Still Making Sense: why Stop Making Sense is "the Citizen Kane of concert movies"

Even after three decades, Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense feels mint fresh. With Glasgow Film Festival's late night screening coming up, we take the opportunity to sing its praises. Plus: five other great concert films

Feature by Lewis Porteous | 17 Feb 2015

Commonly referred to as "the Citizen Kane of concert movies," Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense matches Orson Welles' enduring milestone in terms of innovation and technical accomplishment, if not influence. While Kane played a crucial role in mapping out the language of cinema, the esteemed document of Talking Heads' 1983 tour is generally agreed to be leagues ahead of all competition in what's still regarded as a largely disposable medium. Blame MTV.

Talking Heads, formed by a quartet of New York art students, were more adept than most when it came to courting that pop cultural behemoth, complementing hits like Once in a Lifetime, Love for Sale and Road to Nowhere with arresting, often inscrutable moving images. Viewed several decades later, these music videos seem like defiant anomalies, almost aggressive in their anti-rock'n'roll aesthetics. In the latter, a diaper-wearing elderly man clambers inside a cardboard box while main creative force David Byrne gazes vacantly into the distance, as though a stockbroker troubled by knowledge of an inoperable brain tumour.

For nerds like Byrne, video served as a perfect means through which to channel his broader artistic sensibilities. True Stories, his sole feature film, is an underrated slice of left field, small town Americana, but Stop Making Sense was the more fully-realised marriage of music and film, and remains the artist's definitive statement. Shot over three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre, the movie famously opens with a close up of Byrne's sneakers as he takes to the stage accompanied only by a boombox. An additional band member is introduced with each song, until the core group are flanked by a host of black instrumentalists and backing singers. They counterpoint the compellingly twitchy frontman's urban alienation with an irrepressible funkiness, eventually allowing him to achieve some form of self-realisation, appearing for a final few songs in an iconic, oversized business suit. The lighting and set design change throughout, reflecting the protagonist's fraught inner life. Flimsy as this narrative may seem on paper, the work is so conceptual and thoughtfully staged as to truly convey the band's collective rhythmic force, and the dynamism of their stage show.

As the 80s wore on, playful new wave intellect gave way to a resurgence in rock star posturing, to which the music television network was more than happy to capitulate. It was somehow determined that footage of bands should be rife with jump cuts, close-ups, dissolves and whatever other tools might make performance seem like an inherently high octane activity. Short attention spans became the order of the day.

Always intended for cinema release, Stop Making Sense was no mere cash in, nor was it a workmanlike exercise in satisfying demand. Nothing before or since has matched it, but there’s much to recommend in the following.

Storefront Hitchcock (Jonathan Demme, 1998)

When Jonathan Demme shot Stop Making Sense, he was a Hollywood outsider with increasing critical clout. By the time he collaborated on this film with psych-folk troubadour Robyn Hitchcock, he stood as a comfortable, Academy Award-winning heavyweight with both Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia behind him. While the earlier film is a portrait of the 80s’ most dominant art rockers, Storefront Hitchcock is an esoteric labour of love, introducing audiences to an artist out of time, who to this day sticks limpet-like to the music industry throughout shifting trends and fashions. Once a punkish upstart, damaged enigma and then college radio hopeful, this captures the artist toward the end of his fruitless run on a series of major labels. He performs largely solo in a vacant Manhattan shop front, with passers-by peering in through the window behind him. The surreal, stream of consciousness monologues for which Hitchcock is known are present throughout, and make for revelatory viewing.

The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)

Along with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York – a big budget musical harking back to the Golden Age of Hollywood – is notorious for being one of the lavish flops that brought the artist-driven auteur cinema of the 70s to its knees. While each of these films can be considered a success in hindsight, their commercial failure came as a devastating blow to each director. Scorsese at least was able to console himself with the reception afforded to this concurrent masterpiece, made amid a fog of insecurity and cocaine addiction. Documenting The Band’s final live performance, it showcases the group’s power as both backing players and an artistic entity in their own right. The director clearly found redemption in the spectacle he helped capture, despite the air of 70s burnout hanging over proceedings. Thousands were spent on removing a rock of cocaine from Neil Young’s nostril in post-production, but Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell offered cinema goers transcendence without resorting to any such trickery.

Urgh! A Music War (Derek Burbidge, 1981)

Although given only a brief theatrical run, this mammoth 1981 compendium of individual group performances became an influential cult item thanks to frequent showings on US TV. Its 37 songs aren’t captured with a huge amount of flair, but add up to an invaluable ‘who’s who’ of post punk and new wave, the ideal gateway for anyone interested in this particularly fertile period of musical activity. Tasteful, commercially appealing cuts from The Police bookend the film, but in between we find game-changing footage of Devo, Klaus Nomi and The Cramps, each act pointing toward a future that would sadly never materialise. The wry Englishness of XTC and John Cooper Clarke must have seemed strange and exotic to American audiences, but the undisputed highlight is a typically esoteric offering from Detroit’s Pere Ubu, leader David Thomas’ unbridled, visionary weirdness requiring repeat viewings to fully process.

Rockshow (Paul McCartney, 1980)

Whatever one’s opinion of Paul McCartney’s output, he’s to be admired for having emerged relatively unscathed from five decades spent as one of the most famous men in the world. Indeed, the worst that can be said of the tofu-munching septuagenarian is that he’s too prone to giving the thumbs-up on stage and in photo shoots. His sanity is often attributed to the years of domestic contentment that followed his spell in The Beatles, but his commitment to maintaining a steady work ethic has seen him remain disciplined and focused. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rockshow, a hugely interesting portrait of the man in his crowd-pleasing pomp as he fronts Wings on a number of prestigious arena dates. Determined to escape the shadow of his former group, only one Beatles track is aired, the performer instead drawing from an entirely separate back catalogue of now-forgotten hits. Lingering camera shots show just how hard he’s trying, and he absolutely pulls it off, to the point that watching the film in 2015 is like glimpsing a parallel universe in which the star’s credibility never waned.

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1970)

Although pitched as a documentary, this offering from the Maysles brothers, best known for giving us Grey Gardens and Salesman, comprises a significant amount of concert footage. Following the Rolling Stones in the lead up to their notorious 1969 Altamont Free Concert, it gives a sense not only of what it was like to be in attendance at that disastrous and tragic show, but of the direction in which America was turning at the tail end of the 60s. Conceived in the spirit of peace and love, the noble intentions of the band’s free concert were undermined by the logistical issues that arose prior to the occasion, and the violence that ran rife opposite the stage. The event’s unscrupulous organisers called the Hells Angels in to enforce security at the show, and, while it’s funny watching Grace Slick from support act Jefferson Airplane attempting to curb their brutality with hippy rhetoric, a biker’s murder of an armed black fan is horrifying to watch. Viewers are shown members of the Stones responding to the footage and, in turn, get to watch the 60s dream die in real time.

The Skinny at Glasgow Film Festival 2015:

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Part of Glasgow Film Festival: 20 Feb, GFT, 11.15pm

Screened from a new digital print and introduced by Scott Paterson as part of Monorail Film Club