The Review: Concert movies and musical documentaries are a genre all of their own, with their own unique challenges. One of the standout films of the genre, dating back over twenty-five years, is the documentary Stop Making Sense, featuring concert footage from Talking Heads. Their lead singer, David Byrne, has continued to work regularly over the intervening years and in 2008 was working on another collaboration with famed producer Brian Eno. Then, in a moment of inspiration (or madness), he decided not only to take the resulting album on tour, but that the stage for the tour would feature the band, the backing singers and a group of modern dancers.
Modern dance is a very polarising concept at the best of times, and even if you fall into the love category rather than the hate, there’s no guarantee you’ll then also be a fan of the particular style of music, in this case David Byrne’s funked-up versions of his Talking Heads classics as well as his own material, both new and old. What the documentary sets out to do is to explain the process behind putting the show together in what’s a fairly conventional, linear narrative. It’s interspersed between the dozen tracks that make up the core of the film, and features behind the scenes material and interviews with many of the major players. The effect, at times, is akin to watching five minutes of a film then two or three minutes of the special features, but taken as a whole the making of segments do add valuable context to much of the material.
Director Hillman Curtis uses a fairly standard effect of black and white for the documentary segments and then colour for the music segments; the reddish hues of the stage lights and the all white costumes give the stage a distinctive look. The stage segments do show off the dancing to its best effect, being used to complement the music rather than distract from it, and a number of different devices (getting the musicians involved in the dancing as well, the use of props including office furniture and electric guitars) all make the show an event, rather than two disconnected pieces of entertainment sharing a stage. Thankfully, Byrne and his team know when to pump up the energy and when to scale things back, a couple of the tracks featuring little or no dancing, while others, such as Once In A Lifetime, drop in motifs from the music videos to give things a familiar feel when required.
Speaking of energy, Byrne has it in spades. It was evident in Stop Making Sense and the passing of time may have greyed his hair, but it hasn’t slowed his enthusiasm. His high tenor voice, where others may have to rely on Bee Gees-style falsetto, takes more energy and that seems to translate into both the music and the stage presence, and when you see the complete package it all starts making sense. (Sorry.) The music is fantastic if you’re a Byrne fan, with the up-tempo arrangements and the lively performances bringing new life to old classics, but the new material is also pretty good and even if you’re not a fan, you may be won over by the end.
Why see it at the cinema: Now this is a tricky one. The cinema absolutely works in enhancing the sound and vision of the concert footage, and the documentary segments also have scope, such as a dancer rehearsing alone on an empty stage, the big screen emphasising the size of the space. But the cinema screen does, on this occasion, create a problem, but not one that can’t be solved.
If you see one of these new-fangled live streams of opera or theatre at the cinema, then you’re getting pretty much the same experience, just flattened to two dimensions. However, you can see the crowd at the live shows getting up, and even getting close to the stage, but at the screening I attended that energy just wasn’t there, mainly because people stayed resolutely fixed to their seats. But I was jiggling along to the music in my seat, and could, after a while, feel others on my row doing the same.
So whether you see this in a cinema, or even at home with a few friends, engage with the music. Byrne is full of energy, and that translates to his audience in a live setting – if you’re with a group of people, get in early, persuade them to let their hair down, and you’ll all have a better time for it. You can thank me afterwards.
The Score: 8/10