Liner Notes: ‘Stop Making Sense’ still makes sense after all these years
Stars and Stripes October 23, 2023
“It’s like being told, ‘You should get back with your first wife -- you guys were good together.’ Well, I think most people would pass on an offer like that.”
That quote is how Jonathan Gould’s comprehensive reflection on Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” concluded earlier this month in The New Yorker. Those words, unsurprisingly, came from David Byrne, the proposed brain trust behind the Heads who somehow manages to feel as overrated as he does underrated sometimes. Genius is genius, of course, but pretentious doesn’t always accurately serve as a stand-in for it. Byrne has straddled that line too much in his career.
The use of that quote was in relation to a panel on which the band sat after a screening of “Stop Making Sense” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently. It was referenced after the band was asked if they might ever perform again and naturally, each member found a way to talk around an answer that almost certainly could have plainly been stated as “no.” One look at Byrne’s quote from years ago is proof of that.
Still, those words don’t not apply to the fancy re-release of “Stop Making Sense” in movie theaters. The visuals are supposed to be updated – clearer, sharper, more refined - and the sound quality, producers promise, is meant to blow viewers away. This ain’t no party and this ain’t no disco … but this release does feature high-resolution 4K imagery!
That in mind, I had to see for myself. The result: It was fine? Good? OK? Not a waste of time? Use any of those words and you won’t be wrong. If you’ve been a fan of the movie for the better part of 40 years, you’ll be a fan of this most recent go-around. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a hell of a time capsule. If you don’t think it’s the greatest concert film of all time, this won’t change your mind. If you already think nothing’s better than this flick, chances are you’ll continue to believe just that after leaving the movie theater.
Even so, it wasn’t the upgrades or the restorations that compelled me to want to check it out. Instead, that award went to the mere possibility of seeing something like this on a big screen for the first time. Maybe the picture was crisper and maybe the soundtrack was improved (which, for the record, didn’t necessarily do some members of the Heads any favors), but in truth, none of that mattered.
At the top of my personal list were two things: To see the Big Suit on the Big Screen and to see how “Psycho Killer” comes together in that magnificently inventive way in a larger-than-life visual (no matter what you might think about the movie as a whole, there isn’t a better beginning to a concert film ever). Thankfully, the moviegoing experience didn’t disappoint. There was Byrne leading his band through a rigorous workout, sweating through his suit, gyrating his way across the stage countless times. There was Tina Weymouth right beside him, perfecting the art of running in place while playing the bass guitar. There was Chris Frantz, smiling … and then smiling some more … and then smiling some more. There was Jerry Harrison, bouncing seamlessly from guitar to keys, back to guitar, back to keys. Seeing it all transpire in a movie theater, on a large screen made the proceedings grander than ever before. After each song concluded, I felt like I should clap.
Above all else, though, revisiting “Stop Making Sense” proved that there’s a reason Timeless Music Moments stand the test of, well, time. I’m not so sure that I agree with the narrative that this is the greatest concert film ever, but I can say with certainty that reconnecting with it after all these years, it felt so intensely natural to fall back into love with those songs and those performances. In a vacuum, this was an inspired band playing inspired songs to an inspired audience. No amount of years can compromise that reality. No layer of fancy restoration can remove the soul from that truth.
So, in all, revisiting “Stop Making Sense” isn’t just a victory for Talking Heads; it’s a victory for the legacy of special moments in music history. These days, it’s easy to cloud those memories with cynicism or recency bias. Music consumption has evolved so dramatically through the decades that it’s hard to tell what might hold up from 1983 in 2023 and what might be dismissed as a simple flash in the pan.
Outside of Taylor Swift’s world domination, it’s easy to think that something like “Stop Making Sense” might never happen again. Concert films barely exist anymore because concerts don’t hold the same place in the pop culture zeitgeist that they once held. YouTube clips and Tik Tok posts dictate the live music moments that are celebrated these days. They are designed to be short, display below-average quality, and provide nothing more than a fleeting 45 seconds that can be immediately thrown away like a piece of chewing gum that has lost its flavor.
“Stop Making Sense” is an experience – and an hour-and-a-half experience at that. It celebrates music, blends genres, defines performance art in the musical realm and encapsulates the best of what a concert can and should be: Definitive, inspiring, magical. So, while his band performing together again someday might be like getting back together with a first spouse, as Byrne suggested, his band’s movie is anything but that. Because having the opportunity to see this gem of a film in a movie theater all these years later is an offer on which nobody – not even Taking Heads themselves – ought to pass.