Innovator sees the creative amid the crass
Filmmakers and rock stars have formed some interesting partnerships, but few rock-concert movies have achieved classic status. Near the top of anyone's list is "Stop Making Sense," the Talking Heads extravaganza directed in 1984 by Jonathan Demme, whose nonmusical pictures range from "Something Wild" to "The Silence of the Lambs."
Despite its great success with pop-music fans, "Stop Making Sense" has been out of circulation on both film and video for several years. Now it's back, in freshly restored prints nursed into mint condition by a team of skilled technicians. Its theatrical run begins this week, to be followed by release on DVD and videocassette.
"Stop Making Sense" is celebrated partly for its collection of Talking Heads hits, such as "Once in a Lifetime" and "Burning Down the House," and partly for its creative approach to the concert-film format. Unlike most pictures in this genre, it focuses almost entirely on the band's performance, avoiding offstage interviews and providing only a handful of the excited-audience shots that most such movies thrive on.
Looking back on the film's production during a recent interview in his Manhattan office, Talking Heads leader David Byrne gave much of the credit for these innovations to Demme, even though Byrne himself designed the concert documented by the movie.
"This particular show was kind of cinematic from the beginning," he says. "It has an arc. It starts with an empty stage, and during the first half [of the concert] the visual elements of the show are assembled onstage ... and in the second half, those elements are put to use. There's also a psychological arc in my performance: It's the story of an uptight guy who's eventually shaken loose by all these rhythms. There's kind of a narrative.... This is different from a lot of concert movies, which are basically one song after another ... with no overall structure."
Demme's great contribution was to recognize these arcs - even before Byrne himself was fully aware of them - and use them to shape the movie.
"In my blinkered way," Byrne recalls, "I was thinking more about the staging and lighting and music, and not realizing that it's also a collection of human beings up there. But one of Jonathan's strengths as a director is that he manages to find the interesting human quirks in his characters. He saw this concert that way - as an ensemble piece of different individuals...."
Ironically, the popularity of "Stop Making Sense" had a very mixed impact on Talking Heads, which disbanded about four years after the movie's premire.
"In some ways, it was wonderful," says Byrne of the film's success. "It got the band to places we'd never gotten to before ... and it cemented our reputation very nicely. But in other ways, it was kind of devastating. We hardly toured anymore. How do you compete with something like this? The answer is you can't, so you have to use it as a way of liberating yourself to do something completely different - which I eventually did when I went out [in concerts] with a Latin band."
Byrne sees the heyday of Talking Heads in the '70s and '80s as a healthy period, when rock musicians could think about creativity as well as commercialism.
"We never had lots of hits," he muses. "We were the sort of band that did what we wanted to do, and occasionally a song would connect with the public at large. We knew that a certain amount of our sensibility overlapped with the general public's sensibility, and occasionally we would tread into that area...."
"I like music when I have a sense of the integrity of the people making it," he continues. "Today everything's turned upside down, and it's a matter of pride to sell your song as a car commercial. But we felt that was a sign of selling out...."
Looking at the current pop scene, Byrne laments that "a lot of the vocabulary of rock has become the thing it set out to overthrow. It's become a formula."
But he still sees "a healthy percentage of experimenters who are messing around with music," finding new uses for "the driving rhythmic base" that gives rock its undying energy. "There's nothing wrong with [virtuosity] per se," he says, when asked if some musicians value expertise over expression, "but it's an easy substitute for having something to say.
"Sometimes a rapper, or a person with a sampler or a turntable, expresses something profound and moving with a very limited technical vocabulary. And it may be the limited vocabulary that makes him focus on what's most important for him to say."
Byrne is a many-faceted artist with serious interests in filmmaking (he directed "True Stories" in 1986) and painting. He also runs the Luaka Bop record label, which blends international influences with rock music.
Yet today as in the past, he says, "music occupies a pretty big chunk of my time. I'm pretty passionate. That's the nature of music - it can arouse passions and frenzy. You don't see people screaming and yelling in front of a painting very often.
"I like to work in other areas, too, since I can't express everything I'm interested in through the kind of music that I'm able to do. Music can transport people, though, and I've never gotten tired of that."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society