The Talking Heads‘ Stop Making Sense was a hugely successful concert film that redefined the live music experience in the 1980’s. While the movie was released almost 30 years ago, the show leaves an impression that will always feel contemporary. I remember watching the film over and over when I was a teenager, trying to figure out why I loved it so much. It wasn’t until I started writing this article that I finally saw Stop Making Sense as a piece of interactive artwork meant to feel more like a theatrical performance than a concert.
The film is structured like a story or a play with specific props and reactive characters. While the script of Stop Making Sense is made up of Talking Heads songs, the film’s purpose was not to showcase their music, but to incorporate it into what was happening on stage. More than almost any other band, The Talking Heads understood the visual element to their music.
Formed in 2007, this young group of musicians only plays Talking Heads music. While they mostly stick to all request shows, in 2010 they finally decided to tackle Stop Making Sense. The goal of the performance is to replicate the concert movie note for note, scene for scene. While they try to limit the differences between their recreation and the film, a precise replication will never be achieved, nor should it.
On November 9th, for the fourth year in a row, TMBTB recreated Stop Making Sense in their home town of Chicago. The concert begins with Charlie Otto walking out onto an empty stage looking like a sales man, only he carries a boombox in his hand instead of a briefcase. In a convincing manner, informs us he has a tape he wants to play.
Otto then sells his pitch with the song, “Psycho Killer”.
This is the first time we are introduced to our main character’s neurosis. David Byrne, the original front man of the Talking Heads, is extremely hard to capture and over the years Otto has learned to nail this persona. At certain points in the song he seems to have no control over his body and a nervous energy forms as he awkwardly twitches across the stage. As an observer, you can’t help but connect with whatever it is that is so strange about him.
The scene evolves over the course of the next six songs. Equipment gets wheeled out, the crew sets the stage piece by piece, and the cast takes their places. Building the scene as the show progresses gradually increases the energy emitting from the stage. It is quite a process before the whole band is finally all there for the powerhouse hit “Burning Down the House”. This evolution of the scene and deliberate emphasis on execution is much more obvious in real life when compared to the film. The fact that the stage production seems simple is very intentional and it showcases the avant garde elements of the show.
While watching this all unfold, I found myself extremely sensitive to what was happening on stage. Facial expressions, the way the band moves, and the way they interact with each other were more impressionable in the live setting than on film. Vocalists Kasey Foster and Trawny Newsome danced in sync with each other and with the rest of the band throughout the show. While this also takes place in the movie, watching the synchronicity in real life pulled together all the members on stage into a unit. By the time TMBTB slammed into “Life During Wartime”, the whole band and most of the audience was running in place. And, just like that, everyone in the room became invested in this performance.
Throughout Stop Making Sense, our main character neurotically controls how the show unfolds like the ringmaster of a circus. The show then feels like it’s losing control when he exits the stage for the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”. A spotlight creates a larger than life shadow on the stage’s backdrop when he finally reenters the scene for the set’s next tune; “Girlfriend is Better”. As he emerges to the front of the stage, we notice his morphed silhouette is actually the result of a costume change into an oversize suit. This iconic large suit makes his head appear small and exaggerates his presence on stage.
It is at this point in the show where it all starts to make sense.
Part of the reason TMBTB’s Stop Making Sense recreation is so successful is because it captures the art of the situation, the complexity of human interaction and a sensitivity to what is happening on stage. These things can not be duplicated from one performance to the next and they are very difficult to capture on film because camera angles and edits cut out a lot of these elements. When the show is recreated, tiny details of how each scene was put together stand out loud and clear.
While This Must Be The Band pays close attention to all these details, it is impossible to recreate the energy of a performance, no matter how many variables are controlled. This is not a bad thing, in fact, this is what makes Stop Making Sense a memorable performance worth experiencing over and over again.