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IN SHORT: The Return of the Big White Suit [[not rated], 88 minutes]
CrankyCritic.com doesn't put the dollar rating on reissues. This being the 15th anniversary of the release of the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense is reason enough to re-release the old chestnut, with an upgraded sound mix and video remastering to CD, DVD and other such modern initaled tech like that. Which means I get to wax nostalgic and talk about my days in the music biz and, more important, I get to tell you about Stuff I Like.
The hard part about reviewing concert films is twofold: It isn't fair to the performing artist if the reviewer couldn't care less about the music. It isn't fair to the reader if the reviewer is an unabashed fan, and doesn't tell you. So, in the interest of full disclosure: Cranky likes the Talking Heads. He played their first records on college radio. He produced an appearance on the King Biscuit Flower Hour syndicated concert series, and met both David Byrne and Jerry Harrison of the band, back around 1980. If I wanted to wade through the pre-computer paperwork, there is probably a review of Stop Making Sense from its first release back in 1984. I never saw the band live.
Raving fan? No, not at all. The Talking Heads were an acquired taste. TH'77 and Fear of Music were difficult albums to listen to, because the Talking Heads didn't sound like anything else that had been pressed in black in the Seventies. When you're young, it only takes a song or two to make you go back to an album looking for more gems, and tracks like "Psycho Killer" and "I, Zimbra" (or "Don't Worry About The Government" and "Life During Wartime") were better than good starting points. When the band as a whole discovered funk in the early 80's, collaborating with Parliament's Bernie Worrell among others, the change seemed so radical it threw us off. Now, we'd call them "ahead of their time". Truth is, the band was always ahead of the great curve. But not so far ahead of the fans that we couldn't keep up.
Stop Making Sense captures the Talking Heads at the peak of their powers. Live, the Heads took their music so far beyond anything captured on vinyl that the only disappointment was that the original soundtrack delivered only half the film's music. Cranky is informed that that problem has been fixed for the re-release of the CD. If you've sprung for a DVD player, that's on its way too. Let's talk about the film . . .
The first thing that comes to your mind, if you're old enough to remember the original theatrical run, is the Big White Suit that David Byrne sports in the show. Odds are you, like Cranky, confused the numerous parodies of the suit (on whatever teevee comedy shows were in vogue at the time) with reality. The suit doesn't show up until close to the end of the show, and it wasn't as huge as I remember. But that isn't the wildest thing about Stop Making Sense, version 1999.
The wildest thing was sitting in a packed, private screening room with 40 or so other reviewers, watching all but one of 'em try not to move at all while the concert unspooled. Byrne, who spoke briefly before the screening, said he was surprised when the remix was shown at the San Francisco Film Festival earlier in the year because the audience got up and started dancing. Cranky doesn't understand his surprise. Even if you only roll the soundtrack, regardless of whether you like the studio albums or not, it's hard to keep in your seat. The Stop Making Sense soundtrack album is a kickass groove start to finish. In its perfect creation of an audience POV, you don't have to be close to the screen to get the feeling that you're at a Talking Heads concert. The need to dance will follow naturally.
As a snapshot of where the band was in December 1983, Jonathan Demme's film stands as what some rock critics have labeled it, one of the best rock concert films of all time. It is, as with Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, one of few concerts that were designed to be photographed on film. Unlike Waltz, Stop Making Sense confines itself strictly to the performance stage. From David Byrne's entrance onto the bare stage, with acoustic guitar and boom box in hand, for a solo performance of "Psycho Killer" through the song by song assemblage of stage set and performers -- Tina Weymouth (bass) joins Byrne to duet on Heaven as black clad stagehands wheel out instrument platforms for Chris Franz (drums) and Jerry Harrison (guitars and keyboards) -- and touring bandmembers stroll out to their positions, Stop Making Sense takes on all the qualities of a theatrical presentation.
Even better, until an audience shot at the very end, you never see a film camera in any shot, a practice in other films that always bothered me. The actual cinematography, by Jordan Cronenweth (and restored by his son Jeff), is remarkable because is uses the actual stage lighting of the show, rather than bringing all the f-stop levels up to the norm by pouring light out of fills. Byrne and Demme headed back into the mixing room and brought their work up to 1999 technical specs. Now with full surround sound, the audience reaction wraps around you as does the music, like a loving mother.
Happy happy joy time.
Audio samples courtesy amazon.com (or to purchase Stop Making Sense)
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