Friday 22 September 2023

American utopia: "Stop Making Sense"

Coming up on forty years old, and showing no signs of developing middle-age spread or embarrassing opinions, the great concert movie of our lifetime returns to cinemas, and takes a first bow in IMAX. 1984's 
Stop Making Sense showcases as much worldbuilding as any Christopher Nolan or Denis Villenueve venture, but its worldbuilding is achieved from the ground up: it opens with a bare stage, a pair of feet, and then the gradual reveal of a guitar, a sober grey suit, and the face of a handsome but intense-looking young man who reminds you who Cillian Murphy reminded you of in Oppenheimer, singing a song about getting no sleep because his bed's on fire, while publicly outing himself as a sociopath of some sort. What kind of world is this? An off-kilter one, for sure, populated by folks who seem likely to have absorbed the David Lynch movies of this era. (They would later generate the words that provided an epigraph for Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.) Yet it's not without tenderness, either. The second song ("Heaven") is a keening duet, possibly sung by the first song's victims; a later number ("This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)") still has the capacity to reduce grown men and women to tears, never mind its buoying sway. It's just that, like the singer, this world moves in strange ways, manoeuvred into place by unseen hands. As the band run through a tight hour-long set, something like an aerobics class gone wild, the world around them continues to grow: song by song, the band take on a bassist, a drummer, a second guitarist, backing singers, various hangers-on, and eventually the full son-et-lumière. The director sits in the control booth, monitoring how these elements relate, how they communicate and jive: the nods and winks between the musicians, the harmonies and the standoffs, because it wouldn't be a band without a certain tension and friction. He's thinking how to tell a story, which is in some way the story of a band, and in others the story of pop itself. Around the halfway mark, the grey suit jacket comes off, and - in the bit everybody remembers, the film's equivalent of a special effect - it gets replaced by a much bigger jacket you'd need a hell of an ego to try and fill. Pop starts out small and close-knit, a person or two scratching something out on an instrument; it then becomes the basis of gangs we want to join, whole shows, big nights; and - invariably - it threatens to become inflated, ridiculous, absurd. Some things get older, and stop making sense.

One poignant note, hidden among the onstage unity, is that this was as good as it got for Talking Heads. Thereafter, they really were on the road to nowhere: seduced by all the lights and cameras, David Byrne set off even more determinedly down his own path, following Sense with his own movie project (1986's True Stories) and forgetting to tell the rest of the band that was that. It's still a source of some pop-cultural fascination that Stop Making Sense didn't make this band any more commercial - but then they clearly would have been a tricky sell in the year of the route-one "I Just Called To Say I Love You", and an unthinkable presence at Live Aid. In that control booth, the still-emergent Jonathan Demme was less interested in selling this band than he was in celebrating their oddness, their left-of-centre way of thinking and expressing themselves. Even before Byrne met Brian Eno, the group might as well have called themselves Oblique Strategies: half-time turn the Tom Tom Club suggest what Talking Heads would have been like without the singer, namely a straightforward funk act who'd have enjoyed far more airplay and substantially bigger hits. I still wish Demme had left in "I Zimbra", so odd it was inspired by a Dadaist poem, but somehow more characteristic of Talking Heads at their peak than their cover of "Take Me to the River". (It's on the DVD, and Byrne acknowledged its significance by working it into the event's spiritual sequel American Utopia.) Yet it remains an inspired choice to keep the band in a darkness that represents the cultural margins, and to largely avoid cutaways to screaming fans: we're the audience here, trying to figure this lot out in the absence of backstage filler or contextualising biographical recaps. Even as the band do everything they can to shrug off the usual rules of musical engagement, Demme makes the film's moving parts connect: we're constantly aware of where the musicians are on stage, where the sound is coming from, and what makes that sound so joyous. But where most 1980s pop followed the hair and got big, Demme and Byrne swap in thought for bombast, and their movie consequently spills over with memorably precise gestures, peculiar human communication: the singer chopping his own arm on "Once in a Lifetime", bassist Tina Weymouth's goofy bowlegged dance on "Genius of Love". Given where Hollywood finds itself at the end of 2023, Demme now seems an even greater loss than he did at the time, but the band are still with us, at least, having negotiated the singer's eccentricities to take one more curtain call at the recent Toronto film festival. They're talking again. And nothing is better than that, is it?

Stop Making Sense returns to selected cinemas from today.

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