Found a Job: Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads


Hard to believe, but true: STOP MAKING SENSE turned thirty earlier this year.  The Talking Heads’ sole departure into concert films seems ageless in the appeal of its music and its engaging live show.  Contemporary bands cite it as a musical and visual influence on their own work, and few other concert films have captured its potency or brought its subjects to a wider audience with the same skill.

STOP MAKING SENSE had its roots in an early ‘80s show the Talking Heads performed at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.  Director Jonathan Demme attended with his producer, Gary Goetzman, both of whom came away impressed.  “I was watching this, and I thought ‘this is a movie!’” Demme said in a 1999 audio commentary for the film.  “There was no real narrative, but you were seeing a cast of characters and stories.”

By that time, the Talking Heads had cultivated a profile as one of the most ambitious and avant-garde bands to come out of the New York punk scene.  As a trio in Providence, they wrote songs that considered the perspective of an intellectual, introverted serial killer who spoke French.  Art-rock polymath Brian Eno produced their breakthrough album, Remain in Light, and lead singer David Byrne scored Twyla Tharp’s ballet The Catherine Wheel.  Meanwhile, their rhythmic, playful music found a wide national audience.  Their album Speaking in Tongues made the Billboard Top 20, and the music video for “Burning Down the House” got frequent airplay in the early days of MTV.  As the band embarked on an ambitious American tour, Demme pulled together a film crew to immortalize the Heads’ three-night engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.

Both Byrne and guitarist Jerry Harrison cite kabuki theatre as an influence on the STOP MAKING SENSE stage show.  Byrne’s iconic big suit was inspired by the exaggerated costumes of traditional Japanese plays, as were his jerky dance moves during the song “Once in a Lifetime”.  The omnipresent black-clad stagehands, who moved set pieces on and off the stage in plain sight, were borne of this tradition, too, but their presence also speaks to the narrative structure of the film and to themes in Demme’s work.

STOP MAKING SENSE was a transitional work for Demme, who at the time had mostly directed features for Roger Corman.  His films foreground the importance of work – many of his characters took pride in their jobs, and places of employment were the primary settings for several films.  The presence of hard-working stage crews isn’t out of place, even in a documentary about a rock band.

Demme’s appreciation of a job well done intersected nicely with some of the Heads’ lyrical preoccupations, as well as the way they built their artistic process into their songwriting and recording.  The film takes this a step further by making these themes visible.  The famous opening scene, in which Byrne plays “Psycho Killer” to accompaniment ostensibly played on a boom box, reflects Byrne’s songwriting process: looking for a new way to play the band’s oldest song, he programmed a beat on an 808 synth and translated it to public performance by “do[ing] it like I do at home.  Play it over dinky speakers and play guitar.”  A well-placed camera in the wings stage right led Demme to a serendipitous shot: “David, Jerry, and Tina lined up and got into this wave thing…[it] visually beautifully illustrated the physical harmony that comes with creating music in a band.”

On the other hand, Byrne built the onstage presence of the crew into the concept of the tour.  “The audience would see each piece of stage gear being put into place and then see, as soon as possible afterward, what that instrument or type of lighting did,” he recalled in his 2012 book How Music Works.  “It seemed like such an obvious idea that I was shocked that I didn’t know of a music show that had done it before.”  The band joined him onstage, one by one, more or less in the order in which they joined the band.  In this way, we get a visual shorthand of the Talking Heads’ history to 1983.

This wasn’t the only accidental narrative that evolved into the stage show.  “My character…takes a kind of journey [in the film],” Byrne observed in 1999.  “He starts off as Mr. Stiff White Guy and does his very best to get down and get loose by the end of the show, to shed his inhibitions…By the very last song he kind of gives it up and lets go, and he’s free.  Or at least he’s lost himself inside the music.  And so he’s kind of changed as a person.”  Demme concurs, adding that the character’s transformation helps the film remain fresh three decades after its first screenings.

STOP MAKING SENSE had its world premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, and the infectious live performances encouraged audience dancing and nearly brought the house down.  After opening at the end of April, the film became a sleeper hit in the spring and early summer of 1984.  Its popularity allowed Jonathan Demme to make films that spoke more to his sensibility than to that of his backers.  Throughout his filmography, the director has intermingled film and underground rock.  Hoboken punk band the Feelies appeared as the house band for the ill-fated high school reunion in SOMETHING WILD, a film that also featured reggae singer Sister Carol and Suburban Lawns frontwoman Su Tissue among its cast.  In addition to Sister Carol, musicians-turned-thespians like Robyn Hitchcock, Chris Isaak, Fab 5 Freddy, and Tunde Adebimpe have appeared in his films.  His videos for New Order and Bruce Springsteen have focused on the work involved with making art, a theme he carried over from STOP MAKING SENSE

As for the Talking Heads, the film’s success proved bittersweet.  While they recorded three studio albums and were the subject of another feature film (David Byrne’s sole directorial effort, TRUE STORIES), they disbanded acrimoniously in 1992, only reuniting for their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Though a Magic 8-Ball would say that signs of their reunion point to no, their music has developed an impressive half-life.  Bands from Vampire Weekend to Phish have cited them as an influence; Franz, Weymouth, and Harrison have all had long careers as producers and occasional performers, and Byrne’s peripatetic career has taken him from the printed page to the Broadway stage.  Though the Heads may never perform together again, STOP MAKING SENSE has in a way made them immortal.

Chelsea Spear is a frequent contributor to and is the Latin Alternative correspondent for The Spill Magazine. Her byline has also appeared in Bust Magazine and at The Boxx. She lives in Somerville.
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