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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Talking Heads: A Filmic Appreciation

Last night I went to the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian in Hollywood for a couple of Talking Heads movies. It was a great opportunity to watch terrific films on the big screen that I'd previously only seen on video—and enjoy them with an enthusiastic, like-minded audience.

First on the bill was Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984), acclaimed by many to be one of the greatest concert films ever made. It's certainly one of the most thrilling. Like the concert itself, it begins with a bare stage. David Byrne comes out with a guitar and a boom box, saying, "Hi. I've got a tape I want to play." He starts the boom box, providing the rhythm track for "Psycho Killer," which he performs solo. Gradually, the stage fills up with the other band members (Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison) and more performers as the songs become more musically challenging and exciting, with everyone swinging and swaying along.

The film serves not only to preserve one of the best rock concerts in history but also to document the evolution of the band itself. It begins with the simpler, raw rhythms of "Psycho Killer," and "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," increasing in complexity with songs like "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime." True to the Heads' art school background, the event is as much performance piece as concert, with interesting movement and dance (especially from the strutting, quivering Byrne) and ironic words and images projected on the wall behind the band.

In this film, there's no backstage interview business and no playing to the audience, except for Byrne's hilarious query, "Does anyone have any questions?" Indeed, the audience is barely glimpsed until the finale and its enthusiastic response at the conclusion of each song is mixed down far more than usual in concert films.

As Byrne commented on the DVD, this technique was intended to allow viewers to form their own opinions about the performance. I liked the way the crew and cameramen were integrated into the action. During "Girlfriend is Better," Byrne even points the microphone at one of the cameramen, and he obligingly joins in the chorus! It's also effective that the performers frequently look into the camera lens, drawing viewers into the experience and showing them what a good time they're having. It's quite joyous.

I was fortune enough to attend this concert in 1983—not the filmed one at the Pantages Theater, but the one they gave at the Pacific Amphitheater in Orange County on the same leg of the tour. The film brought back a lot of happy memories of not only the band's great music, but also of my younger self in a different time. It was an outrageous, energetic evening, and I don't remember sitting down even once.

I'm still an avid alt-rock concertgoer, and it wasn't until I saw Green Day in San Antonio in 2009 that I was as blown away by a performance. The difference is that while the Green Day boys are master showmen, the Heads were truly artists in every sense of the word. Byrne, with his big suit and big ideas, was the undisputed creative force, as his post-Heads career has shown, including receiving an Academy Award for 1987's The Last Emperor.

The Cinematheque ran a nice original 35mm print, and the audio mix is remarkable, considering it's circa-1984 Dolby Stereo. Even though it had a limited re-release in 1999 in preparation for its first DVD release, I think it's a natural for midnight screenings. Sure, it's available on Blu-Ray, but it really needs to be experienced on a big screen with big sound—and a big suit!

Pictured here is the original T-shirt I bought at the concert. It's in pretty good condition, but I sure as hell wouldn't dare wear it anymore—it's too valuable a piece of memorabilia.

The co-feature was 1986's True Stories, Byrne's gently humorous chronicle of a small Texas town's preparation for its Sesquicentennial. A strange mixture of wry comedy, arthouse and social commentary, it perplexed critics and viewers alike upon its original release, but I think it's aged well, especially since sites like Funny Or Die have given the general public a more expansive taste for irony and offbeat humor.

Byrne plays the unnamed narrator who comes to the tiny town of Virgil to check out its preparations of what is dubbed a "celebration of specialness," (emphasize the ness). Among the residents he encounters is Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a frustrated bachelor with a heart of gold who longs to find the perfect soulmate; Earl Culver (the late Spalding Gray), a civic leader credited with bringing the area's biggest employer—the ominously-named Varicorp—to town; and his wife, Kay (Annie McEnroe), who's in charge of all of the ladies' club activities. Another prominent resident is Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), a woman so rich that she never gets out of bed because she simply doesn't have to.

There's not really a driving plot to speak of (although Byrne does lots of driving), just a series of vignettes and musical numbers with hilarious peripheral characters drifting through, including the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who spins fantastic tales about her life to anyone who will listen; Mr. Tucker ("Pops" Staples), who works for Miss Rollings but also practices good voodoo on the side; and a preacher (John Ingle) who espouses his conspiracy theories about corporate/political America to his congregation, which is actually scarier these days. There's other wry commentary about consumerism and big business, but none of it is particularly confrontational. In fact, the film's candied color scheme and essential optimism is pretty engaging. Even when the camera tracks past acres of identical tract houses, devoid of people, with newspaper pages blowing across their lawns like modern-day tumbleweeds, Byrne says, "Who can say it isn't beautiful?" And you can't.

Byrne is especially amusing as the deadpan narrator. He's treated as a sort of VIP by the residents, yet his status is never explained. Wearing a series of bizarre cowboy outfits, he drives through town, commenting on such sights as ready-made metal buildings, new shopping malls and the miles of freeway that connect one place to another.

The score has some great tunes: I'm sure even those not familiar with the film have seen the "Wild Wild Life" music video, and Staples does justice to Byrne's "Papa Legba." Even Goodman gets into the act with the ironic country tune "People Like Us," which would have been really bleak in any other context, but Byrne and his co-writers Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky have populated Virgil with such a likable cast of characters that it's charmingly poignant. It's what Horton Foote might have written if he woke up feeling weird and light-hearted one day.

True Stories was not well-received upon its original release. I mean, the best quote the marketing folks could come up with is "It's a completely cool, multi-purpose movie"? Oy. But it has steadily built an audience via home video. Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped it onto DVD in 1999 in a 1:33 transfer with no extras, so I was delighted to see a nice 35mm print in its correct aspect ratio. I'd love to catch an airing of it in HD on cable, but surprisingly I never see it listed. At the very least, it deserves a DVD re-release in Blu-Ray with a new sound mix.

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