Review: The must-see restoration of ‘Stop Making Sense’ captures Talking Heads at the height of their powers

In 1983, New York art rock band Talking Heads returned to action after a brief hiatus when the four members pursued side projects.

The group’s first four records, issued one each year from 1977 to 1980, saw Talking Heads add funk and Afrobeat rhythms to their insular post-punk sound to the thrill of critics and ever-increasing interest from listeners. Their singles “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me to the River” had found some success. Thanks to MTV, less conventional acts with strong visuals were developing into superstars.

It was Talking Heads’ time. Their fifth album, “Speaking in Tongues,” went platinum and its fiery lead single “Burning Down the House” hit No. 9. When it came time to tour, lead singer David Byrne crafted a wildly inventive, tightly choreographed and theatrically experimental stage show quite unlike any rock concert before it. The band members cobbled together enough money to hire Jonathan Demme, whose 1980 film “Melvin and Howard” established him as a director to watch, to capture the performance on film.

The result, “Stop Making Sense,” has long since been considered one of the, if not the, finest concert films of all time. The newly restored IMAX version that had its world premiere Monday not only further proves that claim, but it’s also an absolute must-see for fans of the original, those who only know a few hits from oldies radio and anyone else fascinated by the interactions between music, theater and cinema. It opens in IMAX on Sept. 22 and everywhere else Sept. 29.

Like the band, Demme was on the cusp of bigger things, even if he was still a few years away from his Oscar-winning thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.” While conceiving the film with the band, he ignored most traditional concert film conventions like backstage footage and band interviews and largely avoided crowd shots, in part because of the vibe-killing process of lighting the audience.

Instead, Demme honed in on the music, and the musicians playing it. He shot three nights of performances at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983, and focused on artfully framed close-up and medium shots of each person on stage as they played their instrument and interacted with each other. The series of glances, nods and dripping sweat gives the film a true intimacy that places the viewer not out in the crowd but standing on the stage.

It helps that Byrne gave Demme plenty to work with. He worked out precise choreography with backing vocalists Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry that kept each player on stage constantly moving. Experimental theater director Robert Wilson taught Byrne how to storyboard the action and he hired Wilson’s frequent collaborator Beverly Emmons to design the impressionistic lighting that ranged from harsh white light to deep shadow.

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The film opens with Byrne walking out onto a bare stage with a boombox and an acoustic guitar. A hidden drum machine starts playing a beat as Byrne sings “Psycho Killer” while he jerks along to the skittish beat. As roadies methodically cart equipment and risers on stage, another band member joins Byrne with each successive song: bassist Tina Weymouth for “Heaven” (with Mabry providing harmonies from backstage), drummer Chris Frantz for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and guitarist Jerry Harrison for “Found a Job,” which concludes with a stunning and off-kilter dual guitar solo from Byrne and Harrison.

From there, five additional musicians are added to the mix: Mabry and Holt, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales and guitarist Alex Weir. What began as a stripped-down one-man show blossoms into a fully adept funk machine. “Burning Down the House,” the first song played by the entire ensemble, would indeed burn down the house as the final encore for any other group. But Talking Heads were just getting started.

With each successive song, Byrne adds an additional visual element, whether it’s performing an acrobatic dance with a floor lamp or sprinting laps around the stage. Not only does Byrne exert himself physically, the others do as well, whether they’re running in place or swaying back and forth to the rhythm. It’s a thrilling and joyous train ride that’s a pleasure to hear and see that peaks with a thunderous “Once in a Lifetime” that, again, feels like it’s the triumphant end of the show.

Byrne disappears as Weymouth and Frantz lead the rest of the group through “Genius of Love” from their other band, Tom Tom Club. The giddy, slinky number pays homage to a number of Black artists including James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bob Marley and Smokey Robinson. It serves as both a palate cleanser and a reset of sorts.

When Byrne returns, he’s wearing the famous Big Suit, an oversized box-life business suit inspired by traditional Japanese theater that now stands as the most iconic image of not only the film, but Talking Heads’ entire career. It transforms Byrne into an entirely new character and, at times, appears to nearly drown him. The group tears through three more songs — “Girlfriend Is Better,” “Take Me to the River” and “Crosseyed and Painless” — with Demme finally revealing the faces and bodies of a handful of fans awash in a sea of bliss.

And just like that, it’s over. Demme and editor Lisa Day’s taut 88-minute running time produces an experience that’s all killer and no filler. My first thought when it was through was that I couldn’t wait to see it again.

While “Stop Making Sense” has been released on a variety of formats over the decades, for the new version, the band paired with New York production company A24, which was able to track down the film’s original negatives, which, oddly enough, were in an Oklahoma warehouse owned by MGM, a company that had nothing to do with the film. The restoration of both the visuals and the music is so stunning that it felt both warmly familiar and entirely new.

After “Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads went on to release the much more commercial “Little Creatures” and its hits “Road to Nowhere” and “And She Was.” Byrne then attempted to make his own film, 1986’s disastrous “True Stories,” and dissolved the band after one final effort, 1988’s underrated “Naked.” (It’s worth noting the only Talking Heads off-shoot to have any significant impact to pop culture at large is Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” which is one of the most sampled songs of the ’80s.)

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Talking Heads never toured again after “Stop Making Sense” and their split was so acrimonious that the band members have appeared publicly together only three times in the decades since. They reunited in 2002 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.

They also participated in promoting the 15th anniversary of “Stop Making Sense” — a movie they own and profit from — and again Monday night when they sat down with Spike Lee for an awkward on-stage Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival that was streamed live into theaters. Weymouth looked like she wanted to crawl out of her skin and, locally, the feed unceremoniously cut out soon after Lee asked Byrne about the “Fat Suit.”

So, yeah, 31 years after they called it a day, it seems certain Talking Heads will remain apart. But they left behind a spectacular document that captures them at the height of their powers. If you’re even a little bit interested in “Stop Making Sense,” do yourself a favor and book your ticket now.

‘Stop Making Sense’

  • Directed by: Jonathan Demme
  • Starring: Talking Heads
  • Rated: PG
  • Should you go? It’s a highly engaging and wildly entertaining ride. 4 stars

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