At the 1984 Festival, Heads fans came out in droves for the world premiere of the band’s concert film Stop Making Sense.
By Jennifer Preissel
In many ways, the 1984 Festival was a time of rebirth for the San Francisco International. After a brief hiatus in 1982 to recoup and transfer from a fall to spring schedule, the SFIFF had merged, for a year, with the Los Angeles Film Festival Filmex’s program, sharing films with the Hollywood-based Fest. In 1984, as a result of the Los Angeles Olympics, the L.A. Festival’s dates were pushed back and San Francisco returned to an autonomous program. That year, the Festival also gained a new program director in Peter Scarlet, who had created the Sonoma State program in film studies and had previously worked as a consultant for the International and the burgeoning Mill Valley Film Festival.
Among the exciting programs showcased in Scarlet’s inaugural year at the programming helm were a presentation of the silent classic New Babylon accompanied by a newly unearthed score performed by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra at the Castro Theatre, and a filmed play, the Italian production Don Chisciotte, presented in conjunction with a live theatrical performance featuring the original Teatro di Roma cast. But no event was as highly anticipated as the world premiere of the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, to be screened on Closing Night at the Castro Theatre.
Jonathan Demme, burned by his recent experience shooting the Goldie Hawn vehicle Swing Shift (the film had been reedited by the studio behind his back), directed the concert film as a means of catharsis. Revelatory in its minimalist approach, the film was hailed by the San Jose Mercury News as the “most electrifying concert footage since Martin Scorsese filmed The Band’s 1976 farewell concert in The Last Waltz.” Rather than rely on rapid-fire cutting and flamboyant camera tricks, Demme simply presented the show in a series of long takes threaded together by lead singer David Byrne’s art school-informed production design.
“A Talking Heads concert is quite an emotional high,” Demme told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Their presentation is so cinematic that I figured it would be easy to capture on film. The show itself is so theatrical that it doesn’t need any of the typical quick cuts and psychedelic effects and embellishments one has to suffer through in most rock concert movies. You can thank David for that. He’s incredibly film wise.” Of the concert staging, Byrne said, “We allowed the audience to see how a show is actually assembled. That’s why it should work as a movie too….There’s the building of the stage, an introduction of characters and, at the end, they’re all together in an ecstatic state.”
But why did Demme, Byrne and company choose San Francisco as the site of the world premiere for a concert film shot in Los Angeles featuring a quintessentially New York band that had formed at an art school in Providence, Rhode Island? Yes, San Francisco had always been a hotbed for cinematic takes on rock music. The Last Waltz had been shot at the old Winterland ice skating rink; D.A. Pennebaker filmed the legendary Pop Festival in nearby Monterey; and the SFIFF had been host to a number of concert and music-themed films, including Murray Lerner’s Festival, Jean-Luc Godard’s Symathy for the Devil, the Beatles’ animated Yellow Submarine and the Hungarian Bald-Dog Rock. (The SFIFF has continued this tradition, in recent years featuring the Closing Night concert films Buena Vista Social Club and Year of the Horse, as well as live musical accompaniments to silent films by bands like Yo La Tengo and Deerhoof.) But according to Demme, “It was Scarlet who, six weeks ago, saw Stop Making Sense in rough cut. That was enough. He committed right then and there.” Of course, it couldn’t have hurt that Demme’s legal representative was Festival Executive Director Peter Buchanan.
In any case, after much griping in the press about the Festival’s Opening (the Peninsula Times Tribune had called the Opening Night film, Volker Schlondorff’s Swann in Love “beautiful—but boring,” while the Chronicle’s Gerald Nachman noted that the seats at the Opening Night Opera House venue were “easy to nod off in” and complained at the lack of stars in attendance), the city entered full-on Heads mania in advance of the Closing Night screening. Tickets to the film, which had sold out a week in advance, were being scalped for a whopping $20 a head (up from their original face value of $6). The Castro was packed to the rafters as Demme, Byrne, keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison, producer Gary Goetzman and back-up singer Lynn Mabry graced the stage in advance of the screening. Demme, who had been putting finishing touches on the film down to the wire, told the crowd, “We've never seen this before either.”
The lights dimmed and the four-track digital stereo sound (the first time ever used on film) filled the theater, but “no one anticipated the pandemonium that would break out when the Heads traipsed onscreen,” Glenn Lovell wrote in the San Jose Mercury News. “Within 15 minutes, hundreds of fans were charging down the aisle to get as close as possible to the jumping, marching, stumbling, twitching screen image of the man of the hour: lead singer David Byrne. (The real Byrne—a skinny, painfully shy guy—went basically unnoticed in the audience).”
The theater’s energy maintained a hysterical high from start to finish as theatergoers danced in the aisles, fans erupted into applause after each song and the Castro staff attempted to protect the newly restored Wurlitzer organ from any acts of audience overzealousness. After the show, Byrne told the Mercury News, “Yes, it was exciting to see that kind of reaction—the dancing and stuff. But it was scary too. I thought they’d start grabbing at the screen.” Demme was also shocked, but pleased by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction. “San Francisco is Heads country,” he said. “So I was hoping for this kind of reception. I’m glad the audience down front didn’t go weird on us.”
A vibrant, eager audience had reclaimed the SFIFF from critics disappointed by the Festival’s lack of glitz. The exuberant Closing Night fell in line with Festival’s tradition as an event for its audience, in particular the Bay Area devotees who return year after year.
This story does have a brief post-script. In 1999, Demme and Goetzman decided to rerelease the concert documentary in honor of the film’s fifteenth anniversary. Despite an acrimonious breakup in 1988, all four Talking Heads, Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and Harrison, reunited at the 43rd SFIFF to promote the film. The foursome even held a joint press conference at the Festival (though Byrne met separately from his former bandmates for interviews). According to Byrne, the band members were “all extremely proud of that tour and this movie so we were kinda happy to shut up about our differences.” At the films rerelease, also at the Castro Theatre, as Harrison told the Chronicle, “People got up and started dancing, just like before.”