Burning Down the House: Stop Making Sense at 35
When David Byrne takes the stage at the start of Jonathan Demme’s concert documentary masterpiece, Stop Making Sense, he looks like the last person on God’s green earth who should be performing in front of sold-out crowds in Los Angeles. He’s already sweating, eyes wide with nervous energy as he mutters into the mic, “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play.”
It’s all for the camera, of course. Byrne had been performing with Talking Heads for years by 1984. But it’s all just part of what’s made him such a fascinating artist over all these years. He stares off into the distance and jerks around the stage like a man possessed, but you can’t look away. Neither can the crew and the venue staff behind the concert, who watch Byrne attentively from the wings. By the end of “Psycho Killer”, it’s clear that this guy is 100% in control of his odd energy and of the empty stage on which he stands.
Though, “empty” isn’t quite the right word. It’s not empty, there are plenty of ladders and backstage stuff left out against the back wall of the theatre. Byrne and his tape player are the only signs that a concert is underway, until the rest of the band and the set slowly fills the space, person by person and piece by piece. Each new song brings out a new member and a new piece of matte black equipment on top of a riser. The four members of Talking Heads are assembled on stage by the time they play “Found a Job”, but the set is still incomplete until their many touring members join and the backdrop comes down, presenting a full stage.
The anticipation and tension that this section of the film builds up, along with the stage, comes to an explosive fever pitch with the opening notes of “Burning Down the House”. This song and “Life During Wartime” transition the film from something fun and lovely to a feeling of transcendent euphoria. Everyone on that stage is on fire (though, let’s be honest here, that’s almost certainly the massive amounts of cocaine), and it finally feels like the movie, band, and stage are totally complete.
In his book, How Music Works, Byrne discusses how Japanese theatre styles, like kabuki, influenced the stage design of Stop Making Sense. This style is seen all over this film, from the suit that Byrne dons for “Girlfriend is Better” to the dramatic masks created by the lighting in “What a Day That Was”. After seeing shows where stagehands would make changes in the middle of the performance or puppeteers that weren’t hidden at all, Byrne’s concept for Stop Making Sense shows the audience the setup process they’d usually never see. Somehow, seeing the black-clad roadies in the middle of songs doesn’t matter; demonstrating how the trick was done wouldn’t ruin the magic of it.
And it really doesn’t. What follows is some of the most exhilarating filmmaking ever put on celluloid. While the first chunk of songs focused on the raw power of live performance, the second half of the setlist starts to incorporate more theatrical elements and a bit of performance art. Images and words start being projected in the background of different songs, from weird phrases in “Making Flippy Floppy” to couches and body parts in the perfect performance of “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”. Lighting becomes an even more important part of the puzzle in this half of the film. There is no color in the lighting, but white lights are used in so many new and inventive ways that you’d never notice the lack of variation in color. Byrne does his odd, wonderful televangelist impression in the one-shot “Once in a Lifetime” sequence. A completely different band takes the stage for “Genius of Love”, a sequence that’s so diametrically opposed to the design and sound of the rest of the concert that it’s a little disarming.
And then, the slow reveal of that big ol’ suit. If you come into this movie pretty blind, as I did when I first watched it, the iconic suit is a jaw-dropping, baffling moment. Byrne’s big suit is a larger-than-life caricature of a regular person in a business suit just going about their day. But there’s something so perplexing about it. Why is it there? Why is it paired with the songs he’s singing at the end? What is he trying to say or do with that thing? Why do I love it so damn much? Even though Byrne jokingly offers to answer questions earlier in the film, I really don’t want any. After all, isn’t the entire lack of sense the whole point?
Ultimately, Stop Making Sense doesn’t even feel like a movie. Even if you’re watching the film alone at home on your TV, it’s an event. Talking Heads, in living color, one night only, in your living room! In this movie, Demme manages to capture lightning in a bottle in a way few ever have or ever will. This is high-stakes filmmaking in high-risk situations. When you’re filming on a set with actors, you can reset and give direction and change things around until you manage to manufacture something electric. On a live concert stage, each decision is permanent, and things get way trickier. Despite some hiccups here and there that you can definitely see in the film, it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking and one of my favorite movies of all time. If you’re in the market for one concentrated 88-minute dose of pure joy, Stop Making Sense will deliver every single time.