Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: STOP MAKING SENSE

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Oct 17, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Stop Making Sense (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Palm Pictures
    Rated: NR
    Film Length: 88 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (2 versions); English PCM 2.0
    Subtitles: None
    MSRP: $34.99
    Disc Format: 1 50GB
    Package: Keepcase with insert
    Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 18, 1985
    Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 13, 2009



    Introduction:

    When I lived in California in the 1970s, I knew a guy – probably everyone has known someone like this – who was always talking about the next big thing and usually (annoyingly) turning out to be right. One year he returned from a summer in New York and wouldn’t shut up about some band he’d heard in a rundown night club that he insisted would be huge.

    The night club was the late, lamented CBGB’s. The band was Talking Heads.

    Jump to 1984, and I’m living in New York, but Talking Heads are never here, because they’re always on tour (and would break up four years later). The four main band members made the canny decision to capture themselves during one of those tours at the peak of their performing powers in a movie they produced and financed. The director was future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme. The result of this unusual collaboration was a one-of-a-kind concert film, Stop Making Sense, now available on Blu-ray for its 25th (yikes!) anniversary.



    The Feature:

    There are many reasons why Stop Making Sense is unique among concert films. First among them is that the band itself was unlike any other of its era. Its career may have started in the punk grunge of the Lower East Side, but it was distinguished from its surroundings at the outset by the preppy clothing and low-key demeanor. And as befits a band founded by three graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, Talking Heads always seemed to find sources of inspiration in unexpected places, constantly renewing and expanding their sound. Even as MTV transformed the scene, Talking Heads was happy to take advantage of the new marriage of music and video. Both “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” got heavy play on MTV. Still, they managed to remain apart and follow their own path. Their videos didn’t look like anyone else’s, just as their music didn’t sound like anyone else’s.

    A second reason for the film’s uniqueness is that it reflected the band’s sensibility through and through. Producing and financing their own film gave the Talking Heads an extraordinary measure of control, and they took full advantage of it. The sets and costumes were their own design, and lead singer David Byrne would later joke that he became “a little dictator”, banning all objects from the stage that might interfere with the visual scheme, including pick stands and bottles of water.

    Third, in director Jonathan Demme, the band found a perfect match, because Demme, even though he had directed music videos, didn’t approach a concert film like other directors. In Demme’s vision, a Talking Heads concert was a drama inhabited by distinctive characters who happened to play instruments instead of speaking. Demme wanted to make sure that he captured those characters and their interplay, rather than merely following the structure of each song by, e.g., cutting to a guitarist when it’s time for a solo. Demme’s approach meshed perfectly with the manner in which the band built the momentum of a concert, starting with Byrne performing “Psycho Killer” solo, accompanied only by a drum machine and acoustic guitar, then gradually adding performers one by one until, when then get to “Burning Down the House”, a full ensemble of nine musicians really does burn down the house.

    Above all, Stop Making Sense is entirely about the band’s performance. There are no interview clips to interrupt the flow. (These can be wonderful entertainment, as they are in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, but they make for a different kind of film.) There are also no audience reaction shots until near the very end, because, as Byrne says, those tell you the performance is good, but they don’t actually add to the performance. What you get instead is a group of first-rate musicians performing with a purity, intensity and joy that comes through the screen without any need to juice it up with fireworks, light displays or fancy editing tricks. It’s 88 minutes of sheer energy.

    Byrne, always the most visible of the Talking Heads, remains center stage for most of the concert. He disappears only for “Genius of Love”, a terrific song sung by The Tom Tom Club (a/k/a Talking Heads without Byrne), which, among its other virtues, showcases the talents of sexy bassist Tina Weymouth (even then, alas, married to drummer Chris Frantz). But the real reason for the song’s inclusion is to give Byrne time to change into Stop Making Sense’s signature image: the Big Suit. It’s the outfit in which Byrne performs “Girlfriend Is Better”, from which the film’s title is derived.

    What can I possibly add to the many observations that have already been made about the Big Suit? Band member Jerry Harrison calls it “jello”. Weird Al Yankovic loved it so much that he repeatedly featured clips of it on “Al TV”. Some things are their own justification.

    Like the DVD before it, the Blu-ray contains two additional musical numbers, “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra”. These have not been integrated into the film or remastered for hi-def, but they were welcome additions before, and they remain welcome here.



    Video:

    Sing it with me now: This ain’t no grainless, this ain’t no vid-yo, this ain’t no DNR show! According to the press notes, the film has been remastered for Blu-ray from a 35mm interpositive, and one’s enjoyment of the transfer will depend entirely on expectations. This was a 1984 production, shot, edited and finalized on film, and it looks it. No one has tried to prettify or sharpen the results, and because this is not the property of a major media company or (yet) a classic worthy of Criterion, there is no budget for a major digital restoration to remove every scratch or other analog flaw. The film is presented as it is, warts and all.

    That being said, I think the results are pretty great. The opening reel has the most obvious print damage, because it contains the titles, which would have been done with opticals in that era, thereby preserving some amount of analog “interference” for all future versions. But after that the source is in relatively good shape. The lighting (by Jorden Cronenweth, the DP of Blade Runner) is utilitarian, designed to work with the live show’s lighting effects to showcase the performances. Because the production design remains as close to monochromatic as possible (with the exception of rear projections on specific numbers such as “Making Flippy Floppy” or “Naive Melody”), colors are not a major issue. Black levels are quite good, though, and substantial detail is visible, especially given the softness of the image.

    (Just how much detail has been captured becomes evident on direct contrast to the DVD, which looks flat and dull by comparison. The Blu-ray image may not immediately leap off the screen, but as you watch it, you soon realize that you’re seeing depth and texture that the DVD only hinted at.)

    In evaluating the image, it’s important to remember that the filmmakers wanted to capture a documentary sense of being there with the performers. You almost never see cameras, and that’s by design. The film was shot over several nights in Los Angeles, and cameras were positioned on different sides of the stage on alternate nights in order to maximize the amount of footage in which they wouldn’t appear. The photographic style of the finished product helps preserve that sense of immediacy.

    Could it look sharper, cleaner and more detailed? Through digital manipulation, it probably could. Should it? Absolutely not. It wouldn’t be the same film.

    (Note: The bonus tracks, “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra” are presented in 4:3 standard definition video, as they were on the DVD. They looked poor compared to the DVD image, and they look even poorer compared to the Blu-ray.)



    Audio:

    Stop Making Sense is supposed to be the first film recorded entirely using digital audio. When it was released to theaters in 1984, though, the best that was available for a film of its nature was analog Dolby surround. For the 1999 DVD, the sound was remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1 and presented in two separate versions: a “feature film” mix designed to put the listener in the front row at the live performance, and a “studio” mix designed to put the listener at the mixing board. Both versions are included here in lossless DTS, and both are phenomenal.

    I have always been more partial to the “feature film” mix, which places the audience firmly in the surrounds and spreads the band clearly across the front soundstage. In the Blu-ray’s track, the sense of separation among the instruments and the balance between vocals and individual instruments is both flawless and easy on the ears. Assuming your equipment is properly adjusted, you could listen to this track for hours and your hearing wouldn’t be fatigued. (Of course, you’d have to be a fan to enjoy the experience, but if you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t be reading this, right?)

    The “studio” mix initially struck me as something of a gimmick, but in this presentation I was impressed by its tight focus and sheer impact. I want to spend more time with it, probably as just an audio experience.

    The disc also contains a PCM 2.0 track, which appears to be the same one that’s been available on CD for many years. Why mess with perfection?

    (Note: “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra” have only the “studio” mix in lossless DTS or the PCM 2.0 track. These were the same options available on the DVD.)



    Special Features:

    Same as it ever was.

    Well, not quite. The Blu-ray contains all of the special features from the 1999 DVD, with the exception of the discography and the biographies of the band and director (which the internet has made superfluous). It also includes one fantastic new feature: a one-hour press conference from the film’s theatrical re-release at the San Francisco film festival in April 1999.

    The video for all special features is in standard definition.

    Audio Commentary by Talking Heads and Director Jonathan Demme. This track was recorded for the DVD in August 1999. Each participant was recorded separately, and the participants were then edited together. Even with this format, the track is not a non-stop talk fest, but what is there is well-chosen and informative. Byrne, usually so reticent when not performing, talks more openly than one might expect about his songwriting and his performing style. Demme offers insights into his approach to directing the film and points out a few “tricks”, such as the opening shot of Byrne walking on stage, which was done without an audience and edited into the film so seamlessly that you don’t even notice. He also talks about the origin of the line “Any questions?” that Byrne appears to call out to the audience at the end of “Life During Wartime”.

    Byrne Self-Interview (4:35). A playful bit of self-parody, typical of Byrne’s self-effacing persona.

    Montage (3:08). A collage of moments from the film.

    1999 Press Conference (1:05:57). This was the first time that the band had reassembled in some years, and they were just beginning to work on the DVD. For almost an hour, they take questions from the assembled press, and while some of their answers ultimately turn up in the DVD commentary, much of the material does not. Tina Weymouth in particular is more voluble and forthcoming about changes in the artistic and commercial environment since the band’s early days (changes that she does not think are for the better). Byrne is much less talkative than he would be several months later in the privacy of a recording booth while watching the film. Overall, the press conference is an invaluable find and a terrific extra.

    A few glitches are evident on the recording. At several points, the tape sticks and the sound disappears. In general, though, the quality of this extra is remarkably good.

    Storyboards. These are David Byrne’s original drawings for the film’s sets. They can be displayed either with Byrne’s handwritten notes or as compared to photographs of the final product.

    Big Suit. A short essay on the construction of the Big Suit.

    Trailer. The trailer included on the disc is the one prepared for the fifteenth anniversary re-release.

    Previews. Also included are previews for Palm’s releases of Patti Smith: Dream of Life, You’re Gonna Miss Me and Dig!



    In Conclusion:

    The video image on this Blu-ray may be a problem for some viewers, though it wasn’t for me. That concern aside, the film has held up remarkably well after 25 years, a tribute to the focus of all concerned on performance and musical craftsmanship. This kind of thing doesn’t date.



    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
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  2. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    Sounds like this BD will likely be the best presentation this concert film will likely ever get (unless Criterion picks it up some day perhaps

    _Man_
     
  3. MattBradley

    MattBradley Stunt Coordinator

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    I've been waiting on this one and can't wait to pick it up. Too bad I have to wait and see if I get it for my birthday first. haha
     
  4. Parker Clack

    Parker Clack Schizophrenic Man
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    Great review Michael. I have the DVD and love it. I look forward to the Blu-ray version. I have been a huge fan of Talking Heads and the CD of Stop Making Sense was something that I would take over to parties. A friend of mine said "this is the kind of music you just can't sit still too." and she was right. I got it out a few months ago for my 8 year old daughter and she was dancing all over the house.

    I felt this was a "Once in a Lifetime" collaboration of skilled musicians and artists coming together to make something the likes of which we will never see again.
     

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