Well concert videos do provide an angle missing from the real thing, the chance to see the artists as more than brightly coloured dancing blobs, largely indistinguishable. The camera operators can weave their way around the stage, capturing expressions, postures; vital body language. If you're fortunate they might even take a few shots of the heaving crowd mass, where you'd like to have been, and record snatches of the often inaudible witty banter. Small recompense perhaps, but better than nothing. That's why Stop Making Sense surprises; it barely stoops to notice the audience, let alone waste time on inter-song chatter. Jonathan Demme, the director, focuses on Talking Heads to the exclusion of all else, letting songs flow with nary a pause.
In many ways this minimalism validates the "less is more" philosophy. By cutting away the self-adulating, narcissistic tendencies common to other concert films, Demme enables us to concentrate on Talking Heads and their compositions. From the outset Stop Making Sense confines itself to the stage, populated by the band members and a few props. David Byrne walks on, alone but for a ghetto blaster and an electro-beat. He runs through a beautifully spare interpretation of Psycho Killer, infrequently breaking off to stumble jerkily away from the microphone. As each new tune breaks out, another musician appears to enlarge the soundscape. First bass-plucker Tina Weymouth, then Chris Frantz on drums, soon after backing vocalists, keyboard players and more. By the end of Stop Making Sense the field is full, all swaying to a synchronised melody.
Director of photography Jordan Cronenweth, guided by Demme, makes a superb job of filming the stage-show. His cameras remain entirely unobtrusive, circling the artists as they perform; actions and movements are observed without the musicians becoming self-aware, that they are reflected in the glass eye. Stop Making Sense benefits greatly from this unembroidered approach, with editor Lisa Day making the most of footage obtained over several nights. Oddly though the lack of visible audience interaction has a negative effect, in that the artists seem disconnected from their reason for being there. It's a little bit like watching them beaver away in the studio, except for the dancing and big, white suit worn by Byrne.
Fundamentally this points towards the film's biggest weakness, a dichotomy between song and show, each detracting and distracting from the other. Which is not to say that Stop Making Sense doesn't enlighten you as to how Talking Heads interpret their material and elect to present it, just that the set-list is great in its own right. It doesn't improve through an endless, repetitive series of chicken-like dances. Yes the show is amazing in its creative design and technical versatility, but that doesn't make it emotionally involving. As a visual experience, the movie is a bit like watching TV through a shop window, you can get the gist of what's going on but it's hardly like owning the TV yourself. For this, the audio experience, it might be wiser to listen to the CD (since there's no chance of another live concert).
That said, Stop Making Sense is pretty much unique. No other concert film is so dedicated to bringing you into the musician's circle, independent of the folk standing beyond the spotlight's glare. The Talking Heads may be playing in a void but you're right there in the void too, locked in to Byrne's spastic charisma. At times his singing can be rather hard to bear, when his reedy voice pushes to the edge, but the group's dynamic beat is always supportive. It's also great witnessing familiar tunes, to discern separate instruments through musical deconstruction, but that still doesn't make the movie an emotional event. Stop Making Sense is a strange entity, neither concert nor film but something in-between; maybe this is precisely what Demme aimed for?