A new 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense debuted last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, then opened in theaters around the world. The promotional push for this cultural event started early (as featured here on Open Culture), and has involved the release of rarely-seen supplementary materials chosen to delight Talking Heads fans. Take the short video above, a compilation of video clips in which David Byrne rehearses his dance moves in advance of the band’s 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour, four of whose shows would be combined, with the help of many collaborators including director Jonathan Demme, into a seamless, still-beloved musical-cinematic experience.
In a film full of memorable elements, from the Pablo Ferro titles to the lamp to the big suit, Byrne’s distinctive way of carrying himself stands out. “His wide-eyed stare, jerky movements and onstage cool reminded many commentators of Anthony Perkins, star of Hitchcock’s movie Psycho,” Colin Larkin writes of earlier Heads shows in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
This elaborate awkwardness, so thoroughly deliberate-looking that it comes around the other side to suavity, may seem like a natural expression of his artistic personality. But as revealed by the video he shot of himself trying out different choreographic ideas — and even more so by the full 25-minute version, which features not just numerous VHS glitches but also the band’s backup singers — it took trial and error to develop.
“The film’s peak moments come through Byrne’s simple physical presence,” Roger Ebert wrote of Stop Making Sense upon its initial release in 1984. “He jogs in place with his sidemen; he runs around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and making music,” and even “serves as a reminder of how sour and weary and strung-out many rock bands have become.” Though, when rock bands may be less strung-out but are certainly no less weary, his restored performance is reminding countless Heads enthusiasts why they got into the band in the first place — and no doubt giving heretofore uninitiated new generations a few paranoically exuberant, rigidly uninhibited, and smoothly un-smooth moves to try out on the dance floor themselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.