One smart comment about the late Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Stop Making Sense, justly described as the greatest rock concert movie made, was critic Blake Goble’s line, “The plot is the performance.”
Stop Making Sense is a collage from a series of shows at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December 1983. The performance’s plot is about the way call and response works in popular music. The too-thin Mr. Coffee Nerves singer David Byrne has the starch taken out of him by his band, as they grow around him and envelop him. The concert builds from Byrne’s opening solo performance on acoustic guitar and beat box, squawking out “Psycho Killer,” until the show’s end, when the whole gang is out and roaring.
Made for the price of a mainstream music video (with money borrowed by the band against their royalties), Stop Making Sense set a new standard in concert films through its simplicity and lack of distracting video effects. A large yet invisible camera crew never dictate the action or go in for the Triumph of the Will exaltation of the rock star. “We wanted the camera to linger so you could get to know the musicians,” said drummer Chris Frantz to Rolling Stone in 2014.
A key scene is when back-up singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry sprint out of the wings for “Slippery People”—an ’80s anthem if there ever was one. They come in for the response—”He’s all right!”—as Byrne calls out, “Whatsa matter with him?”
I saw Stop Making Sense at Burning Man last year, projected on a bed sheet from a ladder-mounted projector, with the dust swirling around. The passersby, looking in curiously, brought out in me the impulse that made me a critic in the first place: the urge to blurt out, “Come see this wonderful movie, good people!”