I’m a Real Live Wire: Breaking Down David Byrne’s Electric Performance In “Stop Making Sense”
Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads doc is beautifully chaotic in construction, but most of it comes from David Byrne's performance.
February 8, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The greatest concert film of all time begins with Talking Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne, sauntering onto an empty stage and putting down a boombox before mumbling, “Hi. I got a tape I want to play you.” It may be the most chill line to ever start a movie, but for Byrne, it’s his way of letting us know we’re about to go on an epic journey. It also lays the foundation for one of the most staggering on-screen performances of the 1980s. Stop Making Sense was filmed and edited together from four different concerts at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983, but, unless you study it closely, it just looks like one glorious night.  

Byrne was in his early 30s, and his bandmates were already legends of the NYC art-rock scene following a string of Brian Eno-produced albums. The Stop Making Sense tour was a victory lap after achieving commercial success with their two-time platinum 1983 album, Speaking In Tongues. They were only seven years away from disbanding, but this was their moment.

While Talking Heads were at their commercial and artistic peak, filmmaker Jonathan Demme was still a mostly unknown commodity. He had worked with Roger Corman and directed the great Mary Steenburgen to an Academy Award in Melvin and Howard, but he was still a few years away from legend status with The Silence of the Lambs. He loved going to concerts, though, and when he saw Talking Heads earlier in their 1983 tour run, he approached them to ask if they wanted to make a movie. The band funded the film with their own money and here we are.

There are many aspects that separate this film from other concert documentaries. Mostly, it’s because it was conceived and designed as a film, not just a recorded concert. Demme once said, “This isn’t a concert film. It’s a performance film.” He planned the movie with a frame by frame shooting script. The use of dissolves, close-ups, and stark lighting choices gives it a cinematic intensity that other concert films fail to achieve. You’re not even aware there’s an audience until the very end.

The other, more underappreciated aspect is David Byrne’s overwhelmingly physical stage presence. Demme is associated with many iconic performances from the previously mentioned Steenburgen to Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, but Byrne deserved at least a special achievement Oscar for this. 

It’s technically a live concert documentary, but there’s no doubt he’s acting for the camera. There’s a moment during the opening performance of the band’s early career banger “Psycho Killer” where Byrne takes a moment to look directly into the camera stage right. He holds eye contact with us, inviting us to go with him on this trip. Like any great actor, he takes us on an emotional journey with his performance. Every shimmy and gyration has intention. During “What a Day That Was,” he holds the camera’s attention with the intensity of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

You can view Stop Making Sense as an endlessly fun, kinetic celebration of life and music—it is that—but you can also see it as Byrne playing a buttoned-up man having a nervous breakdown before coming to terms with his existence and leaning into the chaos, much like Jeff Daniels in Demme’s 1986 classic, Something Wild. Writer and musician Elizabeth Nelson explains that Byrne’s performance plays like an early draft for Daniels’ role “where a straight-laced Wall Street banker is seduced and then gradually embraces a dangerous and exhilarating bender of sex and violence.”

He starts the film as the living embodiment of nervous energy and ends the concert in a nirvana-like state of freedom. It’s just him with an acoustic guitar and a drum track playing from his trusty boombox during the opening of rendition of “Psycho Killer,” and he stumbles around the stage with the chaotic finesse of Buster Keaton. 

Demme heightens the collective joy by having the camera float around the stage, showing all of the musicians in their ecstasies before finally cutting to close-ups of different audience members, having the time of their lives, just like we are.

Starting as a boring dude bursting at the seams, he quickly descends into madness. During the end of “Found a Job,” he strums his instrument like a little kid playing air guitar on a sugar rush, and halfway through “Slippery People” he starts to dance with the backup dancers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. His legs appear to be acting independently from his body. He is losing control of himself. By the time we get to the band’s biggest hit, “Burning Down the House,” the stage is filled with musicians, dancers, and unbridled joy, but Byrne is having a spasm on the floor before sprinting in place as if he’s performing an exorcism on himself.

He continues to struggle through his existential crisis before hitting rock bottom when he does a Fred Astaire meets Three Stooges routine with a house lamp during concert highlight “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).”  He performs with the energy of a man who is content with losing his mind. The best part of this is Byrne’s face after he’s finished dancing with the lamp; it’s an expression that essentially says, “Wow… You’re a pretty good dancer for a lamp.”

This is quickly followed by “Once in a Lifetime,” where Bryne shows the last vestiges of his timid persona. He wears glasses and has the vibe of Bill Nye the Science Guy singing karaoke after having one too many tequila shots. Finally, he reaches peak boring corporate tool by wearing the gigantic, iconic suit during “Girlfriend is Better.” In her review, Pauline Kael said, “When he comes on wearing a boxlike ‘big suit’—his body lost inside this form that sticks out around him… It’s a perfect psychological fit.” It encapsulates not only the feeling of being trapped inside his own body but also the corporate excesses championed by 1980s Reaganomics.

Then comes Byrne’s “Coming to Jesus” moment during “Take Me to the River.” He sheds the suit halfway through the song, knowing he can just be himself now, and the dramatic lighting from the previous couple of songs disappears. By the time the concert ends with “Crosseyed and Painless,” Byrne has eliminated most of the nervous ticks and is just a musician in his element, celebrating life with the rest of the incredible band surrounding him. He’s come through to the other side, not unscathed, but still triumphant.

Demme heightens the collective joy by having the camera float around the stage, showing all of the musicians in their ecstasies before finally cutting to close-ups of different audience members, having the time of their lives, just like we are. The power of the movie is elemental, its energy infectious. It doesn’t matter if you watch this in a theater (which is highly recommended) or on a phone while riding the train to work. You will dance, and you will feel alive while doing so. I don’t use the term “life-changing” lightly, but when I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time at Chicago’s Music Box Theater in 2014… it was pretty life-changing.

The beauty of Stop Making Sense is generated by Demme’s direction and the world-class musicians on stage, but it’s Byrne’s spiritual performance that pulls us in and takes us on a life-affirming joyride. The music works on its own, but it’s Byrne’s vulnerability on camera that launches us into the stratosphere. As someone who spends a good amount of my spare time on stage in front of people, watching David Byrne giving every ounce of his soul to this concert made me realize, “Oh, this is how you put on a performance.” I don’t step foot on stage now before thinking of the utmost commitment this guy gives just hugging a lamp.

Stop Making Sense Trailer: