35 Years Later, “Stop Making Sense” Still Makes Sense

Why Talking Heads’ iconic 1984 concert film is the greatest of all time

Madeline Mooney, Columnist

April 24 marks the 35th anniversary of Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time. When one first watches the film, that may come as a surprise, as this show seems so minimalistic compared to other staples of the genre: there are no behind-the-scenes interviews or shots of screaming fans, just long, well-chosen shots which perfectly capture the frantic energy of frontman David Byrne. As he runs laps around the stage, sings a love song to a lamp, and dances in an iconic big suit, the viewer gets the sense that this isn’t an ordinary concert, that it’s some grander statement. “Stop Making Sense” is the greatest concert film of all time not only for its amazing, iconic songs, but also for its subtle narrative, which elevates it from a rock concert to an expertly crafted piece of performance art.

“Stop Making Sense” was filmed in Los Angeles in December 1983, when Talking Heads were touring to promote their latest album, “Speaking in Tongues.” The band, which formed in 1975 and disbanded in 1991, was known for its avant-garde approach to new wave and post-punk music, which is definitely shown in this film.

“Stop Making Sense” doesn’t have the sort of grand opening you might expect from watching other concerts: it’s just Byrne alone with an acoustic guitar playing “Psycho Killer,” one of the band’s most iconic hits. As he sings, he looks uneasy, even nervous, as he twitches his leg and stumbles around the stage. Over the next several songs, more band members and guest musicians join and the show becomes even more energetic and fast-paced, with the full nine-person group not being complete until “Burning Down the House,” a performance which perfectly displays the band’s infectious energy as well as their remarkable musical talent.

The true highlight of the film is about forty-five minutes in, when the band performs “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody),” which is by far one of Talking Heads’ greatest songs. It’s a love song, which the band was not known for, in which Byrne sings to a floor lamp. This is the first time in the film when he looks truly happy, as if he really is in love with that lamp and the domesticity it represents. When he dances with it near the end of the song, it’s so genuine that the absurdity of it seems insignificant.

Byrne dances with his beloved lamp during “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” (Screenshot from “Stop Making Sense.”)

The film’s most immediately recognizable moment, however, does not come until near the end, when the band plays “Girlfriend is Better” and Byrne appears in a comically oversized business suit which has since become an icon of not only this film, but also of Byrne himself. This scene’s energy is almost celebratory, as if everything before it had been leading up to this point. In this ridiculous costume, the nervous, jittery man who sang “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime” has finally found confidence, which continues through the final two songs, “Take Me to the River” and “Crosseyed and Painless.”

Byrne in his iconic big suit. (Screenshot from “Stop Making Sense.”)

Besides the amazing performance itself, the cinematography is what elevates “Stop Making Sense” to its legendary status. The film was directed by Jonathan Demme (best known today for “The Silence of the Lambs”), whose unique shots enhance the concert’s narrative qualities and, together with the performance, give an artistic quality to a genre which is usually more concerned with being pure entertainment. Demme’s and Byrne’s visions perfectly complement each other to create a show with a personality of its own.

An excellent shot of Byrne approaching the camera during “Psycho Killer.” (Screenshot from “Stop Making Sense.”)

Beneath all of its extravagant layers, however, “Stop Making Sense” tells a universal story, albeit very subtly: after experiencing an existential crisis, the “real live wire” Byrne sings about at the beginning of the film gradually finds his own place in the world, through music and companionship, which allows him to fully experience all life has to offer.

The energy of the show steadily builds until “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody),” when Byrne’s protagonist finally seems to have found happiness. However, it all comes crashing down in the next song, “Once in a Lifetime,” the narrative’s climax, which is about the inevitable passage of time and the meaninglessness of status symbols. After this performance, Byrne, whose choreography is twitchy and almost lethargic, bows his head and leaves the stage to allow the band to perform without him, returning later as a silhouette in his big suit. He lets go of his inhibitions and, as he sings in “Girlfriend is Better,” “stop[s] making sense.” This is why the audience is not shown until the final song: Byrne’s personal journey is now complete; it’s ready to be shared with the world.

Thirty-five years later, “Stop Making Sense” is still unrivaled as a cinematic achievement. Although excellent concert films have been made since, none have managed to capture the very essence of a band quite like this one. Just as Talking Heads’ unique sound has never been fully replicated, “Stop Making Sense” has never been matched, and it now serves to introduce new generations to one of the most inventive bands of the twentieth century.

“Stop Making Sense” is so great mainly because it transcends its genre: it’s a concert film, but also something much more. It’s a celebration of music and self-discovery, and an artfully told one at that. In a film full of meaningful shots, perhaps the final one is the most significant: we watch the curtain fall from the inside, hiding the cheering audience and leaving the stage setup in darkness. Although the audience has enjoyed it immensely, “Stop Making Sense” is a story which belongs to Talking Heads, and which only they could have created.