‘Stop Making Sense’: Inside the Film’s Must-Watch Talking Heads Performance

Jordan Cronenweth/Courtesy of A24
Jordan Cronenweth/Courtesy of A24

In the conversation of best concert films, there’s a clear winner: Stop Making Sense. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film, a gorgeous capture of one of Talking Heads’ live shows, is a gift to both music fans and cinephiles: a record of an all-time great band at its all-time greatest. Back in theaters Sept. 29 in honor of its 40th anniversary, following a weeklong run in glorious IMAX, the newly restored film has never looked or sounded better. It’s a near-perfect concert film in its most-perfect state.

But deciding which of Stop Making Sense’s performances is best is another story. Is it “Girlfriend Is Better,” when frontman David Byrne dons an instantly iconic big suit? Is it “This Must Be the Place,” when the band performs in the glow of nothing but an ornate, standing lamp? What about “Once in a Lifetime,” which is almost filmed like a horror film, made at once comic and rousing by Byrne aping the choreography from the song’s MTV-famous music video, Buddy Holly glasses and all?

For my money, the film’s greatest sequence is “Life During Wartime.” It’s the seventh song of the 90-minute, 16-song tracklist—relatively early for a showstopper. But show-stopping it is, thanks to the Fear of Music track’s raucously funky reworking. The song’s crowd-pleasing tendencies shine through in the live setting, benefitting from the twice-as-big, twice-as-danceable onstage band. No matter how many times Byrne insists that “this ain’t no party/ this ain’t no disco,” the band’s performance of “Life During Wartime” insists that Stop Making Sense is absolutely both.

Each time I rewatch it (and I’ve rewatched it probably 50 times since I first saw the film 10 years ago), I’m still struck by how immediately “Life During Wartime” gets going. Opening with the great Bernie Worrell on synth, Demme hints that this is going to be something special by then cutting to backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt thrusting themselves rigidly to the beat. Then, Demme cuts to a wide shot showing the full band: Byrne jogging in sync with Mabry, Holt, bassist Tina Weymouth, and live guitarist Alex Weir. Seven songs in, everyone’s still high-energy—if concertgoers thought they or the band were ever getting a breather, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, the song marks the start of something out of an avant-garde musical, choreographed by the band itself with almost ludicrous aplomb.

Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, David Byrne, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, and Ednah Holt.

The Talking Heads line-up in 1984 for Stop Making Sense.

Jordan Cronenweth/Courtesy of A24

I want to cite every single head-jerk, foot stomp, and hip-shake here in arguing why “Life During Wartime” is so spectacular. But the moment that’s most seared into everyone’s brain comes early into the performance, and it is indeed incredible. Demme cuts to a shot of Byrne alone, face-front, as he begins the first post-chorus verse. You’ve probably seen a GIF of it: Byrne improbably sways his hips to the beat, legs glued together, like he’s one of those hula-dancing bobbleheads truckers keep on their dashboards. The rhythm travels up his body, as he holds his arms out and undulates them, like the world’s funkiest EKG. When Byrne addresses the audience at the very end of the song, to ask, “Does anybody have any questions?”, I’m sure everyone’s hands shot up: “How the hell did you move your body like that?”

David Byrne Brings the Giant Suit Back for ‘Stop Making Sense’ Re-Release

Byrne’s body is a vessel for his music throughout the entire film, but it is a veritable instrument in “Life During Wartime.” He throws his entire body back in time to the percussion; he lies on the ground and spasms like a dying ant; he literally runs laps around the entire stage during the song’s synth-solo bridge. And after all that—after all that!!!!—he immediately goes back to jogging alongside the rest of the band to finish out the song.

The Talking Heads line-up in 1984 for Stop Making Sense.

The Talking Heads line-up in 1984 for Stop Making Sense.

Courtesy of Sire + Warner Music Group

Stop Making Sense’s rendition of “Life During Wartime” is a pure-and-simple feat of physicality, musicality, and cinema. When I went to see the restored film myself recently, I had to glue myself to my seat to keep from bopping, jogging, and all-out sprinting in the theater, a la Byrne. But lord knows I, and everyone else there, wanted to. And when you go see Stop Making Sense in theaters yourself, I implore you to throw caution to the wind, get up, and dance. Maybe you can even learn how to shake those hips like Byrne.

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