Stop Making Sense vs. The Last Waltz
ith respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.
The Match-Up: Bean plate vs. Blue Plate Special. Art-rock vs. Heart-rock. Big Suit vs. Big Pink. Stop Making Sense vs. The Last Waltz
Why They Deserve to Be Compared: While certainly not the only candidates for “Best Concert Movie Ever,” these two films perpetually dominate the discussion. Surely, some would argue that their similarities end here. In fact, perhaps it would be foolish to pick apart each film’s strengths and weaknesses and set them side-by-side, only to lay an already-dubious distinction upon two films that are equally impressive on their own terms. But outside of the guilty pleasure that goes along with making unilateral decrees based on tenuous evidence, the joy of the Stylus Vs. column is that it allows for the re-examination of not one but two pop culture artifacts. Therefore I think it’s wholly worthwhile to bring this argument before the infallible Vs. system, wherein we'll use hard data (subjective experience) and empirical evidence (personal preference) to crown, once and for all eternity, the greatest concert movie of all time (named either Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz).
So when the coke-dust settles and the bodies are swept from the Stylus battlefield, will Jonathon Demme’s exhilarating take on the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues tour reign victorious? Or is it no match for the cultural zeitgeist of Martin Scorsese’s elegiac chronicle of The Band’s final performance? Only one way to find out…
Best Back-Up Singers
It may not seem fair at first to match Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry in Stop Making Sense against the Staples Singers who are limited to only one song in The Last Waltz. But that one song, “The Weight,” is one of the greatest moments of either film, thus warranting comparison to Holt and Mabry’s marathon performance. The scene develops like this: at the beginning of the song, the camera is fixed on drummer Levon Helm who sings lead during the first verse. But as Richard Manuel’s banging piano lick announces the song’s glorious chorus, the camera swoops around to reveal the Staples (where the hell did they come from?), belting lines made unforgettable to younger generations by Cingular commercials and playing way past the back row and into the heavens. Over the course of four minutes, the Staples manage to take an already transcendent song and knock in completely out of the park.
But there’s transcendence and then there’s sheer ecstasy, and Holt/Mabry inspire both. Their electro-magnetic sexuality and seductive siren calls pervade Byrne’s proto-funk-punk anthems, smoothing out the rough edges and augmenting the kitschy yet palpable sense of libido buried underneath songs like “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)” and “Girlfriend is Better.” But their greatest accomplishment? Knocking bassist Tina Weymouth out of stoned complacency by constantly beckoning her to dance alongside them and join in the fun. Lynn and Mabry’s energy, contagious not only to the audience but to their fellow band-mates, makes their presence all the more essential to the success of this sublimely enjoyable film.
Advantage: Stop Making Sense
If you catch a Talking Heads song on the radio, you can always tell if it’s a Stop Making Sense recording when you hear the fat screeching synthesizer wails of ex-P-Funk member, Bernie Worrell. And if you’ve seen the film, you know Worrell as the bug-eyed coke-fiend thumbing his nose at David Byrne and filling the room with wonderfully dated blasts of warbling reverb. But what’s even more impressive than the classic nose-thumbing scene is that Worrell actually seems to outplay both Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. This should really come as no surprise; a closer look into Worrell’s history reveals that he had all the musical chops of the classically-trained Hudson, writing concertos before age ten.
But it’s not Manuel and Hudson’s fault that their respective piano-tinkling and keyboard tinkering is buried underneath layers of guitar and vocals. And besides we’re talking “Craziest Keyboard Player” not “Best Keyboard Player” and, in this respect, Worrell is no match for Manuel whose burned-out rants are made all the more disturbing by the fact that he would go on to commit suicide ten years later amid a tragic fog of drug and alcohol abuse. Even still, Waltz is almost disqualified here by Scorsese who, in an attempt to make Hudson seem less in touch with reality, decided to interview him immediately after waking him up, which is totally cheating. But in the end, Manuel’s relentless insanity prevails over all other factors.
Advantage: The Last Waltz
In Waltz, the Band has little trouble selecting the very best material to play from their repertoire. Of course that’s because they only play seven of their own songs, allowing various other musicians to fill in the blanks. The trouble is, while the performances of Muddy Waters, Neil Young, and especially Van Morrison are outstanding, I could do without many of the guest spots including Eric Clapton’s noodling on “Further on up the Road,” Neil Diamond’s painfully schmaltzy “Dry Your Eyes,” and Dylan’s “Forever Young,” a song that’s been canonized more for its popularity than its artistry. With the exception of “Dry Your Eyes,” the songs don’t necessarily detract from the experience, but they do take up valuable stage time that could have been better used for Band classics like “Rag Mama Rag” and “King Harvest.”
Unburdened by other performers however, The Talking Heads, captains of consistency from 1977 to 1980, are able to select a faultless batch of older songs to go along with universally-loved “hits” and obligatory cuts from their then-new album, Speaking in Tongues (a solid record in its own right). Sure, I would have loved to see them include songs like “Pulled Up,” “With Our Love,” “Paper” and “The Great Curve,” but not by sacrificing “Thank You God for Sending Me an Angel,” “Found a Job,” “Heaven,” and “Crosseyed and Painless.”
The set is also brilliantly sequenced, particularly during the first half; tension slowly mounts through the first seven songs starting with “Psycho Killer,” played solo by Byrne with only an acoustic guitar and a stuttering beat-box. Next, Tina joins the stage for a beautiful rendition of “Heaven,” followed by drummer Chris Frantz whose galloping machine gun snare-hits make Swiss cheese of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” Guitarist Jerry Harrison gets thrown into the mix for “Found a Job” before the band’s fully-formed vision comes to fruition as the core group of ‘Heads are joined by Worrell, Mabry, Holt, Alex Weir on guitar, and Steve Scales on auxiliary percussion for the breathless three-song run of “Slippery People,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Life During Wartime.” Does anybody have any questions?
Advantage: Stop Making Sense
The only “easy-win” of the bunch, considering the massive glut of influential figures that joins the Band at the Winterland Ballroom for their final performance. You’ve got Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, freaking Dylan—these guys didn’t just provide the soundtrack for their generation, they helped to shape its cultural landscape (though the ridiculous inclusion of Neil Diamond is almost enough to award SMS this win by default). At the center of it all is Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, whose introspective yet inviting personality provide a first-hand account of rock and roll culture in the 60’s and 70’s. When Scorsese asks him why the Band is breaking up, Robertson’s answer is both a chilling insight into the innate self-destructiveness of rock stars, and a eulogy for a lost golden era of music:
Robertson: There’s not much more we can take from the road. We’re had our share of… Or maybe it’s just superstitious.
Scorsese: Superstitious in what way?
Robertson: You can press your luck. The road has taken a lot of the great ones. Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding… …Janis, Jimi Hendrix… …Elvis… …it’s a goddamn impossible way of life.
Scorsese: It is, isn’t it?
Robertson: No question about it.
By deftly juxtaposing Robertson’s world-weary disillusionment against the celebratory performance pieces, Scorsese makes an obvious yet poignant revelation on an entire culture of hard-living souls: when the music stops and the world of excessive sex and drugs shifts from fantasy to necessity, the wild ride breaks down and the dream is over.
Advantage: The Last Waltz
Watching The Last Waltz, one certainly gets the feeling that the Band is playing more for themselves than for the audience. They trade knowing glances, make inside jokes away from the microphone, and three of the songs (“The Weight,” “Evangeline,” “Theme From Last Waltz”) are shot in-studio as technicians and personal assistants bustle about, tightening screws and delivering coffee. And it's not as if we could blame them. This is their last tour, and what more can we expect than a few old friends getting high and vamping on the old rhythm and blues before the sun sets on a decade of freewheeling. The audience should be so lucky to steal a glimpse of this display, and the fact that the old friends in question happen to be guys like Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and Neil Young kind of nullifies the issue.
But if you take someone who's never heard a riff or roll of rock music in his life, and sit them down to watch The Last Waltz, they'll probably be thinking, “Why do these guys look so tired?” before deciding that the performance itself is serviceable at best. Stop Making Sense however makes even a seasoned rock aficionado feel like a newborn babe as the experience, alien yet exhilarating, tears down the remembrance of decades of rock history. At first, the Big Suit (used to accentuate Byrne's tiny head, according to his self-administered interview on the DVD), the love song “Naïve Melody” (sung to a lamp), and the laps around the stage at the end of “Life During Wartime” may seem like mere gimmickry. But it's that marriage of rock music and performance art, made accessible to a large audience by the Heads' off-kilter yet catchy melodies and rhythmic diversity, that gets the viewer off every time. Whether you get down to Ludwig Van or Camper Van, it’s easy to appreciate the unique pleasures of the Heads’ performance.
Advantage: Stop Making Sense
It's hard to say for certain how much cocaine use, if any, informed Stop Making Sense. Maybe Bernie Worrell just thinks it's hilarious to draw attention to his nose. And are Byrne's sprints around the stage really any weirder than anything else he says or does during the performance? I'll give one possible concession. There's no way Byrne would've allowed Tina and Chris's Tom Tom Club (who he reportedly hated) to play “Genius of Love” unless it afforded him a chance to get down with Frosty backstage.
But there are somewhat more verifiable aspects of “The Last Waltz” which suggest drug use. The gloopy white booger stuck to the side of Neil Young's nostril (edited out of the final cut). Scorsese's apparent inability to control the speed of his own voice. Neil Diamond's rhinestone jacket. Not to mention the fact that when you collect so many individuals together who have admitted to suffering drug problems in the 70's, there's gonna be some heavy shit going on behind closed doors. But like Rick Danko tells Scorsese in his bordello-turned-studio, “You can't believe everything you hear.”
My favorite suggestive moments come from Scorsese himself, whether he's frantically trying to compose a coherent question or slumping euphorically in a chair listening to some recordings with Danko and repeatedly moaning, “Oh yeah.” But thirty years later, it's easy to laugh at Scorsese. He was able to kick drugs and continue creating bold and exciting artistic statements. Tragically, Danko and Manuel weren't so lucky.
Advantage: The Last Waltz
So this is the last category and things are all tied up going into the most crucial (and closest) decision: Scorsese or Demme? It shouldn't be all that tough to call. As much as I love Demme's best work, Scorsese is...well, I mean, he’s Scorsese! The guy's never made a movie that lacked for ambition and it takes two hands to count the number of his films that forever altered the course of cinematic history. But if you limit the two directors' collective repertoire to just these two films, then the issue becomes much dicier.
Arbitrarily, let's look at what Demme does first. The popular answer is, well, not much. There are no supplemental interviews, no backstage chatter, and no wacky 30's gangster sub-plots a la Song Remains the Same. Demme smartly realizes that a Talking Heads show is a meticulously constructed affair and anything more than the performance itself would only serve to break the intensity and excitement.
And yet in his own subtle way, Demme does so much more than just sit back and let the cameras roll. It takes a true master to capture that stark warehouse lighting, that tension between Byrne's brash theatrics and Weymouth's lackadaisical charm, and that elusive quality known as timelessness. One of Demme's editing-room decisions illustrates this ability perfectly. During the last chorus of “Girlfriend is Better,” when Byrne, Holt, and Mabry start chanting the film's titular phrase, Byrne playfully raises the microphone to one of the cameramen to sing along. Demme might have decided to cut film here to keep the viewer from being ripped out of the “moment.” But somehow the inclusion of this little scene makes the experience all the more real, showing us that the director and crew have nothing to hide.
In many ways, Scorsese has a lot more to do than Demme, and so his hands-on approach is perfectly understandable. Scorsese too has nothing to hide as he incorporates himself, either in voice or person, into every interview. He is also faced with the daunting task of capturing as much as humanly possible from just one performance, whereas Demme is afforded the luxury of using footage from multiple concerts. And perhaps most impressively, Scorsese is able to cull not only passion, but pathos from a genre that isn't exactly known for its ability to create emotional resonance outside of what's communicated by the individual songs.
So now it comes back down to those difficult opposing factors again. Timeless vs. timely. Aesthetics vs. cultural relevance. Performance art vs. pure balls-to-the-wall rock music. In my attempt to crown a victor here, I keep thinking of one of my favorite cinematic moments of all time: as the Talking Heads’ performance reaches a fever pitch of excitement during the final song, “Crosseyed and Painless,” Demme finally decides to give us a few glimpses of the audience. The shot is startling because, by this point, the viewer is so rapt by the performers that the notion of an audience has since been completely discarded. We see droves of elated fans whose intense singing, screaming, and dancing recalls that joyous last scene of A Hard Day's Night when the kids go completely bonkers during the Beatles' frenetic performance of “She Loves You.” If you're lucky, you might experience that perfect synergy between musician and listener at an outdoor summer festival or a local dive bar on a Friday night. But if not, you can always find it in your DVD library filed under “S.” And we have Jonathon Demme to thank for that.
Advantage: Stop Making Sense
Stop Making Sense: 4, The Last Waltz: 3
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-08-30