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“You amaze the people” says Sean Penn to David Byrne in a scene from This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino’s film released in 2011. The intense encounter depicted in the Neapolitan director’s film risked taking place in real life for twenty-eight years Before. In December 1983 in Los Angeles, a few days later, Sean Penn received an award for promising young cinema and the Talking Heads played three concerts which would be summarized the following year in Stop Making Sense by Jonathan Demme, considered by many critics the best concert film ever made.
Speaking in Tongues
The musicians who stage it are veterans of the recordings of Speaking in Tongues, an album whose title is the English translation of the Greek term ‘glossolalia’ and which, in fact, as Byrne recalls, came to life from “improvised riffs and voices in an incomprehensible jargon as a guide to writing lyrics”. In spite of all this, the album is so direct that it becomes the first real success of a band born with anything but commercial intentions. It is mainly thanks to the opening song Burning Down the House, which enters the top ten of the US charts. What fascinates the Talking Heads seems to be the possibility of communicating without doing so: the human beings of Making Flippy Floppy are loose cannons in search of meaning, Girlfriend Is Better sets the dance floor on fire, while the chorus of Slippery People is the staging of Pentecostal functions , with exalted preachers and fervent believers. In I Get Wild/Wild Gravity the geographical coordinates lead to Jamaica and the song that opens the B side, Swamp, is a blues that makes you doubt whether you have put the right record on the plate.
But you just have to wait for the next Moon Rocks to find the same tribal funk that shakes Pull Up the Roots. Above all, hovers the first love song ever written by David Byrne: the sweet and poetic caress of This Must Be the Place. If Speaking in Tongues photographs a band in one of its best moments, Stop Making Sense alternates the neutral look of musicians with lights that interpret white in all its shades. Japanese theater to Balinese dance shows, sliding platforms to illuminated stage changes because they are intended as an integral part of the show. Byrne absorbs Fred Astaire’s steps, dances with a floor lamp, wears the famous very loose gray dress, enters the stage with acoustic guitar and cassette player for a curious version of Psycho Killer. In short, in his own words, he is the driving force behind a show that represents “the most ambitious thing I have ever attempted”.
In fact, here, forty years later, the Talking Heads reunite at the Toronto Film Festival for a question and answer session hosted by director Spike Lee. The event celebrates the return to cinema of Stop Making Sense, restored for the occasion in 4k. The film and its soundtrack, recently republished in a deluxe version, put Sean Penn’s words into practice.