By 1984, director Jonathan Demme had mastered the art of watching people talk to each other. His Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, remains indelible in music culture not just because of the band's musicianship and charisma, but because of how Demme's camera engages with their alchemy onstage. Shot over three nights at the end of 1983, the film looks deeply into the communication among musicians, their reliance on each other, and the way they feed each other's energy. Unlike many live-music films, it ignores the audience almost completely.
Demme, who died this week at age 73, employed filmic techniques familiar from his narrative works as a way of illuminating the relationships among the players onstage. As the YouTube film-criticism channel “Every Frame a Painting” points out in a scene from 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, the director is fond of using the camera's position within a given space to illustrate the dynamic between two or more characters. Stop Making Sense treats each member of the Talking Heads touring lineup as a character with ties to other characters on the stage, speaking to each other through their movements or their gazes for the duration of the roughly 90-minute film.
Talking Heads' music fits easily into Demme's lifelong study of human contact. The band doesn't aim for the individual sublimity that beamed from Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. There's no libidinal excess to anyone's playing, no closed-eyed, sweat-soaked visages of ecstasy. The players don't lose themselves in the music; they use the music as a springboard for effervescent play. Wide shots from the back of Hollywood's Pantages Theatre show the geometric harmonies between band members' bodies. Singer David Byrne swings his legs, and backup vocalists Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry mimic him. Bassist Tina Weymouth starts running in place and Byrne follows.
The camera cruises the stage like it belongs there, looking for shared glances between musicians. It watches Weymouth's eyes as she watches her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, for percussion cues. It's interested, too, in the physical risks the players take — will Byrne catch the lamp he's knocked over in time? Will he return to the microphone on beat after knocking back his head with his hand? These are the details Demme focuses on instead of fretboard shots or close-ups of fingers on keyboards. The band's clockwork timekeeping supplies challenge after challenge, and Demme relishes watching them jump through their hoops.
Demme doesn't always home in on the most active thing happening inside a frame. Sometimes he'll let the background animate the foreground, drawing the eye deep into the space, like when Byrne, standing still, eclipses Holt and Mabry dancing wildly for each other. Occasionally he'll elide a key moment, letting its result surprise the viewer instead. During "Take Me to the River," Byrne drops out of the frame hatless and reemerges moments later wearing a bright orange baseball cap of unknown origin. Demme's wry humor and penchant for joyful confusion mirrors the band's; about half an hour in, Byrne asks the audience, "Does anybody have any questions?"
The musicians play with the camera as well as each other. Percussionist Steve Scales catches its gaze and sticks his tongue out at it; Byrne, during "Girlfriend Is Better," offers the camera his microphone, as though those of us watching could seize the opportunity to sing with him. These gestures invite the viewer to empathize not with the audience dancing in the pit, but with the band members themselves. There's hardly any cheering in the audio mix. The crowd appears mostly in silhouette, bouncing against the bottom edge of the frame. Demme takes us to the other side of the invisible but powerful curtain between performer and observer. The camera even lingers onstage when, at the end of the film, a real curtain falls.
More than Byrne's iconic double-wide suit, which gets introduced to the camera with a slow shot of its double-wide shadow, Stop Making Sense persists for its ability to immerse the viewer completely in the band's chemistry. Demme cleaves through the spectacle of the concert to get at the human spark dancing within. He takes us to the river and dunks us till we're soaked.