If there was ever an argument for the value of moviegoing being a common, public experience, the crowd with whom I saw 1984's Stop Making Sense would be it.
At a time when complaints about how inconsiderate and just plain unpredictably present movie audiences can be are on the increase (and ostensibly driving people to stay home and make do with Netflix and their home theater systems), it was a pleasant reminder (if not a shock to the system) to be reminded that the right theater full of people can amplify an experience well beyond what it would be if it were just you, sitting alone in the dark.
But first, some reflections. There was a time in the 1980s when it was taken as a given that the Talking Heads were going to be the most important rock band of the decade. Rolling Stone knew it, Robert Christgau knew it, everyone knew it, and then it didn't happen. R.E.M. and U2 stepped forward (as did Metallica, though nobody noticed it yet) and the Talking Heads' star just sort of faded, though it certainly didn't disappear. Even now, when their influence is once again on the rise, it seems more borne out of the same '80s revivalism that has belatedly elevated the Cure and Depeche Mode to seminal status.
Still, even through those lean years, Stop Making Sense held on to its reputation as the best concert film ever made. While I'm not entirely sure I'd agree with that assessment, I'll happily admit that there's an awful lot of evidence in its favor.
It captured the band precisely at the apex of its popular success, just after "Burning Down The House" hit big. It was made by a real director (Jonathan Demme). And in its way, it had a structure awfully similar to that of a story.
A lot has been made of the movie's opening, where Byrne famously walks onto an empty stage, presses "play" on a boombox and sings "Psycho Killer" along with the electronic drumbeat that's pumping out. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, with not only the band but the stage built up piece by piece, song by song, until what started as one man with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder has gradually expanded into a nine-musician, multi-tiered setup that can finally dig deeply into the complex grooves of "Life During Wartime" and "Making Flippy Floppy."
That's not how a concert works. That's how a movie works: establishment and introduction of the important characters and elements; expansion and progression of those elements; resolution. As hard as the music hits and as animated as the band is, that's what makes Stop Making Sense a movie as opposed to just one song after another captured on film. (Though I must admit that I couldn't imagine a better ending than "Girlfriend Is Better," which seems to pull together every strand at once and sum up both the film and the concert, and yet there are still two songs left to go.)
Of course, the structure wouldn't be worth much if it weren't for what was being structured. Tina Weymouth, in particular, practically beams throughout and is just about the most joyous bass player ever caught on celluloid. Perhaps the most underrated as well: It's worth noting that — with two additional singers, a guitar player, a percussionist and P-Funk's Bernie Worrell on keyboards fleshing out the band — she's the only Talking Head whose instrument isn't augmented by someone else.
Byrne, meanwhile, is a compelling ringmaster, so masterful in his control of what's happening on stage that he even gets one of the cameramen to sing along during "Girlfriend Is Better." He's also every bit the twitchy dork that everyone knows he is — not only ranging around the stage with an intense curiosity but at one point literally running laps around it — but instead of appearing uncomfortable in his body, he moves with a curious grace.
Which brings me back to the audience. Byrne's rubber-boned dancing provoked laughter from the people in the theater with me, not because it was funny, but purely as an expression of delight. They also had no compunctions about applauding along with the crowd in the movie (again, not because they thought that the Talking Heads could hear them, but because that's how your body physically responds after these experiences). By the end, when the band and their stage and film crews took their bows, I was applauding with them.