You May Find Yourself

Stop Making Sense (1984)

illustration by Vanessa McKee
I first encountered Stop Making Sense at the end of March 2020, two and a half weeks into what was supposed to be a two-week quarantine. I watched David Byrne walk on to a bare concrete floor, padding past tape marks to find his place. The lights didn’t shine on just him; they flooded the entire stage, revealing cords, doors, curtain ropes, people in the wings, a wooden ladder shoved up against the wall. All pretense that a stage is a window into some other world shattered. The stage looked like the real world, the one outside the theater: no exaggerations, just a man in a gray suit with a tape player and a guitar. It looked more real than the world outside my own window.

The performance started with a synth and an acoustic guitar, high tech and low tech fusing into jagged edges under Byrne’s voice. A break in the music gave way to a drum track, clicking double time. Whenever the drums kicked on, Byrne stopped playing his guitar and stumbled across the stage, like a shipwreck survivor trying to find his legs back on land. Performance and real-world folded in on themselves as Byrne’s movements grew more and more exaggerated. Darkness swallowed the stage; new instruments and musicians slid one by one out of the wings, populating the space around Byrne. I realized what I’d suspected for some time: my couch was my own desert island, and I didn’t know how long I’d be confined to it. I wanted to go home. I was already there.


Talking Heads songs are small: a fitting score for a couch, an apartment in quarantine, a desert island. Their lyrics focus on concrete objects and ordinary people with the microscopic intensity of a precision lens. This precision is served by the rattle of simple words, single syllables punching the air via Byrne’s staccato delivery. Their momentum is carried further by the band’s polyphonic beat, disparate drums and bass lines rolling each song across the stage and into the audience with tremendous force: first assertive (You can walk, you can talk just like me), then self-doubting (How do I work this? How did I get here?), often creeping up to the edge of paranoia (You oughta know not to stand by the window / Somebody’ll see you up there). The verbs are present-tense, urgent in their immediacy. Most of their songs are packed with nervous energy. 

Stop Making Sense showcases that energy as it bursts out of the band’s instruments and mouths and limbs, animating every person on stage. The film presents Talking Heads in concert at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles in 1983; it’s directed by Jonathan Demme, but in truth, Demme managed to bottle lightning with very little direction at all. His only instructions to the band were to not look at the camera. He and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth focused their energy instead on translating the performance on stage into a movie that wouldn’t rely on concert-film cliches.

The activity on-screen rolls the same way that the songs do—a lot of little repetitive motions that appear deceptively simple. Tina Weymouth takes exaggerated steps, right-foot left-foot, as she plays her bass guitar; Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry run in place, their knees lifted high. The band is spread out across the stage, making each person appear isolated from the others. Alone, each member’s actions look spontaneous, but Jonathan Demme’s direction reveals their isolated actions to be parts of a complex, coordinated whole. When the camera sits at an angle in the wings, or pulls back to take in the entire stage, each member of the band suddenly becomes interconnected with all the others, the physical embodiment of their polyphonic sound. What first seems to be improvised, isolated movement becomes cohesive: a troupe of dancers whose movements complement and mirror each others’ from across a large stage, a band instead of a group of musicians. When shown at certain angles, the band members appear close enough to touch. They turn and look at each other and laugh and sing. Zoom out again, and they’re on their own, separated by feet of distance, their individuality amplified by Demme’s purposeful focus.

Demme takes care to balance shots that showcase the individuals in the band with shots of the band working together as a whole. He’s also careful to show the band’s play as the hard work it is. Sweat flies through the air, beads on foreheads, soaks a transparent moon-shaped hole in the back of Byrne’s shirt. The constant motion is exhausting to watch, even more so because of its repetition. The movement is intoxicating, almost contagious; it’s impossible to listen to one of the songs without at least tapping my foot or nodding my head in time. Compound the music with the band’s movement on-screen, and I have to fight the urge to jump off the couch and join them in the darkness of my own living room.

This is partly due to Talking Heads’ infectious action, and partly due to Demme’s direction. Stop Making Sense is a beautiful magic trick: show the stage for the hard concrete reality it is, then transform it into an island of motion and movement that’s unreal and exaggerated, larger than the small details of life that the band’s songs magnify. Gray clothing gives the band the appearance of a generic group of people, but also showcases their movements, betraying them for the musicians and athletes they truly are: a dual disguise and uniform. The film is a time machine, a perfect record of a musical performance that is obviously from another era, but that preserves it so well that the concert remains as fresh here and now on a TV screen as it must have been decades ago.


Just as Talking Heads are stuck in time on film and on stage, forever performing their repetitive motions on their marks, their songs are grounded in specific geography. Heaven is an actual place, a bar where nothing happens; the TV room inspires a couple to rescue their relationship; a house on fire brings an ordinary man liberation. The stage might be bare concrete shrouded in black, and the musicians might be dressed in generic gray, but the specificity of the lyrics and Demme’s calibrated focus turn the bare stage and plain dress into a setting that showcases the band’s songs and movements and characters with no distractions. When Byrne sings about a character who’s holed up in an apartment with some groceries, some peanut butter, but without no records to play, we picture a room with bare walls and a freedom fighter pacing back and forth until his next mission—all without being explicitly told what’s happening. The sparse imagery allows the imagination to run wild, while the specific sense of place provides a tether that keeps the anxious motion—and anxious mind—from straying too far afield. The world they sing about is real, even though it’s exaggerated; the knowledge that these artists had been able to conceive and perform a vision of explosive energy and then somehow bottle it gave me comfort. Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads could not have known what was coming almost 40 years in the future, but I felt seen by them all the same, holed up as I was in my apartment with my husband, my dog, a stockpile of canned food, and anxiety about the world outside our walls.

The spareness—the minimalist backgrounds, the gray clothing, Demme’s limited color palette—also serves to bring the songs to life through abstraction. When a man in a nondescript gray suit dons a pair of thick black glasses and sings about how alienated he feels, we can fill in the blanks: This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, this is not David Byrne; instead, it’s every person who’s ever felt trapped in their own ennui. The spareness allows us to fill in the blanks for ourselves with something more specific: this is not the neighborhood or partner or car trouble or mental illness or furniture I pictured for myself. It works in any crisis: the songs are really saying I didn’t imagine living this life, but now that I am in it, what do I do? These expressions of aching loneliness and paranoia, abstracted and writ universal, help me to feel less alone in my own isolation, both within my apartment and inside my own head. Singing along to Stop Making Sense provided an emergency pressure-release valve, a safety outlet for a world that suddenly felt unsafe.

The world has never really been safe anyway; the pandemic simply scaled up the precarity while trapping us inside our heads. Talking Heads songs sound like the inside of my own head: the fixation on minute details, the spiraling through repetitive thoughts. The specificity of the objects in Talking Heads songs anchor them in the listener/viewer’s emotions and attitudes; the repetition of the music and the lyrics and the band’s movements communicate the timelessness and the enduring quality of those feelings. The pounding of tom-toms, the crashing of cymbals, and Weymouth’s bass riffs all repeat themselves, layering notes and beats on top of each other in new and ever-more-complicated combinations. The lyrics also repeat themselves (better run run run run run away), and speak about repetitive action: turn like a wheel inside a wheel; into the blue again; they’re moving forward and backwards / they’re moving backwards and front. The desperation expressed in these songs might be anchored in specific objects and places, but it’s also unstuck in time. The effect is that of a person trapped alone inside their cycling thoughts with little else to focus on: a patient in a hospital bed, a person in quarantine, a sailor shipwrecked on a desert island.

The filmmaking here showcases Talking Heads’ artistic vision, preserving it in light and sweat and film grain. Demme’s framing of the band as a whole, as a collective of individual artists in sync with each other, compounds the message of their music beyond words and sound. Demme works here to record their performance in a way that matches the band’s dynamism: no workmanlike squared-off shots of the entire stage, except for emphasis; none of the angled-up shots from below the stage that form the backbone of other concert documentaries. The camera stays at eye level with its subjects, whether on stage or off, a subtle version of the Demme close-up in which the subject of the shot engages the camera in a direct, steady gaze. Demme’s direction is artistic, but neither fussy nor precious; it affords Talking Heads the respect they deserve as fellow artists, and it gives them the space they need to breathe and to perform. Both Demme and Talking Heads are assured and confident in their presentation. Demme trusts his subjects to be able to say what they need to say without his commenting on it. The band in turn is able to assert themselves as visual as well as musical artists, all while singing about anxious uncertainty.


There is no better synthesis of the Talking Heads’ art and Demme’s framing and presentation of it than the movie’s version of “Once in a Lifetime.” The song opens on Bernie Worrell at a synth, blinking sweat from his eyes, swaying back and forth as the sound loops and builds: an almost exaggerated performance of hard work and exhaustion. The light illuminates his face and the muscles on his arms against a black background. When the beat kicks in, the camera pans to David Byrne, who has donned a pair of thick black glasses for the song. He looks like a nervous office worker; he’s performing an everyman character, giving voice to a personified midlife crisis. He twitches and shakes in time with Chris Frantz’s drumming (out of focus in the background, but clear enough to be seen mouthing the chorus along with the rest of the band) and with the bass and keyboard just off-screen.

Demme keeps a steady medium shot on Byrne throughout the song, with very few cuts: the power of the performance for this song in particular lies in Byrne’s twitchy movements and steady, spoken-word verses. Byrne, lit so brightly that his gray suit appears white, becomes an island in the blackness, and the camera anchors itself to him as he fidgets around his microphone. The friction between Byrne’s uneasy character (Am I right? Am I wrong?) and Byrne’s assured portrayal of that anxious character extends to the lyrics of the song itself. Nothing about the future is certain here, with no predictions, just possibilities: you may instead of you will.

Specific imagery undercuts the uncertainty the song wrestles with. There is water at the bottom of the ocean, sings Byrne: an assertion of truth about a part of the world that remains shrouded in deep mystery. Lynn Mabry harmonizes the line into the blue again after the money’s gone so that she ends on a high note, as though she has a question: the money disappeared, but we as the audience are not given any specifics. We only know that it doesn’t exist anymore, and are left to fill in our own details in the vacuum left by its wake. The result is a feeling of being stranded; a sense of loss.

Demme’s steady shots allow the band the freedom they need to present their assured performances of uncertain characters to the audience. The camera moves only because the band members do, following them across the stage and into each others’ orbits as they shake, sway, and dance. The music and the lyrics all repeat themselves. The song might be called “Once in a Lifetime,” but the line same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was cements the idea that this feeling of alienation stretches across time and into the core of every human heart. The song expresses the questions we’ve all asked ourselves, alone and awake in the middle of the night: How did I get here? What are all of you out there thinking about? Is there anyone else out there, or is it just me? Demme films it all in colors so muted they might as well be black and white: a presentation of the band’s questions that doesn’t presume to answer or solve their art for them.


For all their songs’ disaffected paranoia and discomfort, Talking Heads draw from deep wells of joy. The beats and rhythms and melodies that accompany their songs are propulsive, encouraging movement rather than allowing the listener to wallow in listlessness: we feel anxious, but we’re going to move about it. Demme captures the friction between their songs and sound and, in so doing, manages to bottle the sparks that Talking Heads produce when they play their music in front of an appreciative audience. There is no plot, no action beyond the dancing on stage, no conflict except the insular ones between the singers of the songs and the songs themselves, between the vague unspoken anxieties and the concrete objects and places that give them their setting. Talking Heads take the internal and alchemize it into propulsive external action.

Stop Making Sense is like watching survivors of a shipwreck make use of their time on a desert island together. They transcend their aloneness to break the dark ocean between them and the audience. Demme takes that connection between performers and concertgoers and transposes it, extending the connection across space and time to viewers in the theater and later at home. When the film found me, it washed up on my TV like a message in a bottle, a lifeline that expanded my confined world until I, too, felt less alone.