What makes a great concert film?
This sort of film, which at its most pedantic is merely a band on stage playing their songs, has undergone a sort of revival in the last decade. First, the people at Disney decided to create them for their manufactured pop stars. The public fell for these, and they made money. One was created for Michael Jackson after his death (that I have reviewed here) and was also very successful. But these were all manufactured in order to capitalize on the popularity without being enduring (the fact that Jackson’s film is as good as it is came across as a sort of miracle). Is that all concert films are; a bizarre sort of creation that stops at the dollar sign?
Well, as Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense shows, it is not. The film is a success in every way – as a way to showcase their music and as a way to showcase where they find their inspiration. There is also no interview footage, no behind the scenes items, but that is besides the point. The band becomes the embodiment of their music through their movements, their outlandish costumes, and the way that the band builds its energy.
The concert starts simply enough. David Byrne, armed with a guitar and a boom box, starts playing the song “Psycho Killer” convulsing throughout the end in the tradition of a dance hall performer and a man having a seizure. Then he is joined by the other members of the band, slowly, starting with Tina Weymouth (on bass), Chris Frantz (on drums), and Jerry Harrison (on lead guitar) as well as a variety of other performers (who are not, officially, members of the band) as well as a large technical crew who is constantly on stage trying to change the set.
Now, the first thing that anyone will notice is that the film was made at the height of MTV’s popularity. And then you will notice that the film makes absolutely no mention of them. You could insert the footage into, say, The Monterrey Pop Festival and I doubt very few people would notice. The focus is on the people playing the music and how they feed off of each others’ energy. The camera will very rarely showcase one member at a time (unless there is only one member of the band on center stage), instead showing them moving to the music. Even someone like David Byrne (who felt himself to be the band, and was probably correct) shares the stage and the spectacle, rather than becoming it. There are also very few shots of the audience (with one notable exception toward the end) and, as I have said, no interviews with the band.
At first glance, such an approach would hardly seem like it would have any sort of warmth in the project. But it exists in spades. Maybe this is because the band seems to really be enjoying their time on stage. Their is also so much motion and energy that paying attention is absolutely a requirement in order to understand this. Once the band has your attention, they showcase all of their influences, from James Brown to the burgeoning jungle music scene. The fact that the technical crew is showcased (as are the backing musicians) do show more caring and emotion than is usually taken. This sort of thing would not be repeated until This is It, and even then the filmmakers required interviews to get the point across. Here, the music does the talking and it has far more to say.
Stop Making Sense represents the apex of the concert film; it was all down hill from here. It was made by a band that still cared about not utilizing the medium to make money, but to actually showcase. Usually, the highest praise for this sort of film is that “it makes you feel like you are really there.” Well, Stop Making Sense does not make you feel like you are in their audience. It makes you feel as though you are on the stage with them.