Anxiety and Joy: Jonathan Demme’s Two Musical Masterpieces

The concert film is a subgenre in a state of continuous, radical change, mainly because of the music it strives to capture. Merely documenting a great stage-show or a searing lead performance can be accomplished by recording the set with a phone, but the energy locked into the time and place of the venue is more elusive. Recreating a concert through multiple cameras and a smooth handle on edits is seemingly artificial, like a second-hand interpretation of the real thing, but great filmmakers can deliver an immediate rush of rhythm and feeling. It may not match the sensory overload of a live concert experience, but the effect is entirely its own.

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, a craftsman of classic genre reworkings (The Silence of the Lambs) and sharp familial dramas (Rachel Getting Married), is in tune with the idea of a successful concert film to the point that he’s made two masterclasses in the subgenre, vastly different in their intentions, successes, and euphoric highs. One — Stop Making Sense — melds the anxious, frantic presence of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne with an increasingly communal band presence. The other — Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids — is a supportive dive into the successes of a superstar, evoking a concert with commercial intentions yet finding the humanity in something initially seen as robotic. Both suit the style of the artist and embody their energy, but their individual flavors remain delectable for their own reasons.

Stop Making Sense, shot at the Pantages Theater in 1983, succeeds by tapping into the life-force of The Talking Heads but never settling for a mere depiction of a filmed event. Beginning with an agitated, anguished solo performance of “Psycho Killer” with a boombox by Byrne’s side, Demme and Byrne jumpstart the concert by stripping the stage of every core component, allowing only the bare essentials to entertain the (hardly seen) audience. Through a simple acoustic song backed by an electronic beat, Byrne sells his group as inessential in his moment of anxiety, but he learns to be one with their rhythms. Generosity is found, a story told, by the simple song-by-song addition of supporting players and their instruments.

Its eventual catharsis through the comfort in community is a feeling that has been well-studied since the film’s release — Pauline Kael wrote, “If they’re sweating they’re sweating for themselves, for their pleasure in keeping the music going. They’re not suffering for us; they’re sharing their good times with us” — and the rise to its raving, orgasmic heights is a testament to The Talking Heads as a single entity. But Demme’s most recent concert film, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, begins with community. In a feat of brilliant, pointed structuring, Demme opens his documentary by following not only the man himself but the many side musicians and technicians who make a gigantic, two-year tour possible. It takes almost 10 minutes for Timberlake to rise onto the Las Vegas stage, but Demme makes you wait for the music because context strengthens his exploration of The Tennessee Kids and their support of the main superstar.

And as soon as Timberlake comes into view for a stadium of screaming, adoring fans, Demme combines these parts so they melt into perfect unison. We see a commercially well-oiled machine, but with the added knowledge of how integral every component is. If Demme’s Stop Making Sense was a quest for a utopia through music, then Demme’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is such a vision from beginning to end, perfection obtained for the sheer entertainment value of an audience. Once the concert opens, with a smooth, stirring, big-band rendition of “Pusher Love Girl,” ecstasy and joy take hold, never wavering for a second as the performance unfolds. Its sense of musicality is practically connected at a spiritual, telekinetic level, with every side keyboardist or trumpeter instinctively operating at the top of their game, feeding the music that supports Timberlake’s tenor but in love with the community that surrounds him.

Unlike in Stop Making Sense, this community is evident and full-bodied throughout, always doing their part in a larger expanse of entertainment. Timberlake isn’t Byrne, gradually discovering the passion surrounding him, but a performer who’s already in awe of those standing next to him on stage as well as the crowd of people singing and dancing along. He’s a smooth, jubilant professional above all else, but the compassion is immediately perceptible and the resulting exultation never feels anything less than authentic. Demme captures such elation in a vastly more modern style, committing to the fluidity and freedom of digital photography by providing uniquely strange angles (even going under the rising stage towards the supporting players) and plenty of coverage. It’s an evolution of the images and movements in Stop Making Sense, utilizing technological advancement to further explore intimate moments and details of the Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids community.

But if The Talking Heads were to hit it big in today’s music scene, would Demme shoot a modern equivalent of Stop Making Sense? Like the artists he portrays, the master director is always evolving, continuing critical themes but expanding through form. His concert films are documents of a time and a place, to be sure, but also of that essential energy of musical harmony. They are as pure as the music flying out of the speakers, for they settle into the same groove that makes artists like The Talking Heads and Justin Timberlake so influential. When you close your eyes while listening to “Burning Down the House” or “SexyBack,” the pictures you imagine and the things you feel are personal, but Demme tosses in the idea that indelible images make the inspiration all the brighter. He’s correct.


William Mai stops making sense in Milwaukee.