A few thoughts after seeing "Stop Making Sense" on the big screen at the Music Box last night:
When I was 14 or 15 and Talking Heads was my favorite group, few things were as eagerly anticipated as when “Stop Making Sense” would come to the theater in uptown Athen, Ohio, as it would from time to time in the mid-80s. Maybe Christmas when you were a kid. We would rent the movie on VHS from time to time, and those were the days when renting a video was kind of a big deal. I remember calling up a friend and saying, "Hey, I got "Stop Making Sense". Come on over." (That's all you had to say.) Still, that didn't compare to seeing it in the theater with an audience. I remember walking past the poster outside the theater in the days leading up to the event, flush with anticipation. Was it the Athena where it would play, or at the Varsity across the street? I think the Varsity, if memory serves. No longer there.
And then the night would come. The movie itself would build, each musician coming out gradually, from David Byrne solo with a beat box, next joined by Tina Weymouth for "Heaven", which I thought was about the most beautiful song I'd ever heard. As the full band assembled the atmosphere in the room would heat up, the air becoming more and more electric, the funk more and more irrestible, until finally some spark would ignite the place and many in the audience would bound from their seats and dance in the aisles. At the time it was fun for me just to watch, you know, grooving on the energy of the dancers, most of them college students.
It's hard for me to communicate just how much the movie meant to me. I suppose it's always been a sort of benchmark: here is the level of energy and intensity and joy that is possible. For me it's nothing less than a metaphor for how a life worth living should be lived. I suppose it did for me what, say, Dylan did for another generation (and for me too, I should say): gave me the right attitude. Was that "large automobile", the "beautiful house" and the "beautiful wife", really where it was at? Shouldn't life be a creative endeavor? Think of Bob and Judy: "They might be better off, I think/The way it seems to me/Making up their own shows/Which might be better than TV." And, perhaps most importantly, it's a vision of community. And though they never make a big deal about it, I wouldn't want to underestimate the impact it had on me that this community was black and white, men and women.
The screening at a packed Music Box theater was introduced by Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, co-hosts of the rock & roll talk show "Sound Opinions". "I hope you're ready to sweat," Greg said, going on to speak passionately about the movie. For his part DeRo made a little invidious comparison to "The Last Waltz" and what he considers that movie's deification of the performers (I couldn't disagree more), but then he said to watch for the way the musicians look at each other: outside of making love, he said, there are few human activities as intimate as making music. The gazes are something I've always loved about the film as well.
Seeing it on the big screen this time, I had to marvel again at Jonathan Demme's mise-en-scene (fancy term which I like to think of as "modification of space"): the angles, the shot distances, the camera movements. The movie is such a sustained miracle of filmmaking and performance and stage conception all coming together to create moments that can only be described in one way: transcendence.
I watch the movie on DVD at least once a year. But seeing it on the the big screen, Byrne sitting up at the beginning of "Swamp" against that red backdrop, hair slicked back and eyes wide, a close-up filling your field of vision, is just a qualitatively different experience.
Just like in the old days, it was "Life During Wartime" that brought them out of their seats. I sat grooving and bopping in my seat. Finally, though, when Byrne emerged with the big suit and "Girlfriend is Better" kicked in, I leapt from my seat and down the aisle to join the community in front of the screen. The band brought it home for the celebration that was "Take Me To The River" and "Crosseyed and Painless". As Byrne introduced the band we clapped and cheered for each in turn.
As we filed out I overheard a guy tell a 20-something, "That's what it was like to be young in the 80s". I heard another excited young person say that she'd never seen it before. Someone said she hadn't seen it since she was seven, but it was just like she remembered it. Some people had brought their kids. Outside the theater I saw a smiling boy bound a step or two in front of his dad. Trying to process what he'd just seen these crazy adults doing, he asked over his shoulder, "Why do people get up and dance?" With the tone of a man happy to have shared something special in his life with his son, his dad answered, "It's a tradition".