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‘Stop Making Sense’: Where theatre, film + music collide

The first time I watched Stop Making Sense was in the Roxy cinema in Soho, Manhattan. I had just arrived from a small town in Ireland, my first time truly living away from home. As I tried to navigate New York, and my solitude, I ambled my way from the East Village to the Roxy. Knowing David Byrne would welcome my weird and lonely self, I sat in the subterranean cinema and watched Stop Making Sense. For the first time since I had arrived in this foreign land, things finally began to make sense.

As a theatre major, and an avid music fan, I had never seen the two mediums collide as impressively and explosively as Talking Heads did on the Hollywood Pantages stage in 1983. Naturally, I couldn’t help but compare the two art forms, as Byrne’s facial expressions, and Frantz’s narrating voice ignited the thespian in me. Characters arrive onstage as if in a play: Byrne, first, with his stereo, followed by Tina Weymouth on bass, then Chris Frantz on drums, and so on and so forth until the entire ninepiece ensemble is onstage, acting and singing and dancing like it was nobody’s business. Our main character, Byrne, even undergoes a personal intermission (during the Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love) and a costume change (his beloved ‘big suit’ moment). Stop Making Sense, with all its theatrics, props and costume design, comes so close to being a post-modern theatre piece my excitement is tough to contain.

Arguably, the film follows the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action: the time coming in at 88 minutes and the place being the Talking Heads’ beautiful fever dream. The unity of action is tougher to discern, however; each song contains a story, some depicting dystopia (Life During Wartime), some recounting tales of madmen (Slippery People, Psycho Killer), and one solitary song about the beauty of being in love (This Must Be the Place).

The artists heighten the action through movement, each bodily action mirroring the lyrics and beats to magnify the story of the song. In Life During Wartime, the ensemble’s constant movement – running on the spot, Byrne oscillating his knees – reflects the paranoia of the song, the need to keep going so to avoid being obliterated, like a rat on Fifth Avenue. “I ain’t got time for that now” is the key lyric; there is no time to stand still. While movement /dance is an individual medium, it’s also a large element of theatre, and an element that Talking Heads took and ran with. As each movement is a cornerstone throughout the film, it’s clear that Byrne serves as both the main actor and the dramaturg in this piece.

There’s a climax in each song, a dénouement, an inciting event. Take Girlfriend is Better, for example. We jump immediately into the inciting event: something (or someone?) has taken the subject’s money. Here we go: three and a half minutes to piece it all together. In that space of time, we’re introduced to a flurry of addiction, cheating escapades, and serious self-doubt (we’re even blessed with the meta line “It’s always showtime/ Here at the edge of the stage”, breaking the tenuously-built fourth wall). Tell me the mechanic hallucinations aren’t dramatic. Tell me the subtext in the final chorus (as Byrne croons of a broken love due to socioeconomic differences) isn’t relatable. These traits aren’t uniquely theatrical aspects, but the dramatics and theatre-driven concepts established Stop Making Sense as one of the best rock films ever to exist. Without the theatrics, there would be no film, and without the music there would be no theatrics. The three mediums are joined so adroitly to create a truly magnificent art piece.

The pure joy, grit, and sweat that the performers/musicians possess and expel during the performance is something that only live music can conjure. The anticipation of performing in front of a crowd is exhilarating - and not unique to concerts, of course - but it’s the sustained, unbridled energy that the musicians emit while also playing pretty tricky tunes on their respective instruments (and sometimes on each other’s instruments) that makes this particular event so enrapturing.

Thanks to the masterful amalgamation of the music with theatre, an unforgettable film was created. As I walked from the Roxy cinema to my subway, the only regret I had was not spending the money to see David Byrne on Broadway.


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