The film begins with the opening credits, using a style similar to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the movie trailer also makes references to Dr. Strangelove). Title designer Pablo Ferro was responsible for both title sequences.
Lead singer David Byrne walks on to a bare stage (seen from the feet only initially) with a portable cassette tape player and an acoustic guitar. He introduces "Psycho Killer" by saying he wants to play a cassette tape, ostensibly from the boom box. In reality, the tick-tock drum machine was a Roland TR-808 played from the mixing board. During the song, the drum machine "fires" machine gun riffs that cause Byrne to stagger "like Jean-Paul Belmondo in the final minutes of 'Breathless,' a hero succumbing, surprised, to violence that he'd thought he was prepared for."
With each successive song, Byrne is cumulatively joined onstage by each core member of the band: first by Tina Weymouth for "Heaven" (with Lynn Mabry, originally of The Brides of Funkenstein and Parliament-Funkadelic, providing harmony vocals from backstage), second by Chris Frantz for "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel", and third by Jerry Harrison for "Found a Job". Performance equipment is gradually wheeled out and wired up to the bare stage between and throughout the performances, as Talking Heads continue to be augmented by several additional musicians, most of whom had extensive experience in funk: back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, keyboardist Bernie Worrell (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic), percussionist Steve Scales, and guitarist Alex Weir (of The Brothers Johnson). The first song to feature the entire lineup is "Burning Down the House", although the original 1985 RCA/Columbia Home Video release (which featured three additional songs in two performances edited into the film) has the entire band (minus Worrell) performing "Cities" before this song. Byrne leaves the stage at one point to allow the Weymouth–Frantz-led side-band the Tom Tom Club to perform their song "Genius of Love" (The 1999 re-release of the film featured alternate 'rap' lines by Frantz to remove a cocaine reference, "snow white", featured in the original release). The band also performs two songs from Byrne's soundtrack album The Catherine Wheel, "What a Day That Was" and (as a bonus song on the home video release) "Big Business."
The film is also notable for Byrne's "big suit", a normal business suit that gradually increases in size as the concert progresses, until by the song "Girlfriend Is Better" (featuring lyrics from which the film takes its title) it is absurdly large. The suit was partly inspired by Noh theatre styles, and became an icon not only of the film – as it appears on the movie poster, for instance – but of Byrne himself. Byrne said: "I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theater — Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku — and I was wondering what to wear on our upcoming tour. A fashion designer friend (Jurgen Lehl) said in his typically droll manner, ‘Well David, everything is bigger on stage.’ He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman's suit." Pauline Kael stated in her review: "When he comes on wearing a boxlike 'big suit' — his body lost inside this form that sticks out around him like the costumes in Noh plays, or like Beuys' large suit of felt that hangs off a wall — it's a perfect psychological fit." On the DVD, in one of several interviews between two Byrne-portrayed characters, he gives his reasoning behind the suit: "I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head."
The filming of Stop Making Sense spanned three live shows at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. Demme has stated that one night of shooting was dedicated almost entirely to wide shots from a distance, to minimize the intrusion of cameras on stage. Demme had considered additional shooting on a soundstage made to recreate the Pantages Theater, but the band declined to do this, as they thought the lack of audience response would have hindered the energy of their performance.
All songs in the film are written by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, except where noted:
- "Psycho Killer" (Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth)
- "Heaven" (Byrne, Harrison)
- "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" (Byrne)
- "Found a Job" (Byrne)
- "Slippery People"
- "Burning Down the House"
- "Life During Wartime"
- "Making Flippy Floppy"
- "What a Day That Was" (Byrne)
- "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)"
- "Once in a Lifetime" (Byrne, Brian Eno, Frantz, Harrison, Weymouth)
- "Genius of Love" (as Tom Tom Club) (Weymouth, Frantz, Adrian Belew, Steven Stanley)
- "Girlfriend Is Better"
- "Take Me to the River" (Al Green, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges)
- "Crosseyed and Painless" (Byrne, Eno, Frantz, Harrison, Weymouth)
Extra songs available on the DVD and Blu Ray as a bonus feature and on the original VHS and LaserDisc (edited into the sequence):
- "Cities" (Byrne)
- "Big Business" (Byrne, John Chernoff)/"I Zimbra" (Byrne, Eno, Hugo Ball)
The setlist for the concert that was documented for the film can be found here.
The following are in order of appearance.David Byrne - lead vocals, guitar
Tina Weymouth - bass, keyboard bass, guitar, lead vocals in Tom Tom Club
Chris Frantz - drums, vocals in Tom Tom Club
Jerry Harrison - guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Steve Scales - percussion, backing vocals
Lynn Mabry - backing vocals
Ednah Holt - backing vocals
Alex Weir - guitar, backing vocals
Bernie Worrell - keyboards
Critical reception and release
The film premiered during the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 24, 1984 and received a wider American release on October 18, 1984.
Stop Making Sense was very well received by critics, and presently maintains a 97% "fresh" score at Rotten Tomatoes. It won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best documentary in 1984.
This concert film is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre. Leonard Maltin rated the film four stars out of four, describing it as "brilliantly conceived, shot, edited and performed" and "one of the greatest rock movies ever made." Roger Ebert gave the film a three-and-a-half star rating, writing that "the overwelming [sic] impression throughout Stop Making Sense is of enormous energy, of life being lived at a joyous high...It's a live show with elements of Metropolis...But the film's peak moments come through Byrne's simple physical presence. He jogs in place with his sidemen; he runs around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and making music...He serves as a reminder of how sour and weary and strung-out many rock bands have become." Danny Peary described Stop Making Sense as "Riveting...What takes place on stage will make even the most skeptical into Talking Heads converts...[The] performances are invariably exciting, Byrne's lyrics are intriguing. Byrne, his head moving rhythmically as if he had just had shock treatments, is spellbinding - what a talent!...Byrne is known for his belief that music should be performed in an interesting, visual manner, and this should make him proud."
The movie version of "Once in a Lifetime" was released as a single and also appeared on the opening credits to the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Also, in Europe, "Slippery People" became a big single, appearing on a single-disc greatest hits album released in 1991. Occasionally, radio stations will play the film's version of "Life During Wartime".
When the film was first released on home video, the songs "I Zimbra", "Big Business", and "Cities" were restored to the performance, thus forming what was dubbed as the "special edition" of the film. In the 1999 re-release, these songs were not part of the theatrical run. Subsequent video and DVD releases have placed these after the film in an unrestored full-frame version.
The film has been released on Blu-ray, widescreen DVD, and VHS in both fullscreen and widescreen versions.