"Stop Making Sense" – the Talking Heads’ concert movie – became a Friday night ritual at the Oriental Theater in the mid-to-late ‘80s.
At that time, the Oriental was not divided into three theaters – instead, it had one screen. It was also before the vending area sold alcohol.
And yet, the show became a popular alternative to the club scene for of-age drinkers as well as a destination for high school kids who were starved for culture and experiences beyond high school.
"Stop Making Sense" returned to the Oriental last night as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Sound Vision series. We walked into a well-attended theater with one question on our minds: after 20-plus years since we’d seen the film in that space would it be "same as it ever was"?
The answer is both yes and no.
The quality of the 1984 film was grainy and definitely had a vintage feel. I liked this, much in the way I like the crackles and pops of records, but it did take a few seconds to get used to. A person behind me said, "Wow. How old is this movie?" And I joked to my partner, "What is this? ‘Gone With the Wind?’"
Although the women who introduced the film encouraged people to dance, it took a while for the crowd to get moving. The concert opens with "Psycho Killer," a very danceable track, and yet most of the audience was extremely mellow with a smattering of chair dancers throughout the theater.
The show opens with lead singer David Byrne alone on the stage with his guitar and a "boombox" and then one by one the rest of the band joins him. Bassist Tina Weymouth came on first to perform "Heaven." The second band member to reach the stage was drummer Chris Franz for "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel" and then Talking Heads guitarist, the Milwaukee-born Jerry Harrison, came on for "Found A Job."
The addition of Harrison – who was also an original member of The Modern Lovers – sparked a reaction from the audience who applauded for the former Milwaukeean.
"Stop Making Sense" was shot over three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December of 1983 while the band was touring for their "Speaking In Tongues" album. It also featured back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, former Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales and guitarist Alex Weir.
Unfortunately, many great hits came and went last night without much audience participation or reaction – including "Burning Down the House." However, by the 11th tune, "This Must be The Place," many people, myself included, couldn’t take the mellowness any longer and started dancing in the aisles.
By the next song, "Once In A Lifetime," there was a line of dancers snaking through the theater, singing and high fiving those still seated. There was also a group shout-out of "My God, what have I done?!"
This is what I signed up for. This is how I remembered it from years ago.
The next four songs were equally as well received, particularly "Girlfriend Is Better" which is where the name "Stop Making Sense" comes from. ("As we get older and stop making sense....")
By the end of the show, the Oriental audience and the 1983 Pantages Theater audience seemed to have morphed into one. Last night’s movie-goers were clapping and responding to the movie as if it were live: shouting out to Weymouth and to Harrison.
Seeing this concert again – which I had not seen since I was a young teenager in the later ‘80s – reminded me of when I reread "Catcher In The Rye" a couple of years ago. I had not read it since I was a sophomore in high school and I remembered it being extremely crass and funny. Although it was both of those things, the grown-up me found it incredibly sad, too, and what I took away from the book was completely different from what I gleaned a couple of decades earlier.
I probably saw "Stop Making Sense" 10 times at the Oriental – I worked right around the corner at Prospect Mall Cinemas – and probably another five times I told my parents I was going to the film but did something else. (Sorry, mom.)
I do not remember thinking about much more than the music – which is still as relevant, inspired and tight as it was then – but in retrospect, I realize how inspired I was by Byrne.
Byrne embraced his awkwardness, non ironically, and was clearly very comfortable with himself. Hence, his style and stage performance became iconic – which included, among other quirky movements, a jittery left leg, a wide-eyed zombie face, marching in place, arm flaps and the wearing of an oversized suit.
Weymouth had this going on, too, and the kick-ass bass player also sported a lovably geeky dance style.
Her actions, Byrne’s actions, the entire concert was so raw and genuine. Maybe not the same as it ever was, but loaded with sounds and visions and ideals worth remembering.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.