It's not hard to figure out the reason for the success of the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense," the movie regarded as the standard-bearer for concert films. It's all in the stage show.
Moviegoers see pretty much what audiences saw during the art-funk band's 1993 tour in support of the album "Speaking in Tongues." Director Jonathan Demme, whose resume at the time included "Melvin and Howard" and "Handle With Care," simply showed up for three nights at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and shot what was happening. So says Jerry Harrison, the guitarist/keyboardist and Harvard architecture-school graduate who joined singer/guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth for "Talking Heads 77," the group's debut album.
"Jonathan came and saw some of the [earlier] performances and said, 'This would be a great film,'" says Harrison from Los Angeles. The concert "has sort of a beginning and a middle and an end. It has some of the structure that a narrative has, which is unusual."
The structure wasn't the only unusual feature for a rock concert. "Some of the ideas are related to Kabuki theater, with the roadies wearing black but being visible," Harrison says. "In Japanese theater, they don't try to hide someone coming in and trying to remove a prop. David's big suit is similar to the enlarged costumes of Kabuki, with the big shoulders."
"Stop Making Sense," back on the big screen 15 years after its original release, now sports a digitally remastered soundtrack. The performance, by the core quartet and five auxiliary players, remains as tantalizing as ever. It is 88 minutes' worth of earthy acoustic-electric grooves, spacy six-string and keyboard effects and freaky-deaky moves by the eminently watchable Byrne.
The songs cover a lot of emotional terrain, from the frightening alienation of "Psycho Killer" to the paranoia of "Life During Wartime" to the glorious release of "Take Me to the River," a gospel-rock rave-up.
Demme, who went on to make such high-profile films as "The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia" and Beloved, importantly chose to buck the rockumentary conventions. He also stayed as far away as possible from rapid-cut MTV-style editing.
"We allowed the songs to finish," Harrison says. "In everything from Monterey Pop to the Dylan films to a film about Jimi Hendrix, in the middle of a musical performance they'll interrupt it to talk to some guy in the audience or backstage, because the filmmakers don't think it [the music] can sustain your interest."
Reaction to the film and its soundtrack was unanimously positive; influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it "a dose of happiness from beginning to end."
"Stop Making Sense" marked the end of an era for the band, who never toured again and returned to more of a stripped-down sound for their following albums. The band members mostly went their separate ways by the early '90s, with Byrne dipping into Brazilian and Latin music projects and landing an Oscar for his work on the score of "The Last Emperor." Harrison released two solo albums and since has done noteworthy work as the producer for the Fine Young Cannibals, Poi Dog Pondering, Live, the Crash Test Dummies and the Verve Pipe. Longtime couple Frantz and Weymouth continued touring with their band the Tom Tom Club.
All but Byrne reconvened for a tour in August 1991, and Byrne openly opposed the name of his ex-bandmates' new group, the Heads, whose 1996 album was unevenly received.
"He's been pretty adamant that he was happy that he wanted to move on to something else," Harrison says of Byrne. "When you come up as a band together, it's sort of like going to high school together. ... Being in a band is always about wrestling with things. It's one of the beauties of it. It's a creative struggle.
"It's unfortunate that we didn't continue together, the four of us. None of our solo records quite have the same impact. It was disappointing to me," admits Harrison, "but life goes on. We had a great 10 years."