The second he walked onto that stage, I fell in love. David Byrne circa three decades ago has the kind of hair — a dark brown, straight yet messy beast — that makes girls swoon.
It’s just him and his grey suit on stage for the first few intimate frames of “Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme’s (“The Silence of the Lambs”) lauded, barrier-breaking concert film, which enjoyed a screening at the Michigan Theater last week. Byrne’s band, new wave darlings the Talking Heads, performed three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983, and Demme caught it all. The smiles, the sweat, the exposed ladders and technical accoutrement turned digital, bright red backdrops — it’s all filmed with smooth pans and downright stunning close-up shots.
The grooviest aspect, though, is the fact that the Talking Heads’ best songs — “Psycho Killer,” “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” “Once in a Lifetime,” etc. — play nonstop during it all.
Byrne’s eyes are freaky-wide as the camera stays tight in the opening scene. He’s cringing, “I can't seem to face up to the facts / I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax,” and neither can the anxious cinematography. We get long shots of Byrne’s stark white sneakers, his pristine cheekbones: our avant-garde Moses is dry and new, singing with sonorous chutzpah as he guides us on this journey of impending sweat and colorful cacophony.
Bit by bit, other members of the band join him on stage. Tina Weymouth, one of the original badass band chicks, smokes on the bass. She’s donning a baggy grey jumpsuit and swinging blonde locks as Jerry Harrison hops alongside on rhythm guitar, and Chris Frantz looks like an extra from “Caddyshack” in a green polo as he begins to bang those essential tom toms. By the end, he’ll be soaked in sweat, too. These are the Talking Heads.
Frantz and Byrne met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’70s, and formed the band officially in ’75. The Heads’ music sounds exactly the way you’d think art school would sound: off-the-wall and kitschy, with inspiration pulled from a variety of muses. There are tinges of world music, punk rock, gospel and funk; this sexy hodge-podge shows in the concert’s staging, which gets exponentially more eye-catching as the film rolls on. An intense, scarlett backdrop accompanies “Swamp.” Everything goes dim for “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” and you can feel the happiness simmering in Byrne’s eyes as he smiles, singing, fiddling with a lamp: “I got plenty of time / You got light in your eyes / And you're standing here beside me / I love the passing of time.” There’s also a picture of human buttocks in the background.
Part of being human is learning to accept the fact that we get bored, even at concerts. But “Stop Making Sense” never gets boring. Even when things start to teeter on typical, unorthodoxy prevails. Byrne starts seizing on stage in between lines of the chorus on “Once in a Lifetime,” his body gyrating from head-to-toe like an impassioned preacher. He pops out in a giant gray suit with bigger shoulder pads that reduce his head to the size of a toe on “Girlfriend is Better.” He leaves the stage entirely so Frantz and Weymouth can perform a song as the Tom Tom Club, the married duo’s side project, which spawned the smash “Genius of Love.”
During this jam, Weymouth hunches over, bouncing back and forth between each of her bent legs as Frantz scratchily yells out “JAMES BROWN? JAMES BROWN” behind his drumset. All of this is nothing short of funk-driven madness, yes, but it feels right — artistic — and it makes the film’s 88 minutes unapologetically thrilling.
Yet, I fear I’m not making sense. It’s difficult to capture the fundamental allure of Demme’s work in words. I didn’t just watch the concert: I was at the concert, in 1983, and Byrne was singing “Heaven” to me. I could see the scratches on his acoustic guitar, hear every imperfection and perfection. “Heaven / Heaven is a place / A place where nothing / Nothing ever happens.” It doesn’t make sense; I’m not making sense. But, with every fiber of life in my human limbs, I wanted to jump to my feet and applaud after “Heaven” was over.
Because I fell in love with David Byrne, this odd little talking head. And music, too. All over again.