In 1984 Jonathan Demme collaborated with The Talking Heads to direct what is one of the best live concert films. Made entirely in digital audio format, and shot over three days, it is a visual and acoustic marvel. To a die-hard fan of The Talking Heads this represents the best of their music, energy and genius. The movie begins with the manic David Byrne coming on stage with a guitar and cassette tape player, then he puts a tape into the player and starts to sing. The opening credits sequence is right out of Dr. Strangelove and at the end of the first song Psycho Killer the music has staccato bursts of “gunfire” as Byrne staggers about the stage like Jean Paul Belmondo in the final moments of Breathless.
More and more of the band join David with each successive song, and the manic energy rises to fever pitch. Equipment is wheeled out and set up on stage during the songs. The entire group then finally got together to sing Burning Down the House. Watch the crazy antics of David Byrne in Life in the Wartime:
Byrne’s absurdly large suit “seemed to move him” according to Pauline Kael (New Yorker review), just as the Film moved her:
“”Stop Making Sense” is the only current movie that’s a dose of happiness from beginning to end. The lead singer, David Byrne, designed the stage lighting and the elegantly plain performance-art environments (three screens used for backlit side projections); there’s no glitter, no sleaze. The musicians aren’t trying to show us how hot they are; the women in the group aren’t there to show us some skin. Seeing the movie is like going to an austere orgy—which turns out to be just what you wanted.
Clean-shaven, with short hair, slicked back, and wearing white sneakers and a light-colored suit, with his shirt buttoned right up to his Adam’s apple, the gaunt David Byrne, who founded the group, comes on alone (with his acoustic guitar and a tape player) for the first number “Psycho Killer.” He’s so white he’s almost mock-white, and so are his jerky, long-necked, mechanical-man movements. He seems fleshless, bloodless; he might almost be a black man’s parody of how a clean-cut white man moves. But Byrne himself is the parodist, and he commands the stage by his hollow-eyed, frosty verve. Byrne’s voice isn’t a singer’s voice—it doesn’t have the resonance. It’s more like a shouter’s or chanter’s voice, with an emotional carryover—a faintly metallic wail—and you might expect it to get strained or tired. But his voice never seems to crack or weaken, and he’s always in motion—jiggling, aerobic walking, jumping, dancing. (They shade into each other.) Byrne has a withdrawn, disembodied, sci-fi quality, and though there’s something unknowable and almost autistic about him, he makes autism fun. He gives the group its modernism—the undertone of repressed hysteria, which he somehow blends with freshness and adventurousness and a driving beat. When he comes on wearing a boxlike “big suit”—his body lost inside this form that sticks out around him like the costumes in Noh plays, or like Beuys’ large suit of felt that hangs of a wall—it’s a perfect psychological fit. He’s a handsome, freaky golem. When he dances, It isn’t as if he were moving the suit—the suit seems to move him. And this big box that encloses him is only an exaggeration of his regular nerd-dandy clothes. Byrne may not be human (he rejects ordinary, show-biz forms of ingratiation, such as smiling), but he’s a stupefying performer—he even bobs his head like a chicken, in time to the music.”
This group, this concert, this footage, represent a slice of perfection is music that was aptly showcased in a near perfect film! If you have never listened to Taking Heads then catch the film, or at the very least get a CD.
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