The initial reaction to this re-release of Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film from 1984 is obviously to wonder when Andrew Scott is going to face up to his destiny and do a David Byrne biopic. But otherwise it’s just excitement at the sheer energy and presentness of the band’s unique music. I’ve been singing along to it with glassy-eyed fanaticism these 40 years, while still having zero idea as to what most of it means. It never even started making sense in those ordinary terms, but its poetic power is as potent as ever.
This film was shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, when the band was promoting their album Speaking in Tongues, which was to give them their smash hit Burning Down the House. The star of the show is of course whip-thin David Byrne, the Chuck Berry of new wave art-rock: duck-walking, bopping, ululating and grooving all the over the stage. Perhaps it was this film, released at the very height of the band’s success, which rightly or wrongly crystallised the public’s perception of Byrne as someone more important than the rest of the band, and accelerated his direction of travel towards a solo career. (Although, in truth, Spike Lee’s recent David Byrne solo concert movie American Utopia is very much influenced by the Demme film.)
The songs themselves are dynamic and compelling microdramas enigmatically enclosed within their own Truman-Show universe but beckoning us inside as well. Found a Job (from 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food) is a classic track about TV addiction: the weird angular emphases have always grabbed me, but now more than ever. “People fighting over little things and wasting precious time / They might be better off I think, the way it seems to me / Making up their own shows, which might be better than TV.” Wait – did Talking Heads predict TikTok?
The showstopper is, of course, when Byrne comes out in his surreal cream-coloured “Big Suit” to sing Girlfriend Is Better: it’s a two-dimensional sketch of a suit, making Byrne look like a guy who has been flattened by a steamroller, but in which he doesn’t seem in the least constricted, physically or in any other way. His suit is not a joke, exactly, and yet it has no obvious serious import. Actually, where is the Big Suit now? Shouldn’t it be in the Victoria & Albert museum?
When this film was first released, there was much talk about which cinemas were going to be able to show it at “concert volume”; it would be great if they could all provide that now, but it’s not vital. The pleasure of the music is overpowering.
• Stop Making Sense is released on 22 September in Imax cinemas in the UK and the US, and on 29 September in UK and US cinemas.