Guest Blogger: (500) Days Co-Writer Scott Neustadter on Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense
Editor's note: Screenwriter Scott Neustadter struck gold in 2009 with his script for (500) Days of Summer, which he co-wrote with Michael H. Weber. The film, shot in downtown Los Angeles, stars Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and viewers watch the rise and fall of the pair's relationship through a series of flashbacks. As in most relationships, music plays a vital role in the narrative. West Coast Sound is happy to have Neustadter sitting in the blogging chair for the week. He'll be offering thoughts on the interaction between music and film. Yesterday he listed his five favorite music/film moments. Read them here.
A man walks onto a stage. In one hand, a guitar. In the other, a boombox. He says simply, "Hi. I've got a tape I want to play." The Camera pans up to reveal the man. His name is David. He begins to strum. The song he plays is "Psycho Killer." He kinda sorta looks like one.
He plays it by himself with the stage completely bare. Everything visible -- ladders, shelves, risers not yet erected. This is not a rock show. And this is not a rock star. It's like we're watching someone who wandered onto an empty stage on an off-night, turned on the lights, and lived out a fantasy. It's the coolest fucking thing I've ever seen.
"Stop Making Sense" is Jonathan Demme's concert film of the Talking Heads circa 1983. Shot by Demme at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Hollywood, conceived by David Byrne, performed by the band and its ancillary members at the peak of their brilliance, everything about it is euphoric and distinctive, unforgettable.
Take, for example, the build. After Byrne's solo opening, he's joined in the next song by Tina Weymouth. While they perform as a duo, we see stagehands bringing out the drums behind them. Something's coming. Drummer Chris Franz joins them for the next song, Jerry Harrison for the song after that. With each song, new wires, new instruments, new musicians appear until the stage is literally overflowing with awesomeness. The entire time, nobody stops moving or dancing. Byrne runs laps around the stage, jogs in place alongside his back-up singers, staining his clothes with the kind of sweat you never see outside a Springsteen show. All of this before the notorious Big Suit even makes its appearance.
For me, the movie's best moment is the one-two punch of "What a Day That Was" and "This Must Be The Place." The former finds the band at its most kinetic while Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (who also shot Blade Runner) use the kind of lighting typically reserved for campfire ghost stories. You could watch it with the sound off and still be enthralled (Don't. The song is too good.) For the first time, we realize we're watching a show -- Talking Heads as spectacle, as something other than human.
It's this creation of distance -- brief but unmistakable -- that makes the transition to "This Must Be the Place" so damn magnificent. The stage is dark until Byrne reaches up and turns on a lamp light. Behind him, images of an antiquated living room from long ago. Domestic, warm, intimate. With the band beside him, Byrne sings the loveliest and most personal song he'll ever write, even dancing with the floor lamp a la Fred Astaire. He's a different guy than the "Psycho Killer" who we first met and we suddenly realize -- this is more than just a concert film. This is a story.
Talking Heads broke up in 1991 and I never got to see the band live. Still, I gotta tell you, it sure doesn't feel that way.