This is part of a Religion in Film series, concerning spirituality and its many forms as told through a cinematic frame. In this article I want to focus on the idea of music as a spiritual tool as exemplified by the seminal Jonathon Demme/Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense”
“The band in heaven
They play my favourite song
Play it one more time
Play it all night long” (from “Heaven” by The Talking Heads)
It can be difficult to sometimes feel a sense of community anymore. We tend to live in a more individualist society where we isolate ourselves from others whether we are aware of it or not. In his book Consuming Life, philosopher Zygmunt Bauman describes the world we live in as “a liquid modern society” (Bauman 49), where people are “ceded to the personal concerns and responsibilities of individuals” (49). In other words, Bauman is suggesting that we are primarily wrapped up in ourselves, so much so that we fail to establish a communal relationship with anyone else. We also are left with an abundance of choices due to living in a consumerist society which feeds on us, more, and more. Bauman argues this society is what may lead to people feeling indecisive, as well as anxious, neurotic, and ultimately sad and depressed. We feel isolated so much we choose to privatize ourselves including our own feelings, morals, and ethics. We become quiet among the chaos, and the silence can be deafening.
However Bauman does add a dose of human experience which can bring us together as a community if only for a brief period. This experience is what he calls a carnival, and this comes when there is a break of routine from daily life, where we cease to live only for ourselves and connect with a group of people and share a time of momentary togetherness. These “carnivals” are very common occurrences such as cheering for the same team at a sporting event, or dancing at a club, or singing along at a concert. This experience works as a purge for the human spirit, where we are invited to express our feelings, and not be embarrassed to express them in front of other people.
I’m adding this rather long preface, not to sound heady or pretentious, but rather I wanted to put the philosophy in practice when it comes to the film Stop Making Sense. I felt this philosophy applies to what director Jonathan Demme, in collaboration with The Talking Heads were able to achieve. When we look at the film, we are not just watching a band on stage performing songs, but rather we are witnessing an awakening of the spirit, a performance as a revival meeting, a connection with other human beings that only artistic expression can accomplish.
Stop Making Sense gets us off guard right away. We see an empty stage with no decor, exposing us to zero stage lighting and revealing to us behind the curtain as it would look if there was no concert being performed at all. Suddenly the camera captures a person wearing a pair of white shoes strolling on and setting down a tape recorder as he leans into the mic and says “Hi I gotta a tape I wanna play.” The individual is revealed to be David Byrne, the eccentric front man of The Talking Heads, strumming his guitar, as the tape plays a backbeat for him, and he begins singing “Psycho Killer”, the band’s first big hit. It’s a simple set-up of one man alone as an individual, but it’s a stark image of the lone artist on a stage stripped of glamour, but with a passion for his music.
The next song, “Heaven” starts, and Byrne is soon joined on stage by bass player Tina Weymouth, then as the next song begins, drummer Chris Frantz comes on, followed in the next song by the final official Talking Head Jerry Harrison who primarily plays the keyboard. An array of set pieces are brought on, along with some more musicians and back up singers, and before you know it the stage has been transformed into a post modern rock show. With the added accompaniment, the sound becomes fuller, and exciting, the energy picks up and the unison of performance is on full display.
At the forefront of this action is Byrne, doing a rendition of rock front man as performance artist. Everyone else follows Byrne’s lead as he sets the pace and the tone with the other musicians, and we can see how his artfulness affects the rest of the band. Byrne performs his songs like a new wave prophet, contorting his body like a slinky at one moment, then bending it back, only to snap up the next. He’s not trying to be Mick Jagger or Elvis Presley who oozed sexuality, rather he’s trying to stimulate us by ignoring conventions and inviting us in on the fun and the joy of the music. It works.
The rest of the band takes note, and they are all looking uninhibited and genuinely happy and excited to be playing together. The choreography of the back-up singers invites an openness through their bodies and their gestures, creating a sense of freedom in their performance. Occasionally other band members would concentrate on a guitar riff played between them, and the camera captures their momentary connection, feeding off of eachother like an instrumental ballet. Byrne is seen running around occasionally, joining in with everyone, as if he’s getting a high of seeing these connections surrounding him. He builds the nonsense to its apex by dancing with a lamp, then appearing in a jumbo sized white suit which has since become iconic.
The lighting itself is expressionistic complementing the tone of each song. It bounces to blank starkness, to bright warm lighting depending on the mood. My personal favourite effect was probably the most minimal yet haunting with the song “What a day that was”. Here the band and Byrne are partially shadowed, while a streak of cool light falls on them. The tone of the song is mostly spirited, yet has a gospel tinge to it which makes the image feel contrasted and rather eerie. There are other moments where words appear in rather senseless unison such as “Dollface” or “Public Library”, and the way they are displayed evokes Godard’s playful use of words or phrases in his films.
By the end of the concert, the band takes the stage for one final song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and it’s here Demme creates a full communal experience where everyone is invited to participate. The camera rolls onto the stage, capturing the joyous expressions of the musicians, while Byrne even puts a mic up to one cameraman’s mouth and gets him to sing along. Everyone is in on the fun, and while the majority of the action has remained on the stage for most of the film, this is the one time Demme lingers on the audience to show their full enthusiasm and love for the music being played. We see people holding eachother, smiling, dancing up and down, embracing one another, and we are left knowing they have all shared something. There were even times I’ll admit, I felt the sudden urge to pull myself into the screen and join in as the joy was contagious. In fact I would defy anyone who doesn’t feel the same way by the end of this film.
The Talking Heads were a band who came together in the late 1970s and performed in New York’s famous CBGB’s which was also home to The Ramones, Blondie, and many more iconic artists. When you hear their music, you don’t automatically hear a hit song, but you do hear a love of music, and a very unique sound. Their music could capture the imagination by daring to be different and even absurd, and you can feel that artistic joy of experimentation in all of their notes, and it’s a feeling that livens the entire experience of Stop Making Sense.
This communal feeling shared in the film reflects the somewhat religious idea of a church revival. People go to these places to be moved, to feel elevated to the point of expressing a transcendental need to be free. It’s difficult to feel free in our modern world as we see ourselves “letting the days go by” as Byrne sings in one of the band’s most well-known songs Once in a Lifetime. Yet music is one of the few things that can move us out of our ordinary lives into something that feels very meaningful. We can be touched by the music, by the performance, and by the joyful experience shared by others. It makes us feel alive, it can remind us that we are human, and it can fill our souls to the brim if only for a moment.