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Widely regarded as the greatest concert movie of all time, Stop Making Sense gets an impressive IMAX restoration and a limited theatrical release to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Not the Same as It Ever Was

David Byrne
David Byrne

Watching Stop Making Sense restored in 4K and presented in IMAX is pure joy. That is not particularly surprising. The show is a landmark of performance art, featuring a band loving what they’re doing and an audience eating it up. Politics, anger, divisiveness – so many of the things that have up-ended and further segmented concertgoing audiences over the years – are nowhere to be found in Stop Making Sense. Talking Heads, commonly labeled as alternative rock, truly was (and always will be) a “come as you are” band.

Nonetheless, Stop Making Sense in IMAX is a surprising revelation for a couple major reasons.

As it plays across the giant IMAX screen, what’s even more striking now than ever before is the genius of Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography. He’s the guy who filmed Blade Runner and his contributions are a major part of that milestone movie’s endurance through the decades. He was a brilliant artist in his field and in this concert film he brought his knowledge of light and shadows to full impact.

He had plenty to play with here; even with the simplicity of the setting at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., the effect is terrific. A standing lamp and its shade. Stage screen visual reinforcement that doubtless provided inspiration for U2 and countless other bands ever since. (Cronenweth would go on to work with U2, Madonna and Michael Jackson.)

Cronenweth – using six cameras during three performances – captured so many moments forever etched into concert film lore. The Big Suit. The remarkable rhythms. David Byrne’s unnatural body movements. The energy. The positive energy of the band and the crowd. They were having a good time and it’s still contagious 40 years later.

What a Night That Was

Even more incredible is the quality of the audio. It sounds like the concert was recorded yesterday, not back in December 1983. Astonishing. No decipherable noise. Pure Talking Heads magic from the moment Byrne walks onto the stage, puts down his boom box and starts strumming on his guitar. The sound is so sharp and pristine. Psycho Killer slays it.

One by one, the band and its extended family join Byrne until the stage is overflowing with talent. The guitar riffs and licks of Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and Alex Weir are so crisp. Chris Frantz on drums and Steve Scales’ percussion, along with Bernie Worrell on keyboards. Plus, Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt providing backup vocals and loads of smooth moves.

It all adds up to a very special cinematic treat that feels remarkably fresh.

Following the premiere of the IMAX restoration, a Q&A session was presented via a live feed from the Toronto International Film Festival. Spike Lee spoke with the four original band members, who were reunited for the first time in 21 years. Spike Lee? Not an obvious choice at first blush, but it makes sense given Lee directed the filmed version of David Byrne’s American Utopia in 2020. What doesn’t make sense is the awkwardness of the conversation; sitting at opposite ends of the line-up, there wasn’t the authentic, genial dynamic between Byrne and Lee one might expect after a successful collaboration.

But 20 years apart from his former bandmates certainly kept the temperature lukewarm, before eventually getting more comfortably warm as the talking heads behind Talking Heads started to gel again.

One of the most significant revelations was from Harrison when he explained the concert was recorded digitally. Talking Heads were pioneers not only musically but also technologically as they experimented with the emerging science of digital recording. It was a stroke of genius intended to offset the inevitable degradation of audio quality during the rigors of post-production processes. That approach looms so large 40 years later.

Take Me to the Theatre

Perhaps there is only one regret to be had amidst all of this. When pressed by Lee for a favorite song, Frantz (Weymouth’s husband) made a confession about the Tom Tom Club segment featuring Genius of Love: “I wish I kept my mouth shut a little bit more than I did.”

One regret and also one controversial opinion, at least from the viewpoint of Nigel Tufnel and his renegade heavy metal rock star ilk. Spike, whose father was a bass player, asked Tina to comment about her role as the bassist. In response, Weymouth provided one of the most humble and endearing comments of the evening: “My big contribution was I never turned my amp up past three and that way it left room for everybody else to shine, ’cause if the bass player gets too loud, forget about it.”

Jonathan Demme (who’d go on to receive an Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs) captured the band’s performance as it was designed for their tour in support of their album Speaking in Tongues. The staging, including the slow roll out of the drum kit and other instruments against a bare stage backdrop, was part of the band’s show all along.

Demme was a Talking Heads fan and toured with the band for a spell prior to filming, which helped the band and the director develop a level of trust. But Demme was eventually waylaid by reshoots for Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn, before heading to Hollywood for those nights at the Pantages.

Now, four decades later, the restoration process started by locating the original negatives, which was no small task undertaken by James Mockoski, who’s also worked on other monumental restoration projects, including The Godfather and Apocalypse Now for American Zoetrope.

Byrne posed a big question as the band headed to an intermission and it’s posed here and now: “Does anybody have any questions?”