I love experiencing live music — there’s so much more revealed about the band and the eccentricities of the music than what can be conveyed through a studio recording. A recording mutes personality, often diluting aural idiosyncrasy in favor of glossy palatability.
Concert films, meanwhile, have never been much more than a filmed concert for me. A concert on film is nice, but it’s not like you’re actually experiencing the live show. You’re watching a recording, just as you’re listening to a recording on an album. The music’s not too loud. The beer’s not too warm. The cat on the couch next to you is far less annoying than the drunken malaprop that’s singing all the wrong words to your favorite songs and invading your space.
So what I’m saying is that there’s benefit to a filmed concert — accessibility, convenience — but I’ve never seen a concert film that struck me as pure cinema. Until now.
But push this meditation on “the concert film” aside to consider why it’s absurd that I’ve never before watched Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
The damning evidence. My most spun vinyl record:
If we’re gauging my musical tastes and allegiances based on the lists every music fan makes, Talking Heads would also appear in my Top 10 albums (Remain in Light), Top 5 favorite bands/artists, and log at least 3 or 4 tracks in my Top 100 favorite songs.
Hence my shame.
At some point I arbitrarily decided to wait to see Stop Making Sense until I could see it on the big screen. I made this determination because of my aforementioned thoughts on concert films. I wanted to feel present at the original venue. Unfortunately my repertory migrations never allowed such a thing to happen. Finally, I broke down and popped in the Blu-ray disc. The time had come to break the seal.
After the credits (I have always loved this font) David Byrne steps up to the microphone. At best he saunters. All we see are his white sneakers and the cuff of the pants from his now famous grey suit. He sets a boombox down next to the microphone stand, presses play and starts strumming a low-key rendition of “Psycho Killer” along with the music emanating from the tape deck.
The boombox cannot, of course, project sound throughout a concert venue in this fashion. In this instance, it’s a Roland TR-808 drum machine, spilling through the venue’s speakers. The drum machine rat-a-tat echoes like gunshots — Byrne staggers. He envisioned this as an echo of the ending to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo has been ambushed by gunfire.
This is a visual cue, seemingly a comment on the nature of pre-recorded music in an new age — one marked by a shift towards consumerism and ownership. Even the music at a Talking Heads concert comes pre-recorded these days. My concerns about the cinematic nature of Stop Making Sense disappear.
Here’s the opening of the film:
Within the last few years, I’ve come to prefer to this version of “Psycho Killer” to the studio recording. The down-tempo pace and David Byrne’s foregrounded vocals over acoustic rhythm guitar and the drum machine change our emotional response. I’ve always admired Talking Heads’ ability to craft mid-tempo pop music. Songs that feel faster and more accessible than they really are. This highlights that phenomenon by taking arguably the band’s widely recognized track and rendering it a completely different beast. A minimal and more deliberate “Psycho Killer” feels like a dirge rather than a ditty.
As this opening set continues, more members of the band join Byrne on stage. First Tina Weymouth on “Heaven” then Christ Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and finally Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job.” As the band grows, so too does the additional equipment and musicians that appear on stage.
The band finally reaches maximum capacity when it launches into “Burning Down the House.” (The original 1985 home video release has the band performing “Cities” first, however.) It’s a cathartic moment, a build to a euphoric release both for the listener and the band. After the incomplete band migrates through stripped down versions of the tracklist, everyone on stage lets loose in the complete ensemble. Wait for David Byrne to unleash fury during the extended finale and outtro.
Demme’s influence on the film becomes apparent during this sequence as well. He’s not focused on the music. Each band member’s personality becomes the most important aspect of the film. We all know “Burning Down the House” — and the music becomes something more like a score to a Jonathan Demme movie about a band called Talking Heads rather than our single reason for watching.
Not only is this the best seat in the house; you’re the only viewer. You are omniscient, standing on stage and witnessing musical genius at play through a macro lens. You might not care about Talking Heads’ music, but I find it hard to believe you could watch this film and not respect David Byrne’s and the band’s cerebral ability to command a stage. He’s some unique brand of buttoned-down mania.
Byrne’s wardrobe also provides a glimpse into his mental acuity when it comes to music and performance. His “big suit” grows larger as the concert progresses. The suit become an icon for the film — and even appeared on the movie poster. Eventually he comes back on stage engulfed by the suit. His comically tiny-looking head sticking out through the engorged jacket. He doesn’t call attention to the changes, he’s just shrinking as the concert rolls along.
Byrne later explained his methodology: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” He said he was inspired by Japanese theater — Noh, Kabuki and Banraku — when creating the costume. The manipulation of audience response through artificiality.
I’ve watched dozens of films as a result of this Cinema Shame exercise and I’ve ultimately loved a great many of them. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, however, just became the first film I can’t comprehend not having in my life. It’s almost like I hadn’t even really heard the soundtrack. The film’s opening and the gradual gathering of bandmates gives extra context to the sparse compositions that begin the album. I’ve heard so much more in the music now that I’ve seen the concert film.
That is something I never thought I’d say.
2018 Shame Statement Update:
(Bold/linked denotes watched)
Five Easy Pieces Lifeboat Stop Making Sense The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas Wuthering Heights
Once Upon a Time in the West
For the Cinema Shame prompt for March, we settled on Swashbucklers and Pirate movies. Because Maarrrrrggch, obviously. Also, I’ve had the genre on my mind lately after introducing my daughters to Errol Flynn last month. While I’ve spent significant time with Errol, the genre outside of his contribution remained somewhat hazy. I’ve decided to entertain more plundering and pillaging in addition to the standard allotment swashing and buckling.
While I placed The Black Pirate (1928) on my Shame Statement for year, I inexplicably elected to watch The Crimson Pirate (1952) to satisfy the Maarrrrrgggch requirement. Burt Lancaster and early 1950’s Technicolor sounded rather essential, and I was still trying to wrangle a copy of The Black Pirate from the Pittsburgh public library system.
Having not done my homework on the film beforehand, I was struck by the “directed by Richard Siodmak” credit straightaway. Siodmak, known primarily for his B-movie and film noir output in the 1940’s, seemed an odd choice for a color-splashed Caribbean adventure film.
In his autobiography, Christopher Lee (who appears in The Crimson Pirate in a minor, thankless roll of one-note stoicism) said that Siodmak had been given a solemn script by screenwriter Waldo Salt, but that after reading the material the director refashioned the script into a comedy. The film’s producers may have feared association with Salt’s rumored communist ties, and though I’ve read nothing in my brief searches to suggest that the producers intervened in Siodmak’s creative process it seems likely that they also a hand in the rewrite and tonal shift.
Perhaps too long constrained by the grayscale genre limitations in Film Noir, Siodmak embraced the opportunity to direct this sprawling light adventure film with his The Killers star Burt Lancaster. While Lancaster fares well outside his comfort zone — 100-watt charisma plays, no matter the genre — a defter directorial touch might have better expedited the sluggish middle bits.
The film wastes no time in presenting itself as a lark, introducing itself with a Bye Bye Birdie-style sequence (or rather Bye Bye Birdie borrowed the Crimson Pirate opening) with Burt Lancaster introducing the film while swinging back and forth between ship masts, bare-chested and grinning ear to ear.
Siodmak’s film moves along at a steady clip, mixing elaborate slapstick choreography with double crossing and a side of swashbuckling. Casual glancers would presume the film to be a 1950’s MGM-brand musical based on costuming. color and boisterous puffery.
Burt Lancaster plays Captain Vallo, a famous scourge of the seven seas known as, of course, the Crimson Pirate. He and his crew capture a frigate belonging to the King carrying Baron Gruda, a special envoy on his way to crush a rebellion on the island of Cobra. Vallo suggests selling the frigate’s weapon’s cash to the rebel leader El Libre. Gruda humbly suggests there would be more money to be made by capturing El Libre and selling him to the King.
Vallo and his lieutenant, Ojo (Nick Cravat), meet the island’s rebels, lead by Pablo (Noel Purcell) and Consuelo (Eva Bartok), and learn that El Libre has been imprisoned on the island of San Pero. Thus begins the symphony of double- and triple-crossing that features prison breaks, Lancaster in drag, a crackpot scientist, mutiny and a bit of the old swordplay. The finale predicts the bloated epic comedies that graced the early 1960s.
Even when The Crimson Pirate sags in the middle as it navigates the hypeconvolute narrative, Lancaster and Nick Cravat anchor the film with infectious enthusiasm, preventing it from floating away entirely on its own hot air. (This makes more sense when you see the hot air balloon climax.) Lancaster even tried to resurrect the character for a sequel in the 1970’s.
The bookending spectacle set pieces, showcases for the athleticism of Lancaster and his circus-partner and career-long trainer Cravat, make for an entertaining matinee spectacle. The Technicolor-tailored costume design and screaming blue Caribbean landscape call for a Blu-ray treatment even though the material feels undercooked.
Cinema Shame comes in all shades; however, the most common variety likely has to do with well-known films that have just never presented themselves or been made a priority. I’ve never avoided An American in Paris nor have I ever made a point to track it down. I once recorded it on my DVR, but forgot to watch it. Considering the number of movies we “need to see,” many so-called essentials fall through the cracks.
For the Cinema Shame February prompt, the great minds at the Shame-Q (yes — myself included) loaded the table with unseen Academy Award Best Picture winners. All well known films, certainly. Some with more lasting power than others. I have a weekly Cavalcade (1933) Fan Club meeting every Tuesday, don’t you?
That’s an imposing list of 89 films — many of which I’m guessing are not high on anyone’s Watchlist. It’s also a fun bit of personal reckoning. How many Best Pictures haven’t you seen? (My answer is 30, which is far more than I expected and just patently unacceptable.) It also speaks to how often, time and tide re-evaluates and re-assigns value to these films. At best they live up to expectation. At worst, they’re a trace memory of a forgotten zeitgeist.
I scanned my library’s shelves for Best Picture Cinema Shame inspiration. First rack. First shelf. An American in Paris.
Knowing very little about the film itself other than the La La Land-inspiring finale, I went in largely blind — a pleasant change from most of my Shame viewings. Instead of a big, boisterous 1950’s musical, I found a small, wafer-thin narrative wrapped inside the serenity of Gershwin and the warm blanket of 1950’s Technicolor.
Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an expatriate painter looking to enhance his reputation in Paris (#spoiler). His friend Adam (Oscar Levant), a struggling concert pianist hopes to launch a more profitable career (than tinkling the ivories in a lowly Parisian cafe) by working with the famous French singer Henri Baurel. Milo (an elegant Nina Foch), a lonely society woman takes an interest in Jerry’s work (and Jerry himself) and becomes a patron of his arts. Jerry, however, falls in love with Leslie Caron’s enigmatic store clerk Lise, complicating the patron/painter relationship. Further problematic: Lise’s engaged to Henri Baurel. Oh the tangled webs.
There’s plenty to love about An American in Paris, but the beauty’s found in smaller moments, the technical artistry of MGM in the 1950’s. Color. Set design. Photography. Gene Kelly’s athleticism. Small story. Big package. At least until the last reel when most everything comes together in a grandiose, twenty-minute finale, but we’ll come to that in a moment. The story doesn’t propel the film forward; there’s a sense of narrative listlessness as musical numbers pop in and out and occasionally arrest the film completely. All this plus some moldy 1950’s-era gender politics, contributes to some of the negative hindsight about the film.
An American in Paris remains a charming and likable film, in no small part due to Gene Kelly’s natural charisma and Gershwin’s romantic score. Kelly, as ever, exudes joy. He is the embodiment of entertainment, selling every moment as if it’s the most fun/whimsical/romantic/downtrodden moment you’ve ever experienced. In the past I’ve seen that as both a strength and a weakness in his performance style. When it works, however, it’s magical — even if his pure strength and athleticism seems discordant with Minellii’s balletic symphony.
Now, I must make a confession within a confession. This is the Russian nesting doll of Cinema Shame posts. I’ve never cared for Leslie Caron — but I’d never seen her dance. How is that I could have wandered the depths of classic cinema but avoided the one thing that made Leslie Caron magnificent. In An American in Paris I found her positively beguiling and I could not take my eyes off her.
I have no doubt that the finale swayed Academy voters. Outside the last twenty minutes, An American in Paris isn’t even in the Best Picture conversation. As I suggested earlier, the majority of the film is an MGM confection of big budget style over substance. Jay Lerner’s script failed to analyze the potentially complex and volatile relationships between Jerry and Milo or Herni and Lise.
Then again, dissecting what made Nina Foch’s patron of the arts the most interesting character in the film would have more fully humanized her and simultaneously raised difficult questions that the film wasn’t prepared to answer. It’s about true love, mon ami, and that’s all you need to know. When a perfect, dramatic moment arises in An American in Paris, the conflict thaws and disappears just in time to preserve everyone’s happily ever after. Except Milo, who recedes silently into the background.
That said, sometimes happily ever after paired with something as magical and technically resplendent as An American in Paris‘ final reel is all we really want. The more easily that Milo slips into the background, the less we notice the frayed edges of that visual splendor.