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Stop Making Sense made its highly anticipated return to theaters in September of this year for its 40th anniversary, courtesy of A24’s new 4K restoration. It had an admirable run, making plenty of new fans and reigniting the passion of old ones. But if you happened to have missed it, don’t despair! The Frida Cinema is keeping the party going. In its second month, the Frida’s Stop Making Sense dance party has proven its staying power as a can’t-miss event for both those who love Talking Heads and those who have yet to discover that they do.
From the moment I entered the Frida, I knew the crowd was going to be great. Standing in front of me in the concessions line, a man old enough to be my father waxes poetic about Talking Heads and their concert film. He tells his friend about the time when he – as a teenager – forced his parents to watch it with him. I also saw Stop Making Sense for the first time as a teenager, in 2020, sequestered away in a car at an improvised drive-in, parents in tow. I feel an odd, intergenerational kinship with him but say nothing.
The lobby is buzzing with flutters of similar conversations. I seem to be one of, if not the only, people who are alone. Friends, family, partners of all stripes have begun to congregate. I may be alone, but I don’t feel lonely – perhaps a bit voyeuristic, if anything. None of the companionship that surrounds me belongs to me, but I feel free to enjoy it secondhand just the same. Everyone here is with their people, I realize, the ones they entered the lobby with and all the ones they’ll soon share space with.
As the seats begin to fill up, The Frida’s own Bobby Thornson walks out to the front of the theater to introduce the event. Microphone in hand, he describes Stop Making Sense as “the greatest concert film of all time.” To the uninitiated, this might sound like hyperbole. But the incredible thing about Stop Making Sense is that it actually is as euphoric, kinetic, and vibrant as people say it is. He also makes it clear from the very beginning that this is no mere “screening”; it’s a dance party. Getting up and out of your seat is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. The only rule is to refrain from charging up the small stage directly in front of the screen, no matter how much you might want to. The rest of the theater is fair game.
As Bobby departs and the house lights dim, the excitement in the theater is palpable and infectious. Antsy audience members can hardly sit still in their seats. Whispers and laughter abound, anticipating the explosion of sound and motion soon to come. Stop Making Sense begins in silence, with simple credits flashing across the screen. From then on, the film slowly builds up the eclectically intricate sonic experiences that Talking Heads is known for. The first number has only the band’s frontman, David Byrne, on stage and screen – playing a pared down, acoustic rendition of “Psycho Killer.” Each subsequent song brings new musicians on stage, increasing the complexity of both the sound and the physical performances.
Jonathan Demme’s filmmaking prowess, combined with Jordan Cronenweth’s striking high-contrast cinematography, transforms the deceptively complex process of filming a concert into a piece of genuinely cinematic art. Just as Demme and Cronenweth can capture visual splendor in David Byrne’s eccentric, nervy, and often intentionally awkward style of performance, so too does the unspoken social contract of the evening make genuine artists out of a crowd of sweaty, thrashing, mostly inexperienced dancers. It was impossible, even for me, to feel any insecurity in such an open and affirming environment.
“This Must Be the Place” and “Once in a Lifetime” were, unsurprisingly, the undeniable hits of the evening. The relatively simple but evocative staging for the former – in which the band members huddle and sway around a single lamp placed in the center of the stage – creates a similarly understated but unified performance in the audience. The dancing became subdued but no less dynamic, and everyone sang along with spirit that could rival that of a devoted church choir.
“Once in a Lifetime” posed a disruptive but not unwelcome interruption to the soft, reverent energy cultivated by the song that preceded it. With reckless abandon, the crowd jumped headfirst into the manic, absurd movement modeled on the massive screen in front of us. Byrne, and the other band members to a lesser degree, was imbued with the influence of a genuine icon. Stop Making Sense’s continued importance speaks to its ability to act not only as a concert film but also as a living art object, an immortal time capsule. Like many of the greatest films ever made, Stop Making Sense can teach us about the particular moment of its creation while retaining its ability to resonate with audiences of today.
The film is an invaluable artifact for Talking Heads fans of all generations but especially for younger and future generations. I’d estimate that over half of the people who attended the event were born after Talking Heads had already broken up or were so young that they couldn’t have reasonably seen them live. Unlike some other iconic bands from the era, the chances of a Talking Heads reunion tour are pretty dismal. For younger fans of the Talking Heads, such as myself, the experience of watching Stop Making Sense is likely the closest we will get to the experience of seeing one of our favorite bands perform live. Indeed, the asymmetrical interactions that emerged between the audience and the film throughout the event echo those that occur at live concerts.
During the extended instrumental bridge of “Take Me to the River,” in which David Byrne pauses to introduce the band one by one, the crowd cheers for each name like one would do at a concert. Backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, along with iconic bassist Tina Weymouth, get especially enthusiastic applause. As the film concludes and the band departs, rhythmic shouts of “Encore!” and “One more song!” follow them off the stage.
The act of communal dancing, and the shared experience of music in general, holds a special and well-established significance to communities, and likely has since the beginning of human civilization. Since COVID-19, however, live musical performances seem to have taken on a new, grander meaning to those who attend them. More than simply celebrations of music and artists, people now more than ever seek out concerts for the companionship and catharsis they can provide.
This same companionship and catharsis can be found in the Stop Making Sense Dance Party, and for a fee far smaller than the price of a ticket to the Eras or Renaissance Tours. Throughout the evening, I could feel all of my worries melting away. Likewise, while the pre-screening conversation in the lobby was overwhelmingly genial and excited, nearly every person I overheard was quietly coping with the stresses of the season. Final exams, stress-filled shopping trips, and hosting unwelcome family members. On the way out, our exit was accompanied by continuous hums of “Still waiting…still waiting.” The final words of the film’s final song, “Crosseyed and Painless” stayed with us even as the credits rolled.
Many of those who attended the dance party probably wouldn’t assign it the grand importance I do. It is equally likely for someone to simply experience the event as a fun evening of dancing and music, which it certainly was. However, I think that it is impossible to deny the electric, indefinable, and transient energy which hung in the air that night. Those who swayed, shouted, danced, and sang with a crowd of strangers, united our shared reverence for a long-gone band may disagree with my particular phrasing, but they cannot deny something special existed.
Stop Making Sense Dance Party returns Friday, January 19th.