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Talking Heads reunite for ‘Stop Making Sense’ restoration premiere

Appearing together for the first time in 21 years, the band talked with Spike Lee at the Toronto International Film Festival about the making of their classic 1984 concert film

By David Fear

David Byrne in 'Stop Making Sense' (Picture: A24)

It usually starts around ‘Burning Down the House.’ That’s six numbers into Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, and the first number to feature not just the central quartet — David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz — but the whole expanded band they were using during that tour. People get up and start dancing in their seats, in the aisles, in the front, and in the back of the theatre. I’ve been to screenings where it starts a little earlier, around ‘Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,’ and a few where folks are up and moving before Byrne’s opening spare, solo take on ‘Psycho Killer’ hits its last chord. But inevitably, by the time that the first single off of Speaking in Tongues starts that opening groove and the singer yells “Anyone got a match?” — it’s like being at a full-on concert.

So, like so many showings of Stop Making Sense over the years, the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of the restored 40th anniversary print (as in four decades since they filmed the shows at L.A.’s Pantages Theater in 1983) were shaking what their mothers gave them in the Scotiabank IMAX theater. This was the first one I’d ever been to, however, where Byrne himself was out of his seat, dancing right alongside everyone else as a 20 foot version of himself did high knee lifts during ‘Burning’s’ bridge. A half dozen rows behind him, Frantz and Weymouth were also on their feet. As for Harrison, he’d left his row and gone to the back row of the theatre to dance, “so I could still experience the whole thing in widescreen.”

The sold-out crowd was here to see what’s truly a mind-blowing 4K restoration, overseen by Harrison and set to be re-released in theaters by A24 on September 29. But the main attraction was a Q&A moderated by Spike Lee and featuring all four of the Talking Heads, together for the first time in 21 years. “Talking Heads was such a good band,” Frantz said early on, gesturing to the three musicians sitting next to him. “Excuse me for blowing our horn, but: I’m so happy to be here with my bandmates.”

“I just kept thinking, while I was watching this: This why you go to see a movie in a theater,” Byrne says.

Lee started off by asking about the origin story (“The Spider-Man No. 1! “The Daredevil No. 1″) of the film, and how the late Jonathan Demme got involved. “It was more or less our tour, what we were doing every show,” Byrne said, referring to the way he started off the concert with just a guitar and a boombox, with band members coming out one by one per number. “But we saw that there was a progression to it — there was a story, a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we all thought, Maybe there’s a film here.”

Frantz said that Demme was an early choice, largely thanks to his offbeat 1980 movie Melvin and Howard. (Though he also cited a deep Demme cut from 1974: “Caged Heat, anyone?”) The director had also come backstage after one of their shows during the tour, they recalled, and had told them, “I want to make a movie of this!” Sandy McCleod, the visual supervisor who Weymouth said “mapped out every shot and took notes on everything every musician was doing,” had been on tour with them while Demme was forced into reshoots for his 1984 movie Swing Shift. (Whether McCleod had come to more shows than Demme or not became a brief talking point, and led to one of the few moments of interband tension onstage before they went back Lee’s questions.)

“When I saw what Jonathan and [editor] Lisa Day were doing in the editing room,” Byrne said, “I realized that he was looking at [our concert] like it was an ensemble film. Like, you have a group of actors in one place, and you get to know each character one by one. It was like Jonathan was letting you get to know them, get to be familiar with them as they all came together and interacted with each other. It blew my mind. I thought, ‘Well, I’m in my own world up there — but he saw it. He saw what was going on up there!”

“And I think because he did that,” Harrison added, “you can see that we are having so much fun onstage…”

“Can I add the word ‘love’?” Lee interjected. “Fun and love up on that stage?”

“Love, yeah!” Harrison said. “The audience feels that connection. And I think that’s why the film feels timeless.”

Asked by Lee why their music feels so timeless as well, Weymouth speculated that “there’s not much blues in there. There were already a lot of great blues and jazz musicians. We kind of mixed it up and went our own way. It’s like, ok, let’s not do that.”

“You can see the R&B influence — but I was the only musician who’d been in a band before I joined Talking Heads,” Harrison said, referring to his stint in the Modern Lovers. “And I just kept thinking, there’s nothing else going on that sounds like this. I don’t know how big an audience we’ll have for this, but we’re definitely treading new ground. And to me, that’s why the music feels timeless as well. Not just the movie.”

Lee took a few questions from viewers who were watching the event being livestreamed, all of which were variations of “Why are you guys so great?” Byrne talked about how he’s still impressed that Demme kept the “Once in a Lifetime” performance in one shot. Weymouth said her main contribution to the band was “keeping my bass amp below a three, so that the rest of the band sounded better. If the bass is too loud, forget it.” Frantz wished he’d “kept my mouth shut more” during the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” interlude. Everyone praised Harrison’s handling of the new mix, which does indeed sound amazing. No one asked if they’d play music together ever again. The four of them laughed together more than once, and you could feel a sense of collective pride over having been a part of what Lee called “the greatest concert movie of all time,” even if you picked up on a bit of chill between the band every so often.

Then it was over, and the members of Talking Heads smiled at each other and posed for a few quick pictures. As for the audience, we were left wondering if it’d be another 21 years until we saw them in the same room again. But for a half hour, we got to see the four Heads talk to each other and watch people dance and sing along to their music like 1984 had never ended.