The hottest ticket at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was not for the new auteur film from Hayao Miyazaki or Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the latest vehicle for Kate Winslet or Sean Penn, or grand prizewinners at Cannes and Venice. No, the most feverishly in-demand screening was for a 39-year-old movie that everyone in its sold-out audience could have watched at home, at the push of a button.
But this isn’t just any 39-year-old movie. “Stop Making Sense,” directed by Jonathan Demme, is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of the form, a joyful documentation (and celebration) of Talking Heads’ 1983 tour supporting their album “Speaking in Tongues.” The Toronto festival screening marked the debut of A24’s new restoration of the film ahead of its theatrical and IMAX rerelease later this month.
But the real draw in Toronto was the band’s reunion for a Q. and A. conducted by Spike Lee after the screening (and simulcast to IMAX theaters across the globe). “This is the greatest concert film ever!” he enthused with the musicians sitting next to him. “I can say that! You might not want to, but for me, I’m going on record, around the world: this is the greatest concert film ever.”
The 25-minute chat was the first time the band members had appeared together since they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. That reunion was an event in itself, following what the frontman David Byrne recently described, with characteristic understatement, as an “ugly” breakup in 1991. His former bandmates haven’t been quite so delicate. In 2020, the drummer Chris Frantz published a memoir in which he accused Byrne of frequently diminishing the contributions of his fellow musicians, while the bassist Tina Weymouth referred to him as, among many other slurs, “a vampire.” (Byrne has since granted that he was “more of a little tyrant” in those early years.)
But in Toronto, it was all good vibes for Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth (who are married) and the keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison. “I’m very grateful to be here tonight, and to be able to watch this and to enjoy it so much,” Frantz said warmly at the beginning of the conversation. Byrne concurred: “When I was watching this just now, I was thinking, this is why we come to the movie theaters. This is different than watching it on my laptop!”
And indeed it was. From the opening image — of Byrne’s scuffed-up white sneakers striding onto the stage, as he sets down a boombox and announces, “Hi, I got a tape I wanna play” — seeing “Stop Making Sense” in IMAX was like seeing it anew. The image, blown up from the original 35-millimeter negatives, was crisp and rich; the sound, an early digital audio recording, felt like it had been laid down last night. The restless, roving, participatory nature of Demme’s cameras make it much more than a standard concert documentary. It’s an exhilarating record of a group of talented people, at the peak of their considerable powers, having a great time making groundbreaking music that you can still dance to.
Demme, who died at 73 in 2017, was attracted to the material, Byrne recalled, because the show they’d assembled told a story, with a beginning, middle and end. The picture starts, quite literally, with the forming of the band, as Byrne is joined by each additional member, one by one, and their show is built out from the bare stage on which it begins. By the midpoint, this odd little man and his friends have become a family, and when Byrne sings the kind and welcoming lyrics of “This Must Be the Place” (“Home/is where I want to be/but I guess I’m already there”), it’s as heartfelt and moving an emotional beat as you’ll find in any narrative film.
Byrne recalled realizing that Demme, working with the editor Lisa Day, was actually making an ensemble film. “Like, you would have a bunch of actors in a location and you get to know each character, one by one,” Byrne explained, adding, “You get familiar with them, and then you watch how they all interact with one another. And I thought, I’m in my own world. But he saw that, he saw what was going on there.”
The sheer visceral impact of the filmmaking, when shown at IMAX proportions, was staggering as well. Demme’s striking, out-of-the-box lighting choices and close-up compositions are jaw-dropping on the big screen, and Byrne comes across as even more like a (seemingly impossible) movie star, from his first reveal in the iconic Big Suit (“It was really big tonight,” Frantz quipped) to his serpentine slithering during “Life During Wartime.” He’s aware of the camera and plays to it savvily — not just singing the band’s songs, but performing them (and understanding the difference).
But he’s far from the only attraction, and the detail of the IMAX restoration (coupled with Demme’s preference for long takes and wide shots) provides the viewer with plenty of opportunities to observe the dynamics, throughout the frame, between the group, additional musicians like the keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and the crew. The cameras capture their nonverbal communication, the little cues and asides and flashes of encouragement they’re throwing at one another through the entire show.
“There’s all these moments that he caught, where one of us looks at the other, looks over at Bernie or Bernie looks at us, all those little quick interactions,” Byrne marveled. “And I thought, that stuff is amazing.”
Harrison said that “one of the reasons for the lasting power of the film is you see that we are having so much fun onstage,” adding that “the audience is brought right into it. We say, you’re part of this too. And I think that every time anybody watches it, it brings back that wonderful emotion.”
That was certainly the case in Toronto. The rowdy crowd applauded every number, cheered for the band’s introductions and clapped along with the breakdown in “Take Me to the River.” One guy hollered, “Encore!” when the movie ended.
Both “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” brought audience members to their feet, just like their onscreen counterparts, to dance in the aisles. To be fair, they’re very hard songs to not dance to. In the seventh row, at his aisle seat, David Byrne was on his feet with them, bobbing his head and rocking back and forth, once more, for old times’ sake.