Thursday, May 4, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Girlfriend is Better

Talking Heads (from Stop Making Sense): Girlfriend is Better

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Director Jonathan Demme died last week, so it is only fitting that we include him in this theme. Demme could almost be the subject of his own theme here. He directed fictional films such as Something Wild, which made brilliant use of music. Bruce Springsteen won an Oscar for his song from Demme’s film Philadelphia. Demme also made music videos. But here I turn my attention to another form that Demme excelled in: the concert film.

Talking Heads and their leader David Byrne were great subjects for Jonathan Demme. The band came together in art school, and they always had a strong visual sense. Early in the movie, we see David Byrne in normal clothing. He looks skinny, almost emaciated, but man can he move! Girlfriend is Better is a dramatic moment in the film, because it is our first glimpse of the big suit. Demme shows it to us first in the form of a menacing shadow, and then lets us see the man casting the shadow. Suddenly, David Byrne is transformed into something other. When I saw the film in 1984, I did not know that Byrne was on the autistic spectrum, and if I had known, I would not have understood at the time. Now I know that people on the spectrum often feel that they are “other”, that they don’t quite fit in with a neurotypical society. They do however have much of value to contribute. To me now, the arrival of the big suit in the movie is a great visual expression of all of this.

I don’t want it to sound like the movie Stop Making Sense is some kind of manifesto. Taken as a whole, the movie is first of all a record of a great show. Beyond that, it is also a generous film that makes time not just for the music of Talking Heads, but also for spotlights on solo projects by members of the band, including Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz’ side project the Tom Tom Club. Even when David Byrne is on stage, Jonathan Demme’s camera finds other permanent and guest members of the band, and lets us get to know them through their performances. There was talk in the music press at the time of strains in the band, but the film shows a large group that knew how to be in perfect synch for their performances.

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