There is something really positive about going to a live concert for a band you’ve never heard of or listened to and finding the energy within the crowd so exciting that you become fond of said band for at least those few hours spent right in front of them. It’s a discovery I was kind of blessed to experience when your college roommate was related to the owner of one of the local big music venues and while I didn’t exactly get introduced to any big names I didn’t already know, I found out how very easy it is to be a fan of any band when they’re right in your face jamming with the crowd and controlling your mood with the songs they’re playing. The last time this happened was when I was given by a friend tickets to Florence+The Machine last summer so it still happens but not as frequently or low-key as it once was.
I don’t get that vibe very much with concert films, even for ones where I already love the artist involved. The 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD release and The Last Waltz are all cherished in my collection, but they both feel significantly more like documents towards their subjects that happen to have pretty worthwhile performances in them. Maybe it’s that the visual element requires that I sit down and watch it rather than sway. And while the theater in which I watched The Big 4 livestream performance in Sofia, Bulgaria had a full-on moshpit during Slayer and Metallica’s set, I think that has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with the fact that Slayer and Metallica were playing and we metalheads are a very moveable and clumsy bunch.
Jonathan Demme is the only filmmaker I know who could give me that kind of energy from his concert films, which make up a fair enough amount of his filmography for a man who largely worked with feature films. But then Demme was a chameleon from the very get-go and such was that his skillset could be applied to so many different demands such as horror films, romantic comedies, domestic dramas, concert films and he could even dare mix them all together faultlessly.
In this case, the demand was to make Talking Heads look and sound good. And the result is my favorite concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense, the only one that makes me want to get up and dance with the music until I remember this is my room I’m watching it in and I look pathetic. I do occasionally re-enact the lamp dance David Byrne lifts from Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding and applies to his performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. Which happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time because of this particular performance, which also tuned me in real strong on Talking Heads. It wasn’t my first introduction to the band (that actually happened to be an earlier entry in 25 for 25 – Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon hence why I titled my review after a lyric) and I had already heard both Talking Heads ’77 and Remain in Light in full as a casual fan of the band, but something about actually seeing frontman David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and co-guitarist Jerry Harrison (with the help of assorted member of Funkadelic) at work turned me hella on to their sound.
The visual flourishes to the three nights’ worth of footage at the Patanges Theater in Hollywood don’t come from the film technique themselves. Or at least, they don’t call attention to themselves as it is brilliantly edited by Lisa Day with a consciousness to their pacing and an ability to catch the elements of the screens behind the band to catch the scope of their performance and then get close enough to capture the mood and psyche of the band members while the legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth of Blade Runner fame captures the concert lighting scheme in cinematic expressionism (though from what I understand, the lighting was Byrne’s idea). In addition, there are almost no shots of the audience so I don’t really have a sea of anchors to associate my excitement with.
The performance itself however is outrageous in a manner that immediately communicated to me how idiosyncratic and out-of-the-box the stylizations of Talking Heads funky 80s art-pop. It also frankly communicated how obvious it was that Talking Heads and indeed this film is more an extension of Byrne himself, for while the Tom Tom Club. There’s a real narrative that one could craft out of this movie that doesn’t really supply much except an order of performances, starting with how Byrne walks out with a drum track playing on a little radio and performs their most popular song “Psycho Killer” on an acoustic guitar before starting to stumble and straggle around before finding his footing as only Weymouth comes in to join him for “Heaven”, a lonely yet hopeful sounding song about a gay bar, followed by Frantz starting to pep him and everybody else up with his snare runs in “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and before no time it’s a goddamn party. I find it absolutely no coincidence that shortly after everybody, including the backup dancers and additional guest musicians are on stage, they get to playing “Burning Down the House”, a song so loud and exciting I’m willing to believe it literally burns fucking houses down. In no time, Byrne is using the stage as his own playground roaming around with shocks and slides with just enough time for reserved motions like Take Me to the River’s gospel zone or his pantomime with “Once in a Lifetime”.
It’s just a given Byrne knows his music. He knows how to move along with it. And he lets us know how to too. When he takes a break for the Tom Tom Club (basically the band sans Byrne) to perform “Genius of Love”, it’s actually a pretty mellow and cool song in its own right, but it’s not as comfortable or fun without Byrne shaking like he got struck by lighting before he watched the movie. And when Byrne returns to the stage wearing a suit that would make Andre the Giant look small in it, it’s back to jam time one final moment.
But a great performance is one thing and a great movie is another and it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise that Demme would be able to craft all this into a wholly cinematic experience when many of his movies are so genius with their usages of music (Something Wild is probably the best example of this). It only makes sense that he know how to work with musical artists and concert films (Neil Young and him collaborated three times overall with Heart of Gold being another standout concert film) and that capture the heartbeat and energy of anybody he’s working with (which is also probably why he’s great and bringing out performances from musical artists in narrative films like Ricki and the Flash and Rachel Getting Married). I regret that I haven’t had the chance to see Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (I’m waiting to buy a RokuPlayer because I can’t imagine watching a concert film on my laptop, sorry Netflix), but it seems all too fitting that his last work was in fact a movie inspired by his work with Stop Making Sense trying to take another creative musician and bathe him into an exciting onstage ball of energy. Demme had a very generous way of bringing out the best in actors and performers alike. And the full range of his career only promised that to be the tip of the iceberg in his talents.
In Memory of Jonathan Demme
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