Frequently cited as one of the best concert films ever made, Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense is just that: a concert film. There's no backstage footage, no supplemental interviews, no look at life on the road or the creation or recording of the music played onstage. It's a pretty straight run-through of the Talking Heads' 1984 live show, culled from three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. The question, then, is what makes this a great movie and not merely an entertaining souvenir for Talking Heads fans?
Honestly, at times while I was watching the movie, I couldn't really say. Obviously Demme has a great deal of filmmaking skill, and he's essentially pursued parallel careers as a director of narrative films, including a number of serious Hollywood prestige films (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Beloved), and as a documentarian, including several concert films (among them collaborations with Neil Young and Robyn Hitchcock). So he's doing more here than just plopping some cameras down and letting the band play. From the moment the movie opens with a close-up on the feet of Heads frontman David Byrne as he walks onstage, you can tell that Demme is taking care with how he frames the performance, and Byrne, who designed the stage show, is also clearly conscious of how everything looks on camera.
So we get an elaborate, protracted opening, with each of the band's four core members successively appearing on the first four songs, then joined by several supplemental musicians. The stage, too, is being set up as the band plays, with stagehands bringing out the instruments at the same time as the musicians emerge. Later as video projections and lighting design come into play, Demme maximizes their potential as cinematic elements (he presents almost all of "Once in a Lifetime" in one unbroken shot of Byrne, his face eerily illuminated from below). Demme also refrains from showing all but the most indistinct blur of the audience until the very last song, making it a sort of catharsis to finally see the exuberant fans dancing in the aisles.
At the same time, much of the movie really is just watching the band play, and while I mostly enjoyed it (I'm not a huge Talking Heads fan, but they're clearly talented), I didn't quite see it as the cinematic revelation it was made out to be upon its initial release. Maybe there are just too many undistinguished concert "movies" clogging DVD shelves these days, or maybe the music didn't grab me enough. Either way, while Stop Making Sense may be a cut above your average live-show keepsake, I don't think it quite qualifies as a great movie.