Talking Heads on the once-in-a-lifetime ‘Stop Making Sense’
TORONTO — You may find yourself in a movie theater with “Stop Making Sense” playing and the members of Talking Heads in the audience.
That was the once-in-a-lifetime scenario when the new 4K restoration of “Stop Making Sense” premiered recently at the Toronto International Film Festival. On screen was a young, elastic David Byrne. In the theater, he was dancing, too, along with a crowd who couldn’t stay seated for “Burning Down the House.”
“For a moment I thought, ’Is it OK for me to get up and dance at our own movie?” Byrne says, laughing, the morning after. “But how could you not?”
For nearly four decades, “Stop Making Sense,” directed by Jonathan Demme, has exerted an inexorable pull on all who encounter the frenetic fever of arguably the finest concert film ever made. Its power to bring together — it opens with Byrne alone on a spare stage and swells into an art-funk spectacular — is such that it’s even managed to reunite Talking Heads, too.
For the first time in 21 years, Talking Heads are a band again, even if only in movie theaters. Byrne, the band’s principal songwriter and singer, keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz — who last gathered together in 2002 for their induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — have assembled once more for the rerelease of “Stop Making Sense.”
“It feels normal,” says Weymouth. “I mean, this is our tour. We’re touring this movie.”
Since they officially broke up in 1991, the four members of Talking Heads have often squabbled, bitterly. Byrne has said he regrets his role in the band’s “ugly” dissolution. Frantz, who’s married to Weymouth, published a 2020 memoir that described some of the discord and lingering hurts. When Byrne mounted the acclaimed Broadway show “American Utopia” a few years ago, featuring many Talking Heads songs, Frantz was stung not to even be invited.
As the group congregated the morning after the “Stop Making Sense” premiere for an interview, though, they were cordial with each other. “How you livin’, Jerry?” greeted Frantz. Byrne gazed out the window, contemplating a possible cycling route for the afternoon. He and Harrison sat on one couch, Weymouth and Frantz on another.
Their spirits were high. The film remains in light, a potent reminder of Talking Heads’ uniquely transfixing power. Harrison helped oversee the restoration from the long-lost original negatives. It opened on IMAX screens Friday and in other theaters Sept. 29.
“One of the things that happened to me in re-watching it and working on it, was realizing: ‘Oh my God is everybody good,’” says Harrison.
“I didn’t know I was cute,” smiled Weymouth, who nimbly bounces from one foot to the other throughout the film. “The whole band, they were so attractive, so beautiful.”
“Stop Making Sense,” filmed over four nights at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater in 1983, hasn’t dimmed with time. “Same as it ever was,” you could say. What begins with a solitary Byrne, with an acoustic guitar and boombox, steadily accumulates as the members of the band join him, then others like Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Alex Weir. This jittery, wide-eyed musician singing of psycho killers to a syncopated beat attracts a legion. His movements are malleable and constant. The music grows euphoric. This IS a party. This IS a disco.
“It’s the unbridled joyousness of the performance, which snowballs,” says Frantz. “It starts off with ‘Psycho Killer,’ which is a thing unto itself. But it snowballs into this ecstatic experience. You can see it very clearly with the band members. They’re gettin’ more and more fever.”
Byrne had choreographed the Talking Heads tour that year, for the album “Speaking in Tongues.” Their concert came ready-made for Demme, a devoted Heads fan and an ardent music listener who approached the band with producer Gary Goetzman after seeing them perform in 1983 at the Hollywood Bowl. Byrne’s concept stemmed from, he says, “showing people what it takes to put on a show.”
“We start with an empty stage and gradually add each part, each musician. As they come in, you hear what their contribution is,” Byrne says. “You see how it all gets done. It’s like a magician showing how the tricks are done, but the trick still works. We’ve seen behind the curtain, but the trick still works.”
And the “tricks” are grand. There’s, of course, Byrne’s iconic, Kabuki-influenced big suit in “Girlfriend Is Better”— now even bigger in IMAX. There’s also his achingly gentle dance with a floor lamp in “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” — a sumptuous echo to Gene Kelly's tap dance around a lamp post in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Other elements of “Stop Making Sense” have also proved remarkably resilient, though they can be harder to pin down. The songs, particularly something like “Life During Wartime,” synthesized a modern discombobulation that was only just emerging in the tech-nascent ’80s. “Stop Making Sense” — shot on film with six cameras but mixed digitally in Hal Ashby’s editing room — heralded a disorienting information age future while at the same time making the case that this strange new world could also be funky as hell.
“There’s most definitely a prescient nature in David’s lyrics,” Harrison says. “David seemed to capture, you might say, the future zeitgeist.”
Talking Heads never participated in another film. Who needs legacy burnishing when “Stop Making Sense” is still so alive? In conversation, the band again and again marveled at how deeply in tune they were with one another then — perhaps especially in contrast to the years that followed.
“This is going to sound really ridiculous but I think about the fusion of the sun,” says Weymouth. “It implodes and explodes. And I think that push and pull was so magical to our creative forces, the way that we worked together, the way we were supportive of each other. It was very special and none of us has found it again. If we sat down and played music, we’d be connecting again.”