Widely regarded as the pinnacle of concert filmmaking, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense stands as a transformative piece of art, transcending the boundaries of live music and performance. Released in 1984, Demme captures the intricate and enigmatic essence of Talking Heads’ performance at Hollywood Pantages Theatre on their 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour: Demme’s direction immortalises the iconicity of the rock band, with its symbiotic relationship with the music and performance. Natalie Howarth delves into the powerful fusion of movement, dance and music that renders this film a testament to live music’s transcendentalism.
Often labelled as performance art, Byrne’s iconic moves are deliberately jerky yet groovy, mirroring and synchronising the emotional nuances of his lyrics. There is a ‘counter-culture-esque’ feel towards his style of dance as it boasts eccentricity and unconventionality, entering the realm of storytelling through the body: as seen in his transformation into the big suit persona, the narrative is developing and he is engaging with his use of dance to tell a story.
Stop Making Sense chronicles an iconic moment in musical history. David Byrne is a powerhouse who channels high-energy and charisma with his eccentric and unusual dance movements that resonate with the musical storytelling of the lyrics. “Once In A Lifetime” using distinctive movements like body jerking to express a visual narrative of uncertainty and incongruity. The lyrics: ‘And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”, And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife”’. The challenge of traditional live performance is what has gave Talking Heads their reputation as performers providing a collective joy of music and dance.
Music as a powerful medium possesses a quality that to unites and brings people together, and Talking Heads achieves this successfully in the continual erasure of music boundaries in their live performances. Often compartmentalised and confined into new wave and art-rock categories, the seamless blend and weave of diverse influences through genre fusions such punk, funk and world music showcases the band’s success with experimentation and how they engage and explore their musical sound. The embrace of the multigenre and constant push of the confines of popular music serves as a testament to musical exploration and a reminder of their rejections of genre labels: this notion has formed their musical identity.
THE INFUSION OF DIFFERENT MUSICAL GENRES INVITES MANY POSSIBILITIES IN BOTH DANCE MOVEMENTS AND STAGE PRESENCE.
During the band’s magnum opus “Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place)”, Byrne continues his unusual head jerks accompanied by the lyrics “Home is where I want to be but I guess I’m already there”. Once he has finished singing, one of the most visually striking performance elements is queued in his routine where he swings it around is most likely to visually connect the absurdism in the lyrics, accentuating an uneasiness and lack of orientation. The swinging lamp is evocative and brightens up the stage during this track while also making you nervous as it come close to the floor when being swung from side to side. The position of the lamp on stage transforms the performance into a spectacle, aligning with Byrne’s desire to push performance boundaries.
The eminent and legendary moment when David Byrne appears on stage sporting an extremely oversized suit to make his head appear small and while singing Girlfriend Is Better is an absolute highlight. There are many misconceptions about the reasoning behind Byrne’s choice to wear the suit including that it is a quirky fashion choice, however it is more meaningful than that. There is a visual irony to wearing it with his energetic performance and dynamism: Byrne wants to communicate the fluidity of artistic expression. With his slender figure juxtaposed by the large suit that drowns him, he looks surreal and also seems restricted to movement. The fact that he only changes into the big suit towards the end of the setlist could be a suggestion of performance as transformative and unfixed: performance as a concept is constantly evolving and shifting.
BYRNE EXPRESSES THE VIEW OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION IN HIS LARGE SUIT AS MULTIFACETED WHILE CHALLENGING NATURAL CONVENTIONS OF A ROCK CONCERT WEARING THE BIG SUIT THAT COULD BE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE PRESSURES TO FULFIL EXPECTATIONS, SOCIETALLY OR IN PERFORMANCE.
Byrne’s dancing in Stop Making Sense will forever circulate and remain within the periphery of popular culture. His commitment to creating an immersive and shared experience through dance and music resonates as a timeless inspiration for present and future generations of musicians seeking to push boundaries. Elevated to the status of a rare and outstanding concert in history, the 1983 live performance transcends time and has become a timeless classic, bridging generational gaps and allowing the brilliance of Talking Heads to be a source of love and appreciation.
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