Performance, Music Come First in ‘Stop Making Sense’

Concert films are a well-established sub-genre of documentary. Think Woodstock, Monterey Pop, The Last Waltz. Their conventions, by now, are well known: interviews with the stars and the fans, shots of performances, and hopefully some deep dish about the band not available elsewhere. While often dismissed by critics as publicity vehicles, concert films still provide the best seat in the house.

Stop Making Sense is a different kind of concert film, one that relies all on the concert footage and none on the rest of the conventions. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary starts with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne walking onto a bare stage with a guitar and a boom box (remember those?). He greets the audience, turns on a synth beat on the boom box, and launches into “Psycho Killer.” As the concert continues, more band members join Byrne on stage, and the crew sets up more equipment along with them. Pretty soon, the entire band is on stage and performing.

The audio belies the illusions of these visuals, however. No boom box, no matter how many “D” batteries one packs into it, can emit that clear of a sound in a concert hall. The back-up singers lend their voices to a couple songs before they even appear onstage.

While many concert films include multiple shots of adoring fans, the audience remains in the dark for most of Demme’s film. A couple extra long shots of the stage show the audience members’ silhouettes bobbing their heads to the beat, but not until the end of the film, when the concert winds down, do we see the fans’ faces and their dancing to the songs.

Stop Making Sense makes for what might seem an overly simple documentary, but that simplicity is what I like about it: the music and the performance come first.

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