Written by Armond White
Sense & Sensitivity
David Byrne must have secretly smiled when critics snobbishly praised the big white suit he dons in the second half of Stop Making Sense as a nod to either Joseph Beuys or to Noh theater. Taking large, awkward steps like a funky automaton, the thin, brainy man inside the boxy material was playing out his own fantasy tribute to 50s blues legend Big Joe Turner, he of the classic big white suit.
Trapped in the problem of Eurocentric cultural hegemony, Byrne has always attempted to wriggle free. An esthetic acrobat, he simultaneously tries opening doors to other musical cultures (in his solo career and his work founding the eclectic Luaka Bop record label). But the reviews that hailed Stop Making Sense as an immediate masterpiece in 1984 barely appreciated Byrne's endeavor?or understood it. The movie was celebrated for its resemblance to pop music's typical white usurpation. At the time, a critic for Vogue even praised Byrne's band Talking Heads as "the thinking person's funk band?minimalists who party down, conceptualists with soul?and the most influential band of the decade." As usual, "thinking person" is one of those media euphemisms meaning "pretentious white people." Fact is, Talking Heads was the most obviously and self-consciously influenced band of the 80s. No other had learned so much from Roxy Music or Al Green and no one else followed the Heads' path into polyrhythm (cf. the gorgeous African township guitar-playing by Johnny Marr in the Heads' last good single, "Nothing But Flowers").
Stop Making Sense stays rousing 15 years later because Byrne's avid cross-cultural fertilization steps center stage as never before. With director Jonathan Demme's visual guidance, Byrne very nearly transforms white people's fascination with black rhythm into a shadowplay of American tensions. That's the surprise behind the Heads' nerdy iconoclasm. Byrne's anxiety went beyond white suburban insularity, seeking the universe. (That's why they were a greater group than any of their CBGB peers: the Ramones, Blondie, Television, etc.) Coming so late in the history of American pop and rock 'n' roll, Stop Making Sense presents those tensions as a panoply of fetishes and taboos. It starts with the borrowed boombox, a black street culture item, brought out onstage by Byrne (he's alone, in white, wearing white sneakers), then grows into a frequently dark, looming spook show?shadows cast by the original four band members including Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison plus an ensemble newly enlarged into a supporting octet of black and white musicians.
This is what minstrelsy came down to in enlightened, highbrow 80s pop?the same decade in which Prince reclaimed rock and Michael Jackson claimed the world. All racial ironies were consciously admitted and then, because they were unavoidable, accepted. That idea is conveyed by Stop Making Sense's minimalist design?a bare stage is gradually inhabited by performers and very simply decorated by stagehands. Demme and Byrne expose stagecraft as a way of exploring how art illusions are created. They eventually show a warm interest in a variety of contemporary performance styles (aerobics, dancing, hiphop, guitar rock) that reveal the skeletal frame of American pop music?a clatter of black and white bones?that turns out to be a liberating art joke.
Frankly, you'll never see a white musician work so hard as Byrne does here. Some of his tropes are purely Soho Conceptual?the dance with a floor lamp, the (excessive) gospel-preacher jitters. But mostly Byrne seems ecstatic, a musician enraptured by the fun of performance, music-making and of communicating all those theories in his head. He has connected private intellection to show business, high art to low, without corrupting either practice. A one-of-a-kind star, Byrne's ascetic look and psychotic demeanor keep his artistic generosity, his funk-derived musicality, from ever seeming false or corny. (Consider that his recent forays into Latin rhythms have also been decent, even moving?especially "Make-Believe Mambo," a trans-racial credo with pizzazz, and the quirky near-masterpiece Uh-oh.) There was always something vital in Talking Heads' jaunty, angular, leftfield rhythms. Even drummer Frantz and bassist Weymouth's spinoff project the Tom Tom Club found a tuneful outlet for their musicianly respect for funk: Their one hit "Genius of Love" is ever-delightful; unfortunately its live performance in Stop Making Sense comes off nervous and curt (but it's still a gem no matter how many times biracial pinup Mariah Carey samples it). Byrne, however, makes nervousness work for him, mastering a strained, desperate delivery. He's richly expressive ("Let's kill the beast," he says in "Making Flippy Floppy") without ever being mistaken for a singer. Yet his voice never gives out; he breathes like a dancer, someone who loves to move?that alone is a breakthrough in the history of white pop performers.
Byrne's oddball incandescence and his audacious race-conscious method is typically ignored by critics who extol Stop Making Sense as "the best concert movie ever made." Such glib, uninformed praise tends to prompt exactly the kind of white cultural domination Byrne himself works to dispel. Stop Making Sense holds up (along with Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave and Prince's Sign o' the Times) as a demonstration of pop music's headily mixed culture: concerts that are also cinema. Stop Making Sense is undeniably joyous, but its enduring fascination comes from the intensity of Talking Heads making pop richer than its usual derivative, straitened forms.
Unlike Woodstock and Gimme Shelter (dethroned rock concert landmarks) music is not secondary to a sociological event. Stop Making Sense incorporates rock's cultural/
racial problematic into its concept. Using very few audience reaction shots, Demme forged a new standard in concert films, even dispensing with the backstage interviews of Scorsese's The Last Waltz (Byrne asking the audience, "Are there any questions?" is about it). Demme quite understands how the pop concert audience projects feelings?particularly that subliminal desire for intermixing?onto performers. He lets Byrne's different neurotic incarnations?on one level examples of alienated hysteria and on another a release of that unease?close up the black-white, spectator-performer distance. It makes perfect sense for the American band that most displayed new-wave self-consciousness about pop to encourage this sensitivity by embracing racial and cultural honesty. The convivial behavior between Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison, the four original Heads, and their black touring members, singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, percussionist Steven Scales, guitarist Alex Weir and Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell, parallels the audience's fantasy involvement and reifies pop's subtly utopian implication.
Prince expanded a lot of these ideas in his 1987 movie Sign o' the Times, an incendiary work that combined the documentary, concert film and movie musical even more complexly than Byrne and Demme. It sizzled, whereas Stop Making Sense does something else. Intentionally a nonsensual experience, Stop Making Sense formalizes the cosmopolitan erudition that prevented Talking Heads from achieving a mainstream following during its greatest years ('77-'81, when radio preferred the Cars). By the time of their 1983 album Speaking in Tongues, the Heads had stopped innovating, stopped discovering funk-pop euphoria and settled for funk aptitude. Stop Making Sense captures the group at its most accomplished?and they're immensely enjoyable?but the show veers between great early material ("Psycho Killer," "Heaven," "Once in a Lifetime," "Life During Wartime") and newer, okay stuff ("Burning Down the House," "Making Flippy Floppy," "Swamp") in vivid digital sound.
The popularity the Heads won as a result of Stop Making Sense was, though deserved, a sign of the conventionality they had previously done without (or strenuously avoided). In 1984 the mainstream, having gotten accustomed to hybridized funk, neutralized it and its inherent black-white give-and-take; the Heads wound up performing to less subversive effect. Their nerdy iconoclasm (that also goes for Mabry and Holt's grownup double-dutch antics) took deliberate eccentricity almost to the point of being insipid. On the sui generis "Slippery People," the band's performance is vibrant, almost pugnacious, but ultimately a pastiche. The Staple Singers later transformed the quasi-gospel song. Pops Staples (who was featured in Byrne's directorial debut True Stories) used his mellowed tenor and startling high range to turn "Slippery People" into something powerfully like the real thing. What Stop Making Sense celebrates (with its fuck-rationality title) is the thin line between multicult authenticity and sincerity. Like the remarkable first four albums, it chooses an anomalous, white bohemian good time over a conscientious headache.
Filmed at Los Angeles' Pantages theater in 1983, Stop Making Sense takes place after Talking Heads' great moment?the 1980 Wollman Rink concert in Central Park that introduced songs from Remain in Light as well as the band's expanded lineup (including Nona Hendryx). What a Day That Was. When Byrne announced, "We're not what we used to be," he could have been speaking for the state of popular music. New wave met Afro-pop and heaven resulted. It was a moment some filmmaker should have commemorated, but Demme's documentation, coming years late (on the good will of that Central Park/Remain in Light miracle), wrestles with a problem: After heaven, and facing the banality of pop acceptance, how would the Heads rationalize and sustain their radically reimagined pop music? They wouldn't. The Speaking in Tongues album was too codified, rehearsed, not electric or new. No wonder staid film critics loved it while the Smiths, Scritti Politti, Luther Vandross and REM were exciting the pop world. (At the time I didn't regret dismissing SMS; my only Talking Heads regret was that I didn't buy one of those Rauschenberg-designed Speaking in Tongues albums while they were affordable.)
The film's best, most timely number turns out to be "What a Day That Was," a song from Byrne's 1981 The Catherine Wheel (close enough to Wollman Rink) that benefits from a rare, live performance. Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth rise to even higher craftsmanship, using single-source lighting to exaggerate the emotional effect of Byrne and his musicians huddled around a microphone grooving and declaiming through the darkness of postmodern pop. The song's shuffling tempo is sped up, but its worry about surviving modern chaos becomes even more unsettling and thrilling. Byrne's lonely fear has backup now and the desolation of the era seems beatable?a worthwhile battle encapsulating the very reason people join forces to make pop music: "They're movin' forward and back/They're movin' backwards and front/And they're enjoying themselves/Moving in every direction/So if you feel like you're in a whirlpool/Feel like goin' home/And if you feel like talking to someone/Who knows the diff'rence between right and wrong."
Here was an artist who fully perceived the Reagan 80s and its communal counterpoint. That song's trenchant sensitivity and danceable kick is what made Byrne (conversant with Big Joe Turner as well as Joseph Beuys and Japanese Noh) a pop hero. And the surprising, hauntingly human beauty Demme finds in Byrne's musical expedition defines the filmmaker's humane integrity as well. Every musician and filmmaker on the pop charts today?every one?should only wish to be as musical or as lyrically and visually penetrating.
Stop Making Sense may have missed Talking Heads' world-grabbing moment, but its euphoria spilled over. Now that the true basis of Talking Heads' experimentation can be widely appreciated, Film Forum's reissue showing (Sept. 15-21) is welcome.