A sole figure walks onto an empty stage and puts down one of those giant cassette/radio players that were popular in the 1980s.
The man is David Byrne, the lead singer of the legendary art-rock/funk band Talking Heads.
The player has a rudimentary drum beat (actually played from the mixing desk). Byrne has an acoustic guitar and he starts playing ‘Psycho Killer’ from 1977, at times staggering around the stage like Jean-Paul Belmondo in the final moments of Breathless when he was shot by police.
What a way to start a concert. What a way to start a film.
It sets the tone for the 1983 movie Stop Making Sense, remastered and re-released to mark its 40th anniversary.
After that first song, Byrne is joined by bass player Tina Weymouth and they play ‘Heaven’ from their third album, Fear of Music.
It’s a poignant and graceful piece of music, and while we’re swept up in its deceptive simplicity, a crew of a dozen or so people are slowly wheeling more banks of instruments onto the stage.
And so it builds and builds.
The four members of the group, including Jerry Harrison and Chris Frantz, play together and are joined by singers and more musicians and launch into one of the most spectacular films of a rock concert ever committed to celluloid.
The movie’s origins were with Byrne’s incredible stagecraft. He designed the concept of the concert as more than a rock gig, almost a piece of installation art.
He’d been working with choreographers Twyla Tharp and Toni Basil, drawing on their amazing talents to transform himself on stage.
The director is Jonathan Demme, on a break from feature films at the time, but who would later go on to make Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. He focussed on putting this project together over four nights.
By the sixth song, the entire touring entourage is on stage, including backing singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, keyboard player the late great Bernie Worrell, guitarist Alex Weir and percussionist Steve Scales. They launch into the showstopping ‘Burning Down the House’.
In all, they play 16 songs during the film, including a track from Weymouth and Frantz’s side project, The Tom Tom Club.
This song gives Byrne the opportunity to put on The Big Suit, an oversized piece of fashion furniture that he uses to explore his various bodily eccentricities as the film draws to its close.
Here, they play ‘Girlfriend is Better’, Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’ (almost transformed into a gospel piece by Holt and Mabry), and one of the group’s most enduring songs, ‘Life During Wartime’.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard the name but don’t really know the group’, that’s more than fine.
This film is like no other. It doesn’t seek to create a backstory or mythology around its participants, unlike The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or even DA Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
It is, most importantly, an exploration of ideas through music. Byrne and his original bandmates assembled some of the most memorable songs of the last half-century, explored through the prisms of nostalgia, madness, eccentricity, church music, paranoia and a great bass line.
Re-releasing this film with a newly minted and crisper soundtrack only makes the experience that much more memorable.
When Stop Making Sense was released in Australia in 1985, I remember it being screened at the long-closed Electric Shadows cinemas in Canberra, where people spontaneously danced in the aisles.
I feel a new generation of people will come to this film and do the same.
Talking Heads is the greatest band I ever saw live, and for me, the film is even better for having seen this actual show on stage in 1984. Stop Making Sense scores five out of five stars.
Stop Making Sense is screening across Australia.
Marcus Kelson is a Canberra writer and critic.