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Our review of Stop Making Sense, published November 6th, 1999, is also available.
"I've got a tape I want to play."
The Talking Heads have always been a band at odds, fighting not only between themselves, but in balancing critical success and mainstream popularity. For them, the two have often been mutually exclusive. Recorded at the apex of this precarious balancing act, at the heyday of the band's critical success and popularity Stop Making Sense is now available on Blu-Ray to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary.
A collaboration between esteemed director Jonathan Demme and musician David Byrne, Stop Making Sense is a concert film on the surface—the band comes out and plays music, and the disc stops when they do. Simplistic, and yet, Stop Making Sense has been wildly hailed as a masterpiece of filmmaking in the live concert genre, distilling the format and bending the expectations of audiences as to what we expect from concert films. There are no interviews with the band. There are no shots of the crowd. There are no segues, no breaks, no historical biography, no shots of the exterior venue. There are no quick edits. Stop Making Sense bears more similarities to a moving, organic, living art exhibit than a live performance. It is the polar opposite of every MTV video you have ever seen.
The track list as follows:
• Psycho Killer
Not merely a collection of songs presented to audiences, Stop Making Sense builds in intensity and complexity like a boiling kettle, a complex and shrewd production that belies the amount of thought and planning put into constructing it. The concert begins with an acoustic guitar, a boom box and David Byrne, alone on a sparse, half-constructed stage. Like the evolution of the band itself, each song brings on a new band member—first the bass, then the drums, then more guitars—along with more cameramen, more crew and more additions to the set, until we are immersed into a full-blown concert production without realizing it. By the time the band hits "Burning Down The House," the lights are blaring and the stage is crammed full of musicians. Funk players Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steve Scales and two backup singers complement the band as they delve into a cacophonic fusion of funk, world music, punk rock and jazz. It is impossible not to be mesmerized by Byrne, a flailing bundle of arms and legs wrapped up in a grey suit, head bobbing like a turkey walking and strutting on the ground. His nasal, frenetic vocals set the momentum of the show, a non-stop sequence of erratic dance choreograph, wild undulations of rhythm and motion, and even comically oversized suits.
A concert film structured with cinematic narrative, Stop Making Sense blurs the dividing line between a live concert and a motion picture, borrowing elements from both. The set grows as the band matures and the songs grow more diverse, a physical manifestation of the band's own growth and musical complexity. The film is almost entirely absent of a live audience presence, with no crowd shots and barely any noise included in the mix, as if the band is playing for you and you alone. Only in the final moments of Stop Making Sense do we see the fourth wall, the audience in their delighted glory. Lighting is entirely natural, with none of the standard bright colored lights illuminating the stage, using only ambient and creative sources of light to shoot the Heads, like lamps and projection screens. The end result is a film with excessive shadows and long takes, a sharp contrast between musical excess and simplistic visuals that has a poetry about it; a simple elegance. Demme holds shots for impossible lengths—at least in concert terms—for minutes at a time, allowing the band to move, breathe and interact, to be characters in a narrative.
Being a concert film twenty-five years old, Stop Making Sense offers an impressive Blu-Ray presentation, provided that you set your standards accordingly. The 1080p transfer, remastered from a 35mm interpositive shows its age without shame or hesitation, offering muted colors, soft details and overwhelming black levels. Compared to modern high definition concert films, Stop Making Sense (Blu-Ray) cannot compete, but neither should it have to—this is an authentic and honest presentation that represents the source material very well. Think of it as splitting the difference between modern fidelity and historical preservation. It may be far from a clean and sanitized transfer, showing quite heavy amounts of black and white speckling throughout, grain and other minor print damage, but little nuances, like the textures of clothing, are now apparent for the first time. This Blu-Ray presentation is as close to the original theatrical experience as you will find.
As for audio, here is where this Blu-Ray shines. Two separate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are offered, the original theatrical mix and a studio remixed version of the soundtrack. The differences between the two are immediately apparent; the first is akin to sitting front row in the concert, loud and warm and totally immersive in waves of undulating sound. The studio mix has been tweaked to sound more "studio," like a live album recorded from the soundboard, with cleaner and more defined instrument definition, reduced ambient noises and well-situated placement. Audiophiles may well prefer this studio mix, which is brighter, less reverberating and makes more efficient use of the multiple channels to fill the sonic space, but to my ears, I do love the murky warmth of the feature mix. It almost sounds—and I laugh at the irony—analog, an especially droll notion because nothing about the sound mix in Stop Making Sense is even remotely analog. The film was an early pioneer in all-digital recording, so the quality here is superb. Both mixes are stunning, with punchy bass and sound marvelous turned all the way up. For those lacking the hardware, a surprisingly functional stereo PCM mix is also included, which more closely resembles the theatrical mix in its nuances and tone.
In terms of extras, Stop Making Sense (Blu-Ray) is a near-identical copy of the previous DVD release, with the notable addition of a press conference from the San Francisco Film Festival. Presented in its entirety way back in 1999, reuniting the band for the film's fifteenth anniversary, when I say in its entirety, I mean it—even the boring moments of idle crowd chatter where no questions are being answered. It's all here. Fans of the band will appreciate this examination into the dynamic between the musicians, and the not-quite-resolved tensions and undercurrents of discontent that mar their faces as they interact with each other, having been apart for so long. The footage runs over an hour in length, upscaled from SD footage, and suffers some production gaffes and audio quirks. It is a great feature to have, but only will be truly appreciated by musical historians.
The rest of the features mirror the standard DVD release. We get two bonus tracks, "Cities" and "Big Business / I Zimbra." A commentary track recorded by the four band members and director Jonathan Demme is a hilariously fragmented and awkward track that exhibits signs of having been recorded totally isolated from one another, punctuated by long periods of silence. "Montage" is a three-minute segment of shots from the film, "Big Suit" offers some descriptive text about Byrne's trademark big suit, and "Byrne Self Interview" is a five-minute fun interview with Byrne, interviewing himself in various costume and makeup. Storyboard slides round out the feature offering.
A microcosm of a band at the height of their musical and creative talent, synchronicity and success, Stop Making Sense is superb achievement from start to finish. This is a concert film that engages audiences with surprisingly skilled cinematic expression, expanding its appeal far beyond mere fans of the band. The Blu-Ray looks good, but sounds absolutely tremendous, and represents a tempting upgrade for those of us with the hardware to support it.
It really is the best concert film ever made.
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