This Week in History: Stop Making Sense

If you sit down to watch a concert film, you pretty much know what you’re getting. Most groups don’t really overthink their stage shows, relying on their songs to set the proper mood and tell the proper story. This is all well and good, but I would argue that most concert films don’t really offer much besides, well, footage of a band playing live.

This is precisely why Jonathan Demme (R.I.P.)’s 1984 film Stop Making Sense is so remarkable. Eschewing almost all shots of the audience, Demme is more concerned with the gradual progression of Talking Heads as a live act, from bare-bones to sheer power. It all begins with David Byrne solo with an acoustic guitar, doing a sparse, haunting version of “Psycho Killer.” Gradually, the band beefs up, adding Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz and Jerry Harrison with each successive song, building and building until the full live band–a rag-tag group of funk virtuosos–activates on “Burning Down the House.”

This is the Talking Heads as you’ve never heard or seen them before, incorporating the group’s art school past (big suit, self-aware sloganeering, that weird dance with the lamppost, etc) while containing some truly memorable performances (among them, dearly-departed P-Funk member Bernie Worrell). Though I highly recommend the movie, the soundtrack album (released this week in 1984) stands up just fine on its own. Now that all the songs featured in the movie are represented on the remastered version, the album ranks among my favorite live albums of all time. To witness Stop Making Sense is to find the four members of the group at their creative peak, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that in the fall of 1984, Talking Heads were the best live act in the world. Check out the live version of “Life During Wartime.”

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