ARTS

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November 12, 2002

Doc Spotlight

When I was younger I briefly considered becoming a freak. I decided against it. Sometimes, especially since coming to this school, I regret this decision. But at least I always know that, if I ever change my mind, the expert manual on becoming a freak is readily available at my neighborhood video store or—this Tuesday evening only—at Doc Films.

Some critics call Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense the best rock concert film—or even the best rock film—ever made. I will concede that point to Leonard Maltin, but I vote Stop Making Sense to be the best sociopathic exercise tape as well. Learn how to strut like a psycho killer, jog like a war criminal, twitch like a demonic professor, and soft-shoe with a lamp—David Byrne can teach you all of his floppiest and scariest dances if you give him the chance.

Byrne and his huge band of Talking Heads—at this 1983 concert they numbered nine instead of their usual four—build a huge production out of a small boombox on an empty stage, and Demme's film respectfully follows their performance without bothering with the backstage or the audience or anything else to distract from the wonderful celebration of weirdness occurring on the stage.

The film starts with Byrne alone on the empty stage, singing and stumbling along to the boombox, and then with each new song comes a new performer and a bigger sound. By the middle of the concert, the stage is packed with musicians (including Parliament/Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell), each playing and bouncing around in their own corner of the stage.

David Byrne is the center of it all, as he upgrades his uptight dork persona to full-fledged freak status. In the legendary Big Suit or out of it, Byrne dances like an absolute maniac, contorting and wiggling his body in ways thought impossible and going into the occasional epileptic fit. Through it all he maintains his usual over-intelligent, over-introverted charm, and no matter how bizarre he can be, Byrne is always captivating and weirdly heroic.

He likes funk music and knows he can't dance properly to it, so he convulses along instead. He is too nervous and soft-spoken to ever be a proper rock star, so he buttons his well-pressed shirt all the way up, wears very clean white cotton sneakers, and strikes no poses. He is certainly too twitchy to be a successful businessman, so he builds himself a giant business suit and squirms around in it.

If David Byrne himself is not reason enough, there is always the Talking Heads' music to make Stop Making Sense well worth a few viewings. The film's concert occurred right in the middle of the band's career, halfway between their extremely clean new-wave art rock beginnings and their eventual sprawling Afro-Latin masterpieces.

Here in 1983 the audience luckily gets tastes of both styles, along with their funky hybrids. The song list follows the history of the band's sound, starting off with the sparse CBGB classics "Psycho Killer" and "Found a Job"; then moving to busier hits like "Burning Down the House," "Life During Wartime," and "Slippery People"; and finally ending up with the overpowering "Once in a Lifetime" and "Take Me to the River."

Twenty years later, it is clear that the Talking Heads sound like no other band before or since, for better or worse. Their arty, dorky, funk rock is just as accessible and invigorating as it is bizarre and unprecedented, and it has aged incredibly well.

Especially on the big screen, Stop Making Sense bursts with the contagious energy of people dancing together on stage like they normally do only when alone behind closed doors or when possessed by peculiar spirits. David Byrne, hopped up on this enviable manic spirit more than anyone else, proves himself the king of lovable, earnest, energetic freaks, and his performances and personae here are not to be missed.