage, building the musical intensity, evolving and expanding with the ebb-and-flow of the songs: intricate rhythms, snakelikesynths and lyrics that seem to smart for their own good, portraying a world gone mad in a consumerist, once-in-a-lifetime fever-dream.
Oh, and don’t forget this is a concert film… so the music is fantastic, too. Whether a fan or not, it’s hard to deny the percussive, funkified power of “Burning Down the House,” and “Take Me to the River” or the hyper, nerve-jangling “Slippery People” as well as their somewhat quieter, contemplative songs, “Heaven,” and “Home.” The utterly stunning Blu -ray disc offers impressive audio presentation that is quite similar to the DVD release (1999), including the inclusion of different rap lyrics for the Tom-Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love” music break in the middle of the Head’s performance (Chris Frantz’s attempt to tone down the song’s cocaine references). Though there is a 2.0 PCM mix suitable for older, Pro-Logic systems, it is the two lossless Dolby 5.1 mixes that beg to be heard.
The theatrical Feature Film mix and the Studio Mix (both DTS HD 5.1) are both spectacular in their own right and is the biggest improvement the Blu-ray disc offers over the DVD, other than resolving some sound/picture sync issues that marred the DVD release. Between the two mixes, the Feature Film version offers a more open, ambient surround sound effect, though you might feel that it misses the more precise aural quality of the Studio Mix. Vocals for all mixes are clear and prominent throughout; however, the 5.1 tracks make use of the center channel and front speakers for the heavy rhythms, though they are much more pronounced at the center and lack solid bass (easy to boost and equalize depending on your home system). Side and rear channel speakers get more melodic highs and mids with the Feature Film mix spreading out the ambient noise (very light concert chatter/audience noise) throughout all channels, though the music dominates the mix. On the whole, I preferred the Feature Film mix as it offers a warmer, more enveloping sound that gave me that “you-are-there” effect… The performance might as well be happening in front of me with a perfectly unobstructed view of the Talking Heads. The studio mix is similar to the remastered digital soundtrack CD released in 1999 (the film’s music was one of the first to feature a full digital recording) though the mix has been cleaned to a pristine quality that showcases the vocals and high-range frequencies and certainly belies its actual age.
It’s age that’s most apparent on the video side of the equation, as the picture is very similar to the DVD and isn’t a tack-sharp Blu-ray experience. Though due to the 1080p (1.85:1) presentation there is plenty of detail, the grain evident on the 35mm interpositive is as noticeable as it was on the DVD release. There’s a few pops and scratches as well as the occasional out-of-focus shot (and though the disc was struck from an interpositive , I could swear I saw a pop or scratch that looked like an old reel-change cigarette burn) virtually every flaw of the film is there in high-def…Blu-ray does not automatically do away with these things (and in this case, should not in order to preserve the cinematic integrity of the performance). However, the color and level of detail have been refined (without noticeable edge enhancement). The colors are beautifully saturated with flesh tones looking natural but vivid. One big difference between the BD and DVD versions is that the hot reds projected behind the band on a large cyclorama do not bleed. Deep, consistent black levels with plenty of contrast manage to provide a nice level of detail during the underlit or dimly lit sequences. Wide-shots and close-ups are as sharp as they can be, and the BD version is an improvement over the DVD in terms of visual quality, but not by much. Still, I don’t mind seeing these natural flaws of the cinema stock that the transfer captured… it makes me feel like I’d be seeing the film back in the mid-80s the old (and still standing) Vista Theater in Hollywood or the gone, but not forgotten Bleecker Street Cinema. It only adds to the experience from my point-of-view.
As for extras, special features and Blu-ray goodies… not much to be had that wasn’t already put out on the DVD release with the exception of a 1999 interview that, astonishingly, gathered the ex-band members together (though Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison had been and remain close, Byrne went off on an extended hiatus and well, never really came back). Here’s a breakdown of what the Blu-ray disc delivers (all features are Standard Def, upscaled in some cases):
- Never-before-seen press conference Q&A with the full band, filmed at the theatrical re-release in April 1999 (1 hr.). It features plenty of dead spots (just audience chatter while the band sorts out an A to the Q), but once it kicks into gear offers some insightful comments by the band, though Byrne, stiff and awkward as ever, sometimes seems like he’d rather be anywhere but there.
- Bonus tracks: “Cities,” “Big Business” / “I Zimbra”. Not remastered, but worth a look to see other songs performed as part of the original set list for the Pantages shows.
- Bonus audio commentary by the Talking Heads & Jonathan Demme (recorded separately and combined for this feature). This is an excellent commentary taking the band back to its RISD art-school days in Rhode Island to their peak (“Remain In Light”) and addresses their approach to filming their performance with insight into the title design by Pablo Ferro, Byrne’s dance moves, staging/lighting concepts and Byrne’s interpretation of the overall thematic narrative.
- Storyboard-to-film comparison. Featuring David Byrne’s storyboards and notes for Demme, this feature can be viewed with or without Byrne’s notes.
- Video short: “David Byrne Interviews . . . David Byrne”. Funny in an art-school geek kind of way, but not really informational, it’s just Byrne having fun with his image as Mr. Stiff White Guy and other personas he’s developed).
- Montage: a sped up version of performance highlights.
- Big Suit: Everything you wanted to know about David Byrne’s Big Suit… the why, the how, and more.
- Song Selection (in addition to standard chapter selection)
- 15th Anniversary Re-release Trailer
- Other previews (Patti Smith: Dream of Life and You’re Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson)
There is no use of BD Live on this disc.
1. Psycho Killer
3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
4. Found A Job
5. Slippery People
6. Burning Down The House
7. Life During Wartime
8. Making Flippy Floppy
10. What A Day That Was
11. This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
12. Once In A Lifetime
13. Genius Of Love
14. Girlfriend Is Better
15. Take Me To The River
16. Crosseyed And Painless
Bonus Songs (not included in the film for time constraints)
Big Business / I Zimbra
Overall, this is an excellent Blu-ray release for Talking Head’s fans and non-fans alike, and may serve to showcase your home theater’s audio system… but it’s not a BD reference disc due to the video quality, which, though an improvement over the DVD version, seems to embrace the flaws of 35mm film as projected. While some might quibble that it’s not worth replacing the DVD version for this reason (and the lack of new extras) you would be missing out on the inclusion of the new Q&A interview and the improved audio. If you don’t already own this disc it is definitely worth buying for your personal library… at the very least you get one hell of an amazing performance (and, according to David Byrne a free workout video just for following along as he boogies down). Does anyone have any questions?