Review: At 39, the Newly Restored 'Stop Making Sense' is as Exuberant and Wonderful as Ever

It’s a wonderful snapshot of a band in perfect unison, years before they would bitterly part ways.

click to enlarge Back row from left: Jerry Harrison, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, Chris Frantz. Front row, from left: Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Alex Weir. - Photo: COURTESY OF SIRE + WARNER MUSIC GROUP
Back row from left: Jerry Harrison, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, Chris Frantz. Front row, from left: Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Alex Weir.

I still remember stumbling in late to a press screening of Stop Making Sense, arriving right when David Byrne was stumbling around the stage his damn self.

It was 1999, and the beloved Talking Heads concert film, directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, was getting a 15th-anniversary re-release. It was my first time checking out the movie Pauline Kael once called “a continuous rock experience that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric.”

Seeing Byrne wobble around a bare stage, strumming his acoustic guitar to a TR-808 drum machine pattern (presumably coming from a beatbox he brought on stage) is quite the peculiar way to begin this “continuous rock experience.” But I got a seat and immersed myself in the experience anyway. And it was indeed an experience.

Byrne’s solo performance sets up the movie’s deconstructive rhythm. After he’s done with “Killer,” bassist Tina Weymouth comes out for a solemn rendition of “Heaven” (James Wolcott once said she “projects happiness like a lighthouse”). Then, drummer (and Weymouth’s husband) Chris Frantz literally jumps on stage for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” Next, guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison completes the original lineup for “Found A Job.”

But they’re not done yet. Touring bandmates Steve Scales (percussion), Bernie Worrell (synthesizers), Alex Weir (guitar), and Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry (backing vocals) soon enter the picture, all African-Americans giving these Rhode Island School of Design alumni some much-needed funky flavor. (Next to Paul Simon, the Heads were the only lily-white American pop stars who openly infused their Reagan-era work with much-needed mojo from Black folks.) By the time they’re all on stage doing “Burning Down the House” and “Life During Wartime,” as Byrne practically starts an aerobics class with most of the band running in place (Byrne literally goes the extra mile and does several laps around the stage), the Avengers have successfully assembled and are here to give y’all a show.

Stop Making Sense, which has received a 4K restoration courtesy of A24 and will play IMAX theaters before screening everywhere else on September 29, is a concert film (captured from several shows at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre in 1983) that takes great glee in showing a band who are so in sync musically, the audience enjoying their vibes feels like an afterthought. When Demme finally gives us glimpses in the movie’s final minutes of the people who were lucky enough to catch one of the shows live, it almost seems like a climactic Big Reveal. (Wait a minute — they were there this whole time?!)

Demme made the film even as he was caught in the hell of reshooting the Goldie Hawn vehicle Swing Shift, and it’s quite clear the late director was ecstatic to make a movie starring people he respected. Both the Heads and their bandmates are adoringly captured on camera. Even when they are at their sweatiest or most facially beguiling (the IMAX blowup catches every fleck of sweat that bounces off Weir’s head, while the late P-Funk alum Worrell makes semi-ashen expressions that make you wonder if he was on something), they were all into it.

This is very apparent in the second half when the band performs mostly in minimal lighting, their shadows often projected on the stage’s back wall. (It’s like the Heads literally took a cue from their fourth album title and did songs where they remained in light.) Demme keeps up with the darkened theatrics. During the rambunctious “What a Day That Was,” he even gets close-up shots of each and every member, lights shining under their faces like they’re telling campfire stories.

Things briefly get bright and shiny when Weymouth and Frantz get into Tom Tom Club mode and perform their club hit “Genius of Love.” But that really gives Byrne time to go backstage and put on that damn Gail Blacker-designed big suit for “Girlfriend is Better” and “Take Me to the River.” Considering that members of Fall Out Boy rocked their own big suits during a recent MTV Video Music Awards performance, it’s amazing how iconic that crazy-ass outfit has become.

We could talk about how Sense was inspired by Byrne cribbing from traditional Japanese theater and all the artsy-fartsy things that influenced both Demme and the Heads. But really, the only thing that matters is the exuberant, collective joy that Sense brings, even after 40 years. It’s a wonderful snapshot of a band in perfect unison, years before they would bitterly part ways.

That’s why it was so gotdamn amazing when the Heads briefly reunited for a Q&A after the movie recently played the Toronto International Film Festival. Even with all the acrimonious bullshit they’ve been through, they know how happy they were when they made Stop Making Sense, and how happy they made everyone — especially the man who put it all on film — when they did it.

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