Talking HeadsTina WeymouthJerry HarrisonDavid ByrneChris Frantz
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Stop making Sense

Stop Making Sense Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense Blu-ray
Stop Making Sense Disc: 50GB Blu-ray
Umvd/Visual Entertainment | 1984 | 88 mins | Oct 13, 2009

Album Review
“Burning down the house!”

Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, September 28, 2009

Like The Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, the critically adored Talking Heads are one of those bands that belong on a “most influential/least listened to” list. To give an idea of how embroiled they were in their milieu, their first gig was opening for The Ramones at CBGB in 1975.

Stop Making Sense Blu Ray Talking Heads

From art- punk origins, their sound eventually broadened to encompass elements of funk, new wave, and worldbeat. In December 1983, at the height of their critical and commercial success, the Talking Heads employed director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) to document three nights of performances at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, which were later edited together to form Stop Making Sense, widely revered as one of the greatest rock concert films of all time.

The concert starts with startling simplicity. After a Dr. Strangelove-inspired credit sequence, courtesy of titlist Pablo Ferro, David Byrne—clad in a grey suit and white sneakers— comes out on stage carrying a guitar and a boom box. “Hi,” he says, “I’ve got a tape I want to play.” As he hits the play button, a beat from a TR-808 drum machine kicks into a scattershot rhythm, and Byrne launches into the yelping melody of “Psycho Killer,” the band’s first song, written when Byrne was still in art school. During the song’s breakdown, the drum machine spits out bullet-like beats that cause Bryne to theatrically stagger and trip across the bare stage in a dance halfway between Fred Astaire and a dying soldier. It’s a moment that sets the tone for the show to come—unpredictable, spastic, enraptured.

With each subsequent song, an additional band member joins in while roadies dressed in black roll new pieces of equipment on stage. Bassist Tina Weymouth puts down low-end roots during the 1950s-inspired strains of “Heaven,” Chris Frantz alternates snare hits for a staccato country backbeat on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” and Jerry Harrison rounds out the band’s initial foursome by layering chicken scratch guitar over “Found A Job.” By the time we get to early highlight “Burning Down The House,” the original lineup has been supplemented by a who’s who of funk all-stars—including back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, keyboard whiz Bernie Worrell, fleet-footed guitarist Alex Weir, and percussionist Steve Scales—many of whom were one-time members of Paliament-Funkadelic. As much as the Talking Heads have been summarily lumped in with the new wave crowd, their sound goes way beyond dance beats, keyboard riffs, and angular guitars (though there are plenty of those as well). The music defies easy categorization, but if I had to give it a name, it would be arty, afro-influenced, new wave post- punk funk, a pigeon hole big enough for the Talking Heads and no one else.

The music is powerfully danceable, and the evolutionary staging is innovative—even if, in hindsight, it’s the simplest idea ever —but every element of the show seems to orbit around the nucleus of David Byrne’s charismatic, transfixing presence. Like his alter ego in “Pyscho Killer,” he’s a real live wire, a spasmodically jerking bundle of kinetic energy trapped in a nebbish persona that’s a cross between David Lynch and Bill Nye the Science Guy. At times his fervor is almost Pentecostal—he sends his quaking hands heavenward, jumps with preacherly joy, and flails on his back, bowled over by the musical spirit. At one point in “Life During Wartime,” Byrne gets so worked up that he actually starts jogging laps around the stage, faster and faster. “Naïve Melody” finds him dancing romantically with a floor lamp, and “Once In A Lifetime” features Byrne framed in the harsh shadows of chiaroscuro lighting, smacking himself in the face repeatedly and shuddering like a surprised epileptic having his first seizure. It’s an act, yes, but one that serves as an effective visual summary of his lyrics, which often deal with the suffocating contradictions and anxieties of 20th century existence. At the start of “Girlfriend Is Better,” Byrne emerges wearing an enormous, oversized white suit, echoing the “lost my shape trying to act casual” lyrics from “Crosseyed and Painless,” and also acting out T.S. Eliot’s idea of modern men as “stuffed shirts.” The image is immediately iconic and thought-provoking, a reminder of why the Talking Heads remain so eminently influential.

Tracklisting:

1. Psycho Killer
2. Heaven
3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
4. Found A Job
5. Slippery People
6. Burning Down The House
7. Life During Wartime
8. Making Flippy Floppy
9. Swamp
10. What A Day That Was
11. This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
12. Once In A Lifetime
13. Genius Of Love
14. Girlfriend Is Better
15. Take Me To The River
16. Crosseyed And Painless

Video

I’ll just say this up front—objectively compared to the color and clarity of modern concert films, Stop Making Sense’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which has been remastered from a 35mm interpositive, simply can’t compete. Shots are frequently soft, black levels have a tendency to crush shadow detail, colors are a bit dull, and the print itself shows damage with specks, flecks, and the occasional scratch. But you know what? The 25-year old film still looks great, and the image jives perfectly with the Talking Heads’ art-school aesthetic. What the transfer lacks in detail, it more than makes up in personality. I think the film would lose some of its charm if it were too sharp, or too clean. I remember hearing an interview with David Byrne where he talked about using the peculiarities—the so-called faults—of his voice to his advantage as a singer, and this transfer seems to take the same tact, presenting the film as is, without any attempt to mask its sometimes-heavy grain with DNR or digitally clean up the picture. And the film works all the better for it, feeling appropriately of its time and perfectly capturing the jittery intensity of a Talking Heads concert. Don’t be fooled by the bland screenshots—Stop Making Sense looks fantastic in motion.

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Audio

While the picture quality shows its age, the film’s two, yes two separate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes burn down the house with their stunning fidelity, warmth, and range. First up is the Feature Film Mix, a digitally remastered and remixed version of the original theatrical soundtrack that, according to the leaflet that comes inside the Blu-ray case, allows the listener to “experience something much like being front-row at the original performances.” I’d say that’s accurate, as the track is filled with the claps and cheers of concert ambience in the surround channels, and the timbre of the music is affected by the acoustics of the Pantages Theater. This mix definitely has a “live” feeling, creating a large and airy sound stage with ample but never overpowering reverb. The Studio Mix, then, is a much tighter, soundboard-centric affair. There’s still some ambience, but this mix is cleaner and more vibrant, with boosted vocals and more definition between instruments. Additionally, if you don’t have a surround sound set-up, the disc also includes an excellent PCM 2.0 stereo mixdown of the Feature Film track. I feel a slight preference toward the Studio Mix, but really, all of the tracks are superb. Bass response is taut and defined, keyboards chirp like digital birds, drums are perfectly punchy, and guitars squeal, scratch, and sing with satisfying clarity. There are a few moments when the audio and video don’t exactly sync up—particularly during “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”—but I can’t really fault the audio tracks for problems that have just as much to do with editing. These lossless tracks might finally give Talking Heads fans reason to part with their worn-out DVD copies of Stop Making Sense.

Feature Film Mix: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Studio Mix: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Feature Film Mix: PCM 2.0

 

Supplements

Commentary
Director Jonathan Demme and all four members of the Talking Heads lend their thoughts to the film, but this is unfortunately one of those tracks where all the participants were recorded separately. Still, even if we don’t get any interaction between band members, there are plenty of reasons why this track is essential listening for Talking Heads fans, from Byrne talking about the origins of “Psycho Killer” and the big white suit, to insights about the staging and the evolution of the band’s sound. I also learned that the “Heaven” referenced in the song of the same name is actually a disco club in London owned by Sir Richard Branson. Who’duv thunkit?

1999 Press Conference (1080i, 1:05:57)
Just as informative is this press conference, which found the four members of the Talking Heads reunited for a Q&A at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Stop Making Sense was given a 15th anniversary screening. Considering that David Byrne once took legal action against his former bandmates for touring as The Heads, the four get along remarkably well here, reminiscing about the good old days, sharing a few laughs, and good naturedly answering some of the inane questions posed by the gathered journalists. The press conference is presented in its entirety, and is the only new feature exclusive to this Blu-ray release.

Note that while this is presented in 1080i—the back of the case says 1080p, but you can’t always trust what you read—it’s obviously just upscaled SD video footage. The same goes for the remainder of the video special features.

David Byrne Interviews…David Byrne (1080i, 4:35)
With some clever (for the ‘80s) video editing and plenty of characteristic weirdness, Byrne acts as both interviewer and interviewee here, asking himself some pointless but entertaining questions about Stop Making Sense while donning a veritable fashion parade of ridiculous guises.

Montage (1080i, 3:08)
I'm not sure if this was a promo or what, but it's basically a trailer for the film, with clips from several songs and cut-up style editing.

Bonus Songs (1080i)
Includes excised performances of “Cities” (3:43), and “Big Business / I Zimbra” (7:39).

Storyboards (1080p)
This user-controlled gallery contains 32 sketches of David Byrne’s original designs for the stage show, complete with his notes and directions.

Big Suit
Here you can read a bit of text about the origins of Byrne's infamous oversized suit.

Trailer (1080i, 1:50)

Previews (1080i, 5:52)
Includes trailers for Patti Smith: Dream of Life, You're Gonna Miss Me, and Dig!

Final words

Stop Making Sense belongs in the collection of any discerning music lover. One of the greatest concert films of all time has been given a stunning makeover—particularly in the audio department—and for fans of the Talking Heads I have no hesitations about giving it my highest recommendation. If you're new to the band, it might be smart to check out a few clips on YouTube or elsewhere first, as their music is somewhat of an acquired taste.
Review by Casey Broadwater, www.blu-ray.com


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