Music In IMAX – Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense  and Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour

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The lovely Ms. Virgindog and I saw Stop Making Sense at our local art film theater a few years ago.

On the way out she said:

“I didn’t realize Talking Heads were a funk band.”

The lovely ms. virgindog

She was exactly right.

I’ve seen Stop Making Sense (hereafter abbreviated as SMS) many times.

And love it more as time goes on.

Though the film intentionally starts slow, it builds into a dance fest. At the New York premiere of the new 4K IMAX version, the entire audience danced, including all four members of Talking Heads. Multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison said he had to go to the back of the theater because he had a hard time dancing on a slope.

SMS wasn’t a hit at first.

It was quickly relegated to midnight showings. Since then, it’s become revered as the greatest concert film of all time.

Some people say it’s a close second behind The Last Waltz, but those people are wrong.

So when reviews of the new Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour movie said it was great, I wondered if it could possibly be better than SMS. We saw both films in IMAX over the past couple weeks, and saw Eras a second time, on a standard screen, just to make sure I saw what I thought I saw.

Swift has now released ten albums. That’s a good milestone to look back on her body of work. In Eras, she does at least one song from each of those albums, though not in chronological order.

The films, despite being made forty years apart, have several things in common.

  • Both were shot over three nights in Los Angeles.
  • Both document the artists’ standard shows at the time.
  • All six of those nights were sold out.
  • Swift and all the members of Talking Heads were in their early 30s at the time of filming. 

Neither movie has off-stage interviews or dialog. They are truly ‘concert films.’

Also, the hired musicians in SMS are black and Swift’s dancers and backup singers are of all races, ages, and weights.

One of Swift’s dancers is downright husky -but, man, he can move. Both films have an unspoken respect for all people.

Both put cameras, and therefore us, on the stage.

Director Jonathan Demme used six cameras to capture Talking Heads at the 2,700 seat Pantages Theater in December 1983.

The band was touring to promote their album Speaking in Tongues, and Demme learned the show to plan out camera angles. It feels like he just captured their usual show but his light, unobtrusive, touch couldn’t have been easy.

Eras was filmed in SoFi Stadium, a much, much larger venue.

Director Sam Wrench used way more than six cameras. It feels like dozens. However, you never see a cameraman wander into a shot in either movie.

That’s by design, and by really good editing.

The differences between the movies begin with their opening scenes. 

SMS starts with a close up of David Byrne’s shoes as he walks to the microphone.

When the camera pulls back, he’s alone on an empty stage. There’s no set decoration. You can even see scaffolding against the back wall. 

Eras’ opening sequence is from a drone flying over LA, through digitally created clouds to the top of the enormous domed stadium.

Inside, a huge catwalk stage juts out into the audience. Dancers with some sort of twenty foot tall flower petals strapped to their backs slowly walk down the runway.

They gather in a circle, lean their petals down to cover a section of the stage, and when they stand up, Swift magically appears from under their petals.

SMS is minimalist and Eras is maximalist. 

SMS is subtle. Eras is not.

Definitely not.

It wants to show us the magnitude of the world’s most extravagant pop music concert. 

While SMS looks like there’s no artifice, everything is as planned out as in Swift’s show. Towards the end of the first song, roadies wheel out a platform that I now know contains an amplifier. Bassist Tina Weymouth comes out for the second song, and near its end, roadies bring out a drum set for Chris Franz to play on the third song. 

The last Talking Head, Harrison, comes out for the fourth, and then five non-Head musicians join to play the remainder of the concert.

By the seventh song, we’ve gone from a solo acoustic number to a full blown cardio workout. It’s staggering.

Eras is visually over the top. Even for the folk-tinged Evermore era, Swift played a moss-covered piano. A regular piano would have worked, but when the vibe is outdoorsy, you might as well set the stage appropriately.

It’s a huge production that takes pleasure in its hugeness, and a show meant for showiness. To that end, the musicians are seen for only a few songs. They’re props like the dancers. Most of the time, the band is split to the far left and right sides of the stage. It’s not that they’re optional, but having them center stage would get in the way of the visual experience. This is a spectacle.

Eras is full of colors, costume changes, scenery changes, dancers, and phenomenal, constantly changing lighting. No expense was spared and there’s always something visual happening. 

SMS, on the other hand, takes a less-is-more approach with few colors other than muted earth tones. There are no costume changes aside from Byrne’s iconic Big Suit, no scenery changes after the roadies assemble the set, no dancers aside from the musicians themselves, and any lighting used is plain white. The one exception is the red background for “Swamp,” and that little bit of color comes as a shock.

But the use of that white light is inspired.

During the song “What A Day That Was,” the harsh white light is set close to the musicians and points up.

It makes the band’s shadows their own light show, and Byrne’s face becomes skeleton-like in close-ups. It’s an extremely simple technique, brilliantly executed. It’s a beautiful spectacle in its own right.

Byrne’s unblinking stare and quirky movements always come to mind first when we think of him, but we forget what a great guitarist he is. His right hand strumming technique is as funky as any Motown player. All the musicians, the four Heads and their five hired hands, are unconventionally excellent.

Vocalists Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry are standouts.

Byrne and Swift have limited vocal ranges, but they’re endlessly creative.

As personas, he’s distant but familiar.

She’s part goddess, part dork.

They’re relatable.

While SMS starts small and grows into a funk dance party, Eras starts full throttle and doesn’t really slow down until the two song acoustic set, but even the solo piano pieces are somehow huge. That might be the sound of the audience singing every word.

Speaking of, in the IMAX theater with speakers everywhere, I couldn’t tell if the audience noises were part of the movie or my fellow movie goers.

Turns out it was both. People around me sang along with every song. Her fans are dedicated and engaged.

And while SMS doesn’t show the audience until the last song, Swift’s fans are shown throughout Eras. The Swifties are part of her story and deserve to be part of the film. Their joy is infectious.

Swift is known for her excellent personal yet universal lyrics. As insightful as her lyrics are, Eras’ gigantic production doesn’t really give them a chance to sink in, which is OK because her audience knows every word already. Eras simultaneously feels like a victory lap, a homecoming, and a pizza party at Taylor’s. 

We think of her fans as 12-year-old girls, but the audience was male and female, and significantly older than preteen. More than one grown man was shown crying with happiness. Her lyrics touch people. 

Who among us hasn’t, at some point or another, felt the hurt of liking someone who doesn’t like us back?

Who hasn’t hurt someone, accidentally or otherwise?

Who hasn’t had new relationship energy?

These subjects are sappy. But Swift crafts her words so well that her songs aren’t. They’re real. Her fans love that she understands what they’ve been through. They feel heard. That’s the joy that brings them to tears.

And watching them, I got a little misty myself.

The other major difference between the two films is length.

The new SMS has the original 16 songs plus two previously unreleased ones. 

Eras has 40. That’s right. 40.

And Swift played five more on the tour. Some Swifties are disappointed to not get those songs but the film is already too long for non-fans, and I’m sure the missing songs will be bonus tracks in some future edition.

That puts SMS at an hour and a half. Eras clocks in at two hours and forty-eight minutes. But if you need a bathroom break, don’t do it during the song “You’re On Your Own, Kid.” There’s a bit of stagecraft right after it that made the audience gasp. I won’t spoil it for you.

The sound itself is incredible for both movies. Eras’ compressed, maxed out sound is contemporary but wore on me after the first two hours. SMS‘s new mix is better at varying dynamics to go with the moods.

The word that comes to mind over and over again is “joy.”

There is such joy in Talking Heads’ performance. The nine of them look like they wouldn’t want to be anywhere but playing music with each other.

The joy in Eras is palpable. Though a lot of it comes from the audience both in the film and in the seats next to me. Swift is a charismatic performer, and when she thanks her fans for being the only reason she’s where she is, they love her even more.

So are these two in contention for the greatest concert film ever?

To be fair, I haven’t seen the three top grossing concert films of all time:

  • Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
  • Michael Jackson’s This Is It, or 
  • Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds

Also, we should wait for, Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé to be released. It’s probably great, too.

Eras is, in fact, great, and I highly recommend it.

It has some jaw dropping moments and its only flaws are its length and its unvarying intensity throughout. I wasn’t a big Taylor Swift fan before. I am now.

Friendship bracelet, anyone?

But:

Same as it ever was, the greatest concert film is still Stop Making Sense.

By the last song, when the cameras finally go into the audience, their joy and exuberance whipped up by this strange little band is unequivocal and cathartic, even 40 years later. It rocks both the brain and the booty.

See both of these films in IMAX if you can, and you will be joyful, too.

Now is Eras the second greatest concert film?

Quite possibly.

Guess I’ll have to see Last Waltz in IMAX.

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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October 27, 2023 5:54 am

Thanks for this great assessment. It’s making me think twice (in a good way) about seeing the Eras movie. I’m one of those who is indifferent to Taylor Swift — I respect her, I like her songwriting and some of her songs, but her voice grates on me — but I have a feeling the spectacle of hundreds of folks singing along would be both charming and, in my case, positively distracting.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:40 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Interesting point. She’s rooted in country music, where singers don’t tend to get flashy with their voices, though many of them could. The music just doesn’t call for it usually. When she transitioned to pop, I think she took some of those sensibilities with her. You can see hints of her extended range in both directions on a song like “Don’t Blame Me”, particularly at the end.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 27, 2023 7:46 am

Color me intrigued by the psychology behind the need for a “part goddess, part dork” to worship and relate to.

Color me a lot less intrigued by Eras, or anything by the dorky demo-goddess herself. So far “You Belong to Me” is the only song of hers to rise above vaguely enjoyable pop filler for me.

Stop Making Sense, well that’s a horse of a different color. I agree that this too showcases highly manufactured spectacle, but it’s a masterclass in stagecraft and showmanship. Thoughtfully planned, and perfectly executed.

And it really stood out from the concerts of its day, and still does. Whereas the Eras tour…sounds like it matches the maximalist bombast of pretty much every big pop singer these days. Competently done. Impressive, even. But I doubt it will be remembered in the generations to come, beyond its sales at least.

mt58
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October 27, 2023 7:57 am

Years ago, the preeminent morning DJ on the local counter culture – Ish radio station in our city was talking about watching the Live Aid concert over the weekend.

Most of his demographic would typically dismiss what they perceived to be manufactured or opportunistic and light weight pop stars. And he was right; it reminded me of my snooty prog-rock point of view, that I mercifully outgrew in my later high school days.

On this particular morning, he went into a long defense of Madonna. What he tried to explain was that if you viewed her as a musician, well, there’s likely not that much there. However, when framed as an entertainer, well, that was a different deal.

He ever so gently chastised the naysayers, telling them that if they skipped her performance, they had missed something.

This is a future conversation that I hope we might find a way to have around here: what does the Venn diagram look like? Where are the musicians and where are the entertainers, and to what degrees are the intersects?

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 27, 2023 8:20 am
Reply to  mt58

I realize that my above comment makes me sound like more of a rockist codger than I actually am. I have a bit of that, it’s true, but I am knocked on the floor by the talents of, say, Beyonce. Or Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson in their primes.

For me an entertainer really does need to bring something impressive to the equation, a talent that can stand out as its own spectacle amid all the other components of a show. Taylor Swift is surely competent, but I haven’t heard or seen anything that truly wowed me.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 27, 2023 9:17 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I will take your recommendation and check out Reputation and Midnights.

Maybe even played at the same time, to see how she fares as the next Charles Ives. 😉

Both Grouse
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October 27, 2023 4:33 pm

Play Reputation at one end of the house and Midnights at the other end. Walk in between and you’ll be golden!

LinkCrawford
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October 27, 2023 10:33 am
Reply to  Virgindog

“I was shocked how many of her songs use the I-V-vi-IV chord pattern “

This is a significant point. I’m not saying that it makes her a bad artist…how many great artists have survived off of twelve-bar blues or three-chord rock over the years?…but I gotta admit, that chord progression has limited appeal. Luckily, her delivery does help.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:57 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I tend to view myself as someone who gets bored with that progression quickly, but there are a ton of exceptions, so I may not be as much of a music theory snob as I thought I was. It’s all in what you do with those chords, really, that can make or break a song.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:54 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

As I recall, T-Bone Burnett tends to get your attention, so here’s a Taylor song co-written and produced by T-Bone from a Hunger Games soundtrack. I love it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzhAS_GnJIc

cappiethedog
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October 27, 2023 11:27 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Husband of Leslie Phillips. In the credits, she went by her married name. I wonder if Sam ever asked her husband: Hey, I can do roots music, too.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:50 pm

As someone who was rockist for years, I can smell it a mile away and I don’t think you came off as rockist at all.

LinkCrawford
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October 27, 2023 10:30 am
Reply to  mt58

We’ve all probably heard reports of concerts that folks have gone to that were totally boring. Mainly because, despite how proficient a musician the artist was, they had no charisma/rapport with the audience. It makes a big difference.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:58 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Or they just talk too much. Play the songs, baby.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:48 pm
Reply to  mt58

I disagree with the assessment of Madonna not having much there as a musician. She was involved very closely with the crafting of many of her songs, a good deal of them being transformative pop that defined what was to come. In addition, her voice is certainly up to the challenge of the many kinds of music she sang as she continued to evolve and explore new musical territory. I think if we are to judge her based on what she’s doing, instead of comparing her to other singers, she comes out on top. The entertainment part of it with her will always be a huge factor, but it begins with the musicianship, and she definitely had it, as far as I’m concerned. And this is coming from someone who is not a huge fan.

Zeusaphone
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October 27, 2023 8:25 am

I’ve seen Eras twice and both times the theater was packed and people were singing along and dancing in the aisles for the whole run time. I was exhausted just watching them. It’s hard to evaluate the film separate from the enthusiastic crowd response.

I’m old, so I saw Stop Making Sense in the theater back on its initial run. Needless to say, it did not engender the same level of excitement. There were maybe three other people in the theater and no dancing in the aisle. But everyone in attendance was really in to it. We all sang along and stayed and talked about the movie afterwards.

JJ Live At Leeds
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October 27, 2023 11:11 am

Excellent evaluation and write up. Brings both films to life and makes me want to watch them.

Stop Making Sense; saw it on TV in 1987, 11th December to he exact according to the wonders of the internet. I knew of them through Road To Nowhere and And She Was but nothing of what came before. I don’t even know why we were watching it, my dad has never expressed any interest in Talking Heads and my mum barely had an interest in anything current by that time. Probably a byproduct of the limited cultural landscape, 4 channels and nothing else on so my dad picked that out of the listings. I just went along with what they were watching. I was mesmerised by Byrne and the big suit and loved it, I bought the SMS album, the original with just 9 tracks. One of the first albums I bought myself. I really need to watch it again, especially after reading this.

Taylor, I’m not a huge fan but she’s got some great songs, I never mind hearing her on the radio. I’m not her typical demographic but whatever the limitations people project onto her she makes the most of what she’s got and inspires people. Seeing the run time to Eras is somewhat off-putting for me going along to the cinema to watch but I imagine that seeing it at home on TV misses a big part of the shared experience.

Greatest concert film? It’s not a traditional concert and it’s not music I’d normally listen to but Aretha’s Amazing Grace was an intense watch even to this non believer. Don’t know if its the greatest but it left an impression on me.

mt58
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October 27, 2023 11:57 am
Reply to  Virgindog

You have no idea of the level of clicksiety that I was going through when I made that terrible pun. It took me a full two minutes to take a shot and post it.

I will do better.

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:59 pm
Reply to  mt58

*looks up clicksiety, can’t find it. Seconds later, it all clicks, no pun intended.

mt58
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October 27, 2023 7:07 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

We strive to arbitrarily create new words.

Aaron3000
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October 29, 2023 12:49 pm
Reply to  mt58

“Clicksiety” would be a good band name, just saying.

Zeusaphone
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October 27, 2023 11:46 am

Oh, you want to know my vote for greatest concert film? 1973’s Wattstax is my choice.

mt58
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October 27, 2023 11:54 am
Reply to  Zeusaphone

Excellent choice!

rollerboogie
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October 27, 2023 5:33 pm

This was an interesting read, in how you put the two films side by side and made connections between two very disparate artists and eras (no pun intended.) Bottom line- both artists connect with their fans in a very intense and might I say, unique way. You did a good job of capturing that, v.

I have not seen either film and likely will not. I don’t tend to like to watch films of concerts, or even music biopics. I would usually rather listen to the studio albums and/or read a book about the real story of the musician. That’s just me. My wife and I did see The Last Waltz at a film festival in Saugatuck, MI in the late 90s. I don’t remember why it was playing there. I liked it, but I don’t really care much about The Band, so there was no emotional connection for me, though it was very cool to see the veritable “Who’s Who” of musicians who joined them at various points of the concert.

As an aside, my dad once accidently ended up at a Pink Floyd concert movie in the early 70s, thinking he was going to see a war movie about communism because of the word “pink” in the title. He couldn’t figure out why it was just him and a theater full of long-haired teenagers, until the movie started and he realized his mistake and walked out fairly quickly. My older siblings gave him hell for this for years.

cappiethedog
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October 27, 2023 11:22 pm

My favorite Taylor Swift song is “Speak Now”. Swift’s appearance on Letterman wowed me. I’m not exactly a Swiftie, but I understand why she’s the biggest star on the planet right now. But “Speak Now” is not the answer that her fan base is looking for. I got zero upvotes.

I’m looking forward to seeing “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra” integrated into Stop Making Sense for the first time. It’s hard to believe that the former didn’t make the final cut.

And I agree Stop Making Sense is the greatest concert film of all-time.

The realism of the marquee just gave me a small chill. I can imagine Travis Bickle beneath it. His date with Cybil Shepherd’s campaign worker would have been a success.

thegue
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October 28, 2023 2:24 pm

Bill,

You have a great way of making me want to watch both of these – concert films have never been my thing, but then again i never gave Taylor Swift a chance until you convinced me otherwise.

Good on you.

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