December 21, 2021
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz

What it's about. The Talking Heads, an American alternative rock band, are filmed during four performances at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, California. The nine people on stage include the four band members: vocalist-guitarist David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth; drummer Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards. The others are guitarist Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Steven Scales on bongos, and dancer-singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. The band members are white, and the ringers are African-American.

The titles are mostly greatest hits, plus a few of the better titles from "Speaking in Tongues", their most recent studio album.

How others will see it. Stop Making Sense is almost universally acclaimed as the great concert movie ever. Such is its prestige that it was added to the National Film Registry just this year. It was praised upon release as well.

Today at, it has a relatively low number of user votes, 15K, but the user ratings are extraordinarily high, at 8.6 out of 10. The ratings are higher from Americans than non-Americans, though the spread is narrow, at 8.7 versus 8.4. There is also a modest decline with advancing age of the viewer, from 8.9 under age 30 to 8.4 over age 45.

These ratings are inflated by a specialized audience. If you showed the film to grandmas at the assisted living center, they might ignore it. But fans of eighties alternative rock will find much to enjoy.

How I felt about it. Here are some things you may not know about those folks on stage. Bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz married in 1977, the same year the first Talking Heads album was released. Guitarist Alex Weir was never a member of the band. He was a session musician brought in for the 1983 album "Speaking in Tongues" and did not play on the 1985 album "Little Creatures." Bernie Worrell did not play on any of the studio albums, but did tour with the band during the early to mid 1980s.

Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt might look alike, dance alike, and dress alike, but they are not related. They were not band members either, and did not participate on any of the studio albums. But they add considerable energy (as well as eye candy) to this film.

As for the music, it ranges from good to great. "Burning Down the House" is indeed a barn-burner, and I prefer it to the studio version, a top ten hit in America. I also prefer this live version of "Slippery People" to its studio predecessor. Both those songs are great, and the live version of "Once in a Lifetime" is nearly as great, though it does not come close to surpassing its counterpart on "Remain in Light."

That studio album is the band's best work, especially "Once in a Lifetime" and all of side one. The rhythms, techno noises, and layered vocals are remarkable. The rest of side two shows the band's weaknesses. Byrne sings better as a tenor than in higher registers, where he sometimes can even be annoying. And without the outside vocals or weird techno noises, the songs can drag a bit. It is the same with the lesser titles from "Stop Making Sense", particularly the Tom Tom Club number without David Byrne, the only band member of exceptional interest.

At some point, we have to separate the music from the video. As a concert, "Stop Making Sense" is very good overall, though below the level of, for example, Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills", or the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams", or Cheap Trick's "Live at Budokan." But those concerts, unfortunately, were not filmed.

"Stop Making Sense" was filmed, of course, and sometimes the audio and video are not synchronized, revealing they can be from difference performances. Tricks with lighting and background video are merely distractions. The oversized suit is just strange. The strobe lights, however brief, are irritating, and may unintentionally give a viewer an epileptic seizure.