Jonathan Demme, Talking Heads
Palm Pictures is proud to present the groundbreaking Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathon Demme. The film has been re-mixed and re-mastered allowing the brilliance of the music and visuals to take full advantage of state-of-the-art technology.
$4.166 thousand on 7 screens.
English DTS-HD MA Feature Film 5.1
English DTS-HD MA Studio Mix 5.1
English PCM Stereo
Runtime: 87 min.
Release Date: 10/13/09
• Audio Commentary with Director Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads
• Two Bonus Songs
• David Byrne Self Interview
• 1999 Press Conference
• “Big Suit” Text
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Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.
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Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense [Blu-Ray] (1984)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 2, 2009)
For years and years, no matter how hard I tried, I never could develop much of an affinity for Talking Heads. They are one of those acts that I always felt I should like but just never really did; the most I felt was respect and mild enjoyment, but none of their albums lasted too long in my collection.
That started to change back in 1999 when I screened Stop Making Sense. I never saw it back in the 80s, so it was new to me when it hit DVD in 1999. It didn’t make me a super fan of the Heads, but it finally broke the band for me and allowed me to appreciate them better.
Is it the greatest concert film of all-time? I don't feel that way - I doubt anything will ever surpass Prince's brilliant Sign O the Times - but Sense makes a strong argument for the Heads' case. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film presents the band cleanly, effectively and evocatively. It does what every good concert movie should do: it makes me really wish I could see the show live.
Even at their best, concert films can never replace or replicate the actual experience of a live performance. No matter how much of a hassle real shows can be - from traffic, to prices, to bad seats, to drunks who shout through quiet songs and spill beer on you - the event can't be beat. The best concert movies provide very enjoyable documents - and many of them sound better than the real thing - but the actual feeling of being there will always win.
Personally, I've actually found that my favorite concert films are those for shows I didn't see. I never witnessed Prince's 1987 "Sign O the Times" tour, nor did I catch McCartney in 1976, as documented in Rockshow. I did see Bowie in 1983 – as captured in Serious Moonlight - but I knew little about his music at that time, so when I saw the concert tape the following year, it really was a brand-new experience for me. Those are probably my three all-time favorite concert productions, and it's likely that my lack of presence at the shows adds to my enjoyment; I can't compare the TV image to the real thing, so I don’t criticize based on my own in-person experiences.
That doesn't mean I don't enjoy films of concerts I did see, but it's a more frustrating experience for me just because I don't always agree with the director's selection of shots. Plenty of times when I watch a video for a concert I'd seen - and in the case of my favorite artists, I attend multiple shows on the tours in question - I feel irritated because I thought the focus went to the wrong place. I know from personal experience that there’s something else I'd rather see, and this lack in "interactivity" frustrates me.
Such an occurrence obviously is less likely to occur during Sense, but it still happens on occasion; there are instances during which I feel Demme picked what appeared to be the wrong spot, or cut away from good action too quickly. However, these quibbles are minor, as Sense offers a very entertaining and well-produced look at the Heads' show circa 1983.
As it happens, Sense documented the final tour of the band. They continued to release studio albums for a few years but never hit the road again. This caused a great deal of consternation among band members, a feud that essentially pitted head Head David Byrne against the other three (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison). Eventually, those three released an album and toured as "The Heads", an action that certainly cheesed off Byrne - and may have inspired legal wrangling, if I recall correctly.
Since I'm not intimately familiar with the band, I don't know Byrne's reasons for not wanting to tour with Talking Heads after 1983; although it seems abundantly clear he was the hold-up, he nonetheless did plenty of solo touring in later years. However, on the strength of Sense, it might have been a good idea to stop where the band did, as this show seems so excellent that it would have been hard to top.
I can't really relate highlights of the program, as the vast majority of the music works on a consistently strong level; the only clunker is "Genius of Love" from Tom Tom Club, which is also the most dated song in this collection. (Tom Tom Club was an offshoot of the Heads; it was a more dance-oriented group led by Weymouth and Frantz, and they apparently performed this song mid-set so Byrne could change clothes.) Visually, the film remains appealing throughout the show. Starting with his spastic dancing during "Psycho Killer" and continuing through the "lamp dance" of "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)", his self-abuse during "Once In a Lifetime" and leading to the infamous "big suit" in "Girlfriend Is Better", Byrne stands out as a fascinating front man.
Demme keeps the movie's focus where it belongs: on stage. Too many films become cluttered with audience shots or other footage, whether from interviews or wherever. Sense almost never leaves the stage and the performers themselves, which is appropriate, and it makes the experience much more compelling than it could have been. Demme also avoids the temptation to use extremely quick cuts between shots, something the concert film producers often do to create a sense of artificial excitement. Demme knew the on-stage action provided enough stimulation that it didn't need gimmicks.
The Heads aren't for everyone, as many will be turned off by various components of the music. I expect many will dislike Byrne's stilted and awkward voice, which certainly lacks any form of technical strengths. Like the vocal capabilities of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix before him, Byrne's singing likely has inspired many folks to take to the microphone; his voice allows others to think, "If he can get up there and sound like that, I can, too!"
From a technical standpoint, Byrne does have an awkward voice, but that seems absolutely irrelevant. For one, technical quality is an overrated consideration. Look at all of the singers who have fantastic voices: for every one of them who creates good music (like kd lang), there are scores of others who record only tripe (Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion). I absolutely loathe that school of thinking that values the singer's - or the guitar player's, or the drummer's, or whoever's – natural talents over the material itself. That's what leads to worthless junk like the "music" created by axe slingers who think the best guitar solos are those with the most notes played the fastest. I'll take a technically-flawed singer with character in his or her voice any day.
No matter what you think of it, Byrne's voice definitely has character, and it fits the songs perfectly. I find it virtually impossible to imagine any Heads songs as sung by anyone other than Byrne. I'm sure someone has covered them and attempted other styles, but that has to be tough since the tunes are so intimately matched to Byrne's eccentric manner of singing. A more accomplished vocalist might have made the songs more superficially appealing, but they'd work much less well.
Stop Making Sense will never be my favorite concert film just because I'll never like the Talking Heads as much as some other artists; it doesn't matter how well-constructed a concert movie may be if you don't like the band. Nonetheless, Sense definitely provoked me to take a stronger interest in Talking Heads, and that would certainly appear to be a sign that it's an awfully good film.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio A/ Bonus B
Stop Making Sense appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Don’t expect visual nirvana from this inconsistent presentation.
The biggest issue stemmed from source flaws. Especially early, I noticed quite a few specks and marks. Occasional instances of blotches, hairs and lines also materialized. The movie looked a bit cleaner as it progressed, but various print defects still came along for the ride the whole way. These meant the movie was dirtier than I’d prefer.
Sharpness was a concern some of the time. Close-ups and relatively near shots seemed acceptably well-defined most of the time, though scenes that focused on David Byrne could be iffy; for reasons unknown, even tight shots of Byrne sometimes looked off. Images that widened the stage tended to appear rather soft and dull; full band shots came across worst of all, but many others that weren't as far away also looked somewhat hazy. It's not as big a distraction as the print flaws, though, and I expect the movie’s always looked this way.
Sense was a largely monochromatic film; although some colored backdrops were used, the majority of it offered variations on white. Most of the performers' clothes also tended to be black, white or gray in nature; even Bernie Worrell’s purple shirt displayed muted tones. As such, there weren't a whole lot of colors to evaluate, but what we observed seemed fine. When colored lights or backdrops appeared, they showed no signs of bleeding or noise, and the presentation looked reasonably tight.
Since blacks dominated, I'd like to say that the black levels were outstanding, but while they seemed good, they're no better than that. The dark tones looked nicely deep and were perfectly adequate, but I couldn't help but wish they were just a bit more intense. Shadow detail seemed similarly good but not terrific; I was able to make out everything I needed to see, but the lack of solid intensity in the blacks made them seem a bit mushier than I'd like.
From softness to blacks to shadows, many of the problems I witnessed appeared to result from the limitations of the source; after all, I doubt there was much of a budget for this project, so the film stock didn't seem to be the best. However, that didn’t excuse the source flaws. Overall, the movie remained watchable, and at its best, it could be moderately attractive. It just wasn’t appealing enough for anything above a “C”, unfortunately.
On the other hand, I felt much happier with the film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio. The disc featured two separate DTS-HD 5.1 tracks: a "Feature Film" production and a "Studio Mix". I flipped between the two and honestly couldn’t specify one that I preferred. The higher quality mix tended to depend on the song in question. Overall, the “SM” usually offered a bit more punch and lower bass, but that wasn’t always the case. For instance, “Making Flippy Floppy” seemed somewhat anemic when I compared it to the “FF” version. On the other hand, “Psycho Killer” showed more body in its “SM” edition.
Although the “SM” was quite good most of the time, I usually favored the “FF” mix. Yes, the “SM” was louder and boasted more prominent bass, but I thought the “FF” version was better balanced. The extreme high and low-end material could dominate the “SM” a little too much, so the more tempered “FF” seemed like a smoother representation of the music. Don’t get me wrong: if the disc only included the “SM”, I’d be happy with it. I just preferred the “FF” mix.
Because I liked it more, I’ll focus my comments on the “Feature Film” audio. The soundfield was nicely localized in the front, with all instruments and vocals spreading effectively across the forward channels. This localization was somewhat inconsistent in that sounds didn't always appear where they should; sometimes a performer will be on the left but the instrument will come from the right. However, this was a minor quibble because it occurred infrequently, and it prevented the mix from becoming a confusing hodge-podge of alternating sounds.
Early on, it looked like the track would try to always present the audio in relation to where it should appear on screen; during the third song - "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel" - the visuals started with a focus on drummer Chris Frantz and rotated around him. While this happened, we heard his drums, Byrne and the other instruments move as well to reflect their placement in relation to Frantz. This was a neat effect but it would have gotten old very quickly; the frequent shifts in perspective would have become annoying. I preferred the occasional misplaced instrument as long as the whole cohered nicely, which it did.
The surrounds provided an engulfing experience that never became too busy. Some specific instrumentation and vocals appeared from the rears, but for the most part they simply provided crowd noise and an ambient reinforcement of the main track. Not much specific action occurred back there, but I was always keenly aware that the surrounds were boosting the music, and they added a nice dimension to the mix.
The quality of the audio seemed positive on a consistent basis. Clarity seemed excellent, and the instruments and vocals always appeared wonderfully natural and vibrant. As I mentioned earlier, bass was a little light on a few songs, but low-end maintained a good presence the vast majority of the time. I felt very pleased with this excellent auditory presentation.
When I compared this Blu-ray to the original 1999 DVD, I found them to provide similar audio. The lossless DTS-HD track had a little more bang, but don’t expect anything very different.
To my immense surprise, I felt the same about the visuals. I watched the Blu-ray before I popped the DVD into my player, and that’s usually a recipe for disaster. DVDs tend to shine best if I view them before I get accustomed to a Blu-ray Disc. When I go from the format’s high-resolution splendors back to SD-DVD, 99 times out of 100, the latter suffers by comparison.
Sense is that one percent. The Blu-ray’s press release states that it was “remastered in high definition from a 35mm interpositive”, and that may be true. I feel pretty darned sure that it used the same print as the 1999 DVD, though, since both of them featured exactly the same print flaws in exactly the same spots.
Did the Blu-ray simply rehash the old 1999 transfer, or was it redone with the same problematic print? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that the Blu-ray’s visual improvements are marginal at best. The Blu-ray seemed a little smoother but otherwise, I thought the two were awfully similar. Sharpness was surprisingly similar given the significantly high resolution of Blu-ray, and the other areas were a draw as well. When I watch the movie in the future, I’ll go with the Blu-ray, but it’s not much better than the DVD.
In terms of extras, virtually all of the 1999 DVD’s components reappear here. Of most interest is the audio commentary from director Jonathan Demme and band members David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison. Despite the fervent hopes of fans, the Heads didn't all sit down together and reminisce about the good old days; each member of the band - and Demme as well - was recorded individually and the results were edited together for this piece.
Overall, the commentary provides a pretty nice compendium of information about the songs, the movie and the show. Not surprisingly, Demme and Byrne dominate the proceedings, but not to an extreme; we hear a fair amount from each of the other three as well. The track includes a pretty high number of gaps during which no one speaks, but I found these less annoying than usual since I could hear the music; that made those "breaks" pass rather pleasantly.
Not that I really understand how there could still be so many gaps, since we have five different commentators, and that's the worst part about this track; with so many different perspectives, we should get a lot more information than we find. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the commentary and found it to offer a nice complement to the film.
Though the Heads don’t sit together for the commentary, they do all appear at the same table for a 1999 Press Conference. In this one-hour, five-minute and 57-second piece, Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison discuss aspects of shooting the film and collaborating with Demme, aspects of the concert and the music, and other thoughts about the band’s career.
The press conference adds a nice bonus to the Blu-ray. Happily, only a few redundant elements appear, as the commentary and the press conference usually cover different topics. This session digs into other aspects of the Heads and provides an interesting program.
The disc includes two bonus songs excised from the theatrical version of the film: "Cities" (3:43) and "Big Business/I Zimbra" (7:39). The image is fullframe and is a step down from the quality of the actual flick. I didn't think it looked tremendous worse, but there's clearly a degradation of picture there. It seems blander, muddier and softer, though I still thought it was fully watchable. The music continues to sound great, with some fine 5.1 audio available for these tunes as well. The addition of these songs is a nice treat, especially since they sound so good.
The oddest - but possibly most interesting - supplement is a four-minute, 35-second Self Interview from David Byrne. Through the wonders of video technology, Byrne asks himself a variety of banal questions, to which he provides a number of banal answers (which often consist of "I'll tell you later"). Interviewer Byrne appears in a variety of costumes - including a woman and a black man - and interviewee Dave seems amusingly awkward and nervous. It's odd and it's a trip - I've watched it three times and I still find it bizarrely amusing.
One other unusual extra is a series of storyboards and notes from Byrne. He planned out the show rather carefully, it appears, and used these sketches and jottings to create the concert. We see the storyboard at the top of the frame with corresponding images from the film on the button; a click of a button on your remote replaces the film still with Byrne's notes. It's not an extra that can appear on many concert releases - although many big-budget shows are clearly well-planned and choreographed, they remain in the distinct minority - and it's a very cool thing to see here.
The Big Suit section offers text details on that most famous of Byrne costumes. These fill two screens. It's a good little primer that tells us more about Byrne's thought process. The theatrical trailer is the one that went out for the movie's fifteenth anniversary in 1999. From the looks of it, though, I think it's the same one used for the film's original release, just with a "fifteenth anniversary" notice tacked onto the start.
The Montage section works much like the trailer; it's a conglomeration of different parts of the movie smashed together into this three-minute clip. It's moderately interesting, though not great.
Some additional promos appear in the Previews area. This gives us ads for Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Dig! and You’re Gonna Miss Me.
Finally, the set’s booklet features some brief notes that document the creation of the disc. For example, we learn what the remixers intended with the two different 5.1 tracks, and we also hear some basics about the recording of the audio commentary.
Stop Making Sense provides a very entertaining and well-structured look at a Talking Heads concert, and the film has rightfully earned its status as a classic of the genre. The Blu-ray features mediocre visuals but it boasts excellent audio and a nice set of supplements.
I know fans are excited about the prospect of Sense in Blu-ray, but I fear they’ll find disappointment here. The disc just doesn’t look or sound much better than the original 1999 DVD. This was especially disappointing in terms of the visuals. The DVD already sounded great, so there wasn’t much room for improvement, but the Blu-ray features flawed picture quality that’s nearly indistinguishable from its decade-old DVD counterpart.
If you don’t already own the DVD, go ahead and grab the Blu-ray; it may not improve on the DVD by much, but it remains the best version available. If you do already have the DVD, though, I find it very hard to recommend the Blu-ray. Diehard fans will be interested in the added 1999 press conference found here, but I can’t imagine many will shell out for a $35 MSRP title just to get that. I looked forward to this disc but the mediocre picture quality made it a serious disappointment.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3333 Stars|| Number of Votes: 3|