Five bucks for a Talking Heads show may be the last bargain in town, and that's just what you get in "Stop Making Sense," Jonathan Demme's concert movie spliced from four performances at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre last December. It's a treat for fans (Heads heads?), and a chance for the uninitiated to tune in to the band that has come to personify postmodernist rock 'n' roll.
The movie proceeds through 16 songs from the band's five albums, including six from the latest, "Speaking in Tongues," and such standards as "Psycho Killer," "Life During Wartime," "Once in a Lifetime," and "Take Me to the River." It's a pure performance movie (no interviews or documentary footage), a static composite of long shots and close-ups -- Demme brought more flair to the big-band set pieces of "Swing Shift." Visually, we've come to expect more from music -- the claws of MTV have sunk into our cortex, so much so that even the lyricism of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" now seems flat and ordinary. And the Heads band is so large -- nine members -- that Demme's flitting from face to face gets awfully diffuse -- as the band jollies around the stage, "Stop Making Sense" sometimes looks like home movies from a block party.
Whatever electricity there is in "Stop Making Sense" flows from lead singer David Byrne, whose starved face, cropped poll and burning stare suggest the Storm Trooper Tortured by Conscience from a postwar psychothriller. Byrne trembles frenetically, stamps his feet in hootenanny style, bops his head like a pigeon wigged out on some bad seed, but his face remains frozen -- the energy of his body is alien to him. Mocking the conventions of, say, Mick Jagger, Byrne is the picture of the Heads' style of cool detachment, of their vision that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." He's complemented by bassist Tina Weymouth, a delightful minx with small, mincing dance steps; Demme uses close-ups of her as punctuation, as she reacts to Byrne with a contradictory mix of awe, love, boredom and derision.
But Byrne's mere presence can't hold the screen for an hour and a half, so what's left is the music. The Heads' early music epitomized the New Wave formula -- the music was pop-fatuous, belied by lyrics that had a doomed, psychopathic edge. Since, they have veered toward the arcane, toward a characteristically postmodernist eclecticism that draws on funk and African polyrhythms. It's the kind of insular, intellectual music that keeps you at arm's length.
That's why the movie's best moment comes when Byrne brings a floor lamp on stage as a dance partner. As he weaves and dips with it in his best Fred Astaire style, this inanimate object illuminates a brief glimpse of Byrne happy -- it's alienation with a human face.