THOUGH THEY seemed to operate in the same sphere for a few years in the mid-'80s, director Jonathan Demme and rock star/would-be filmmaker David Byrne never really had that much in common. Demme's as heart-on-sleeve humanist as they come; his films are filled with losers, con men, and even killers, but you'd be hard pressed to come up with a character treated with condescension. Byrne, on the other hand, was the definitive pop ironist of the decade, so aware of his own hipster glibness that he titled the loveliest song he'll ever write "Naive Melody."

After 15 years, the most fascinating thing about returning to their collaboration, the concert film Stop Making Sense, is noticing for the first time how much of the film's energy derives precisely from the tension between these two ways of looking at people.

Not that the music doesn't help keep things lively. By December 1983, when three Hollywood concerts were filmed for this movie, the Talking Heads couldn't toss out their trash without being hailed as the Greatest Rock Band in the World. Some of that was even justified. Their expanded lineup, including guitarist Alex Weir and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, allowed their already propulsive songs to spread out and grow funkier. What marks Demme's first contribution to the movie? He makes all the hired guns look like a band, picking out their enthusiasm and wordless interplay.

The stage show itself, conceived by Byrne, is a deliberately meaningless hodgepodge of projected words, kabuki-like dance steps, and clothing changes. Demme captures what he's expected to of all this, but he's clearly more taken by the smiles on the musician's faces than by anything else -- except Byrne, who rarely smiles or even interacts with the others on any terms but his own. (When "Take Me to the River" comes up, it's Worrell and percussionist Steven Scales who rally the audience, while Byrne hunches over, making whale sounds in the mic.)

Demme keeps hovering around his star, fixating on his spastic dancing or following his gaze to the sides of the stage, hoping for some connection, but the most he can get is a microphone shoved in the camera's face. If this makes it sound like I dislike Byrne, nothing could be further from the truth. I just wonder now if his frantic running around the stage during "Life During Wartime," the highlight of his performance, was at least partly inspired by the notion of staying one step ahead of the camera.

Ironist v. Humanist: David Byrne and Jonathan Demme Duke It Out

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