Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Culture > Entertainment

Existentialism, the Talking Heads, and the ‘Stop Making Sense’ Re-Release

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Comprised of former art school students-turned-musicians among New York’s exploding punk community, the Talking Heads first gained national recognition in 1977 from the release of their self-titled album that yielded “Psycho Killer,” a panicky anthem on socialization and distorted perception sung in David Byrne’s uniquely pithy yet wavering voice. From the beginning, they were a band that transcended labels — not quite punk or art rock, determinately prototypical enough to fit into the emergent alternative scene soon coined “New Wave.” 

I first found myself entranced by the Talking Heads as a reticent teenager, overcome by introversion and an increasingly disillusioned desire to be understood by anything that existed outside of myself. I saw a recorded performance of their bouncy and erratic “Don’t Worry About the Government,” a simple-worded, yet complexly woven satire of the realities of living in the modern world from their Talking Heads: 77 album, and I was hooked. There was something about them that I couldn’t quite place, some evocative combination of gawkiness and certainty that worked as a perfect contradiction of everything I believed I wanted and couldn’t be. 

I soon realized that this contradictive harmony was a phenomenon that seemed to extend into all aspects of their musicianship; they were awkward, and they were cool. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, and they were entirely meaningful. They were absurd, yet they were also some of the most real people I had ever seen performing in the way they did. Their music offered a glimpse into the weird and the wonderful of the every day, a poetic lyricism that blended effortlessly with jagged rhythms — exciting, relatable, and never unoriginal.

Though only a modest success at the time of its original release, the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, has since amassed cult status. It’s been praised by fans and critics alike who often claim it to be one of the most dynamic and artfully interlaced concert experiences ever recorded. For those who viewed the film at the time of its theatrical release, it was something electric, often inspiring moviegoers to get up from their seats and dance along in an energetic multitude. For those like me, A24’s announcement of its re-release felt like a “Once in a Lifetime” opportunity to experience the band through the same medium as fans back in 1984.

The film itself is indeed an experience like no other. Stitched together from concert footage over several days in the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Stop Making Sense includes performances from all four members of the Talking Heads. It also includes an accompanying percussionist, keyboardist, guitarist, and backup singers who are progressively incorporated onto the stage as the film goes on. This gradual buildup of performers is perhaps one of the most effective features in making the film so compelling. What begins with a twitchy, calculated solo rendition of “Psycho Killer” by an electronic drum-accompanied Byrne eventually cascades into a fanfare of movement and sound that ranges from what nearly mirrors a jazz-aerobics group class to an oddly emotional, tender slow dance with a floor lamp during “This Must Be the Place.” 

My favorite moment by far, however, occurs early on in the film, when Byrne is joined on stage by bassist Tina Weymouth for a stripped-down performance of “Heaven,” a dreamy existential ode from their 1979 Fear of Music album. I have always found “Heaven” to be such a hauntingly gentle song, one that suggests an attainable peace of nothingness that exists in infinity — a sameness that persists. It characterizes heaven as a bar where they play your favorite songs on loop, or the ending of a party that is only to start again, or the silence that comes after a kiss before it is followed by another. Its acoustic iteration seems to amplify this quiet comfort in the moments where “nothing ever happens.” In it exists a strange and longing beauty, a reminder of scant pragmatism, one where the line between everything and nothing seems to disappear in the promised relief of repetition. 

This idea of nothingness seems to persist as a motif, not only throughout the songs of the Talking Heads but in their Stop Making Sense setlist in particular. “Found a Job” features a conversation between a man and a woman over the monotony of television, exchanging that “there’s nothing on tonight” and “nothing’s ever on.” “Making Flippy Floppy” begins with a near-litany of nothings, stating “nothing can come between us / nothing gets you down / nothing strikes your fancy / nothing turns you on.” Is this maybe pointing to a fortitude in simplicity? So many components of the film are expressive and inviting, but never overly flashy, everything in muted colors, right down to Byrne’s iconic Noh-inspired suit. It posits the question of what it is about “nothing” that has become so significant in our modern world, how so much of nothing can emerge out of something, or how sometimes nothing might be our own saving grace: exactly what we need. 

To me, Byrne’s voice has always appeared as if it is asking a question, as though his lyrics are not demonstrative in any way, but rather a solicitation of truth toward their listeners. But perhaps this is something I have always particularly admired about the Talking Heads — their music does not beg you to intellectualize itself, but rather invites you to look into its own world, offering an unapologetic share in perspective of both the mundane and prolific.

Stop Making Sense is now showing in IMAX, and will be in all theaters starting Sep. 29. You can buy tickets here for showings at the Tallahassee AMC.

Want to see more HCFSU? Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Pinterest!

Emily Clemente is a staff writer at the Her Campus at Florida State University Chapter. She writes campus, culture, and lifestyle articles. Beyond Her Campus, Emily is also a writer for STRIKE and local music magazine The Tally Beat, and she has held staff positions for WALTER, Cellar Door Magazine, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been featured in literary publications such as december, Star 82, and Jellyfish Review, among others. She currently studies Creative Writing at Florida State University with a concentration in fiction. You can find more of her work at https://emilyclemente.com/