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.
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.
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?
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?