TIFF holds ecstatic Talking Heads “family reunion”

‘Stop Making Sense’ still makes sense 40 years later

Stop Making Sense
TIFF screening, in theatres
What: Movie, 88 mins.
When: Sept. 22,, IMAX, Sept. 29, regular screens
Genre: Concert documentary
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Not a mere nostalgia trip, Jonathan Demme captures Talking Heads at the top of their game and the height of their inventiveness. Timeless.

THE EMBATTLED TALKING HEADS held a “family reunion” Monday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre, brokered by TIFF, at an ecstatic screening of a revitalized print of Jonathan Demme’s classic 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense.

On stage for a Spike Lee-hosted Q&A after the film, notoriously grumpy band leader David Byrne is the tight-lipped, slightly disapproving dad, keyboard player Jerry Harrison is the dishevelled and adorable uncle who wears his heart on his sleeve — he teared up a number of times discussing the band — while the rhythm section of drummer Chris Franz and bassist Tina Weymouth are the cool, older couple who live down the street, wear colourful, natural-fibre clothes and greet their neighbours, a little high, from the porch.

“When I was watching this just now, I was thinking, this is why we come to the movie theatre,” says Byrne, almost surprised to be happy. “This is different than watching on my laptop.”

And different it was as audiences at Scotiabank — along with band members — as well as fans watching on screens simulcast around the world danced along with the film throughout the screening.

And that’s because the percussive power of this supposedly “art rock” band is undeniable and irresistible. Bolstered by an expanded touring band that included legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Talking Heads were forged in an early-80s New York City scene that was also birthing hip hop — and the band were clearly listening. A mid-set “appearance” of Weymouth and Franz’s rhythm-powered Tom Tom Club “side project” features beats that will appear on hip hop tracks for years to come.

Weymouth and Franz are both humble — and seemingly hopeful — after the screening with the underappreciated bass player claiming, “My biggest contribution was I never turned my amp up past three. That way it left room for everybody else to shine because if the bass player gets too loud, forget about it.”

In fact, her smooth bass playing and beaming presence were essential parts of the band and the film makes that clearer.

Lee claims the film is “the greatest concert film ever made” and while I’d give that title to the rarely-viewed, dark and disturbing Robert Frank masterpiece documentary on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues, it is a brilliant film whose rapid cuts and sometimes shaky hand-held shots match the intensity and rhythm of the band’s music and show. Filmed over three nights at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre, there are no interviews, no dressing room shots — instead, viewers virtually join the band on stage amidst the controlled chaos of a carefully choreographed show that features crew members and set “building” as part of the act.

Demme is described as “a fan” of the band who toured with them as much as possible before filming their concerts. The fractious band members are clearly united in their fondness and respect for Demme, whom they all describe as both kind and talented.

I was lucky enough to count the director as a friend and can attest to his kind, gentle spirit coupled with a profound curiosity and deep love and knowledge of music. I was fortunate to be Demme’s guest in Nashville in 2006 when he was shooting his Heart of Gold documentary of Neil Young’s appearances at the Ryman Auditorium and the films couldn’t be more different. The languorous and luxurious Young doc is in stark contrast with the frenetic, compelling energy of Stop Making Sense. In each case, Demme’s production — from edits, shots and angles — perfectly matches the energy of the artists’ work.

In both films, Demme doesn’t set out to “report” on the concerts; he seeks to take you there and, ultimately, inside the performances. And at the risk of sounding like Lee, Demme does it masterfully with his Stop Making Sense truly one of the greatest concert films ever — certainly worth seeing in a theatre with a fresh print and a pristine, “well-separated” soundtrack.

And based on Mr. Grumpy Pants Byrne’s reserved demeanour, despite the apparent wishes of the other three band members, this film is likely to be the only chance to see them “perform” — a reunion just doesn’t seem in the cards.