Thirty years ago, famed Hollywood director Jonathan Demme stopped silencing the lambs long enough to film new wave superstars The Talking Heads live in concert. The result, Stop Making Sense, was a bombshell. Vivid, quirky, pulsingly kinetic and a matchless euphoriant, it was widely hailed as the best concert film ever. (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described it as “close to perfection.”) In honour of its 30th anniversary Sense is getting a re-release in a new digital format, complete with a limited theatrical run. It plays Victoria on July 30-31 up at UVic’s Cinecenta and represents must-see viewing for all music fans (or, really, anyone with a pulse).
I still have intense memories of seeing Sense when it first came out, and a recent rewatch confirmed that the film has aged remarkably well. Right from the opening shot as we watch David Byrne walk out onstage to perform a solo acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” and on through successive songs as the rest of the band gradually joins him, followed by several notable funk musicians and vocalists, the standard viewer response is to twitch continuously in abject submission to the beat. By the time a full stage of musicians rips through a killer version of “Burning Down The House,” it’s impossible not to envy the Los Angeles audience that got to be part of such a magical experience.
The taut, beautifully performed music – the 18 songs include “Slippery People,” “Once In a Lifetime,” and an incantatory “Take Me to the River” – comes alive onstage, thanks to an imaginative and often playful stage show that incorporates startling choreography, Expressionist lighting and silhouettes, dramatic use of colour, and a trio of gigantic panels at the back of the stage showing enigmatic projections of words and images. And dominating it all is the majestically weird persona of lead singer David Byrne, who transformed highly intellectualized art-school nerdiness into a compelling musical aesthetic. From his anguished vocals and deliberately jerky white-boy dance moves to a startling late-in-show costume change when he sports his absurdest “big suit,” Byrne is a great frontman. (The only time the show loses a bit of focus is when he absents himself to allow fellow bandmates Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz to perform one song as their offshoot band, Tom Tom Club.)
Filmed over three nights at the Pantages Theatre – thus allowing Demme to get all the different types of shots he needed without excessively intruding into the performance space, Sense is an understated masterpiece of filmmaking. With complementary editing rhythms, exciting close-ups, and a great sympathy with what Talking Heads was creating, Demme and his crew captured a superb band at the height of its powers.
STOP MAKING SENSE (Four stars)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Get On Up
James Brown, the incomparable Godfather of Soul, is the subject of a gritty bio that arcs from an impoverished childhood into a uniquely successful musical career based on hip-swivelling stage moves and sexed-up, sweaty funk.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Started as a silly Marvel Comics line in 1969, this futuristic sci-fi romp features the likes of Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt as part of a motley crew of mutants out to save the universe.
Probably the most intriguing film of the summer, this unique offering from Richard Linklater (Slackers, Before Sunrise) is a look at a boyhood life that literally unfolds before the camera – for more than a decade the same actors got together every year for a few weeks of filming. Supposedly, this is fiction with a high degree of embedded truth.
The Trip to Italy
Steve Coogan (Philomena) had a quirky art-house hit in 2010 with The Trip, wherein he and Rob Brydon toured the north of England as a gloomy food writer and his annoying friend. The daft duo reunites for a sure-to-be memorable trip around Italy.
With summer in full swing, consider stocking a few bottles of Santa Rita’s crisply refreshing Sauvignon Blanc 120 from sunny Chile. The 120 boasts lively, fruit-forward flavours of grapefruit and lemon, softened with a touch of sweet and round Sémillon, its traditional blending partner. This is a perfect patio sipper, and very good value at $11.