In the 1970s and 1980s, David Byrne’s band was called Talking Heads – as the title of their 1982 live album keeps reminding us. But their overall artistic project was probably less about the head than the body, a suggestion that is memorably underlined Stop making sense, a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme that came out two years later. “Music is very physical and the body often understands it before the head,” says Byrne in a bizarre contemporary self-interview previously featured here on Open Culture. To make this fact visible on stage, “I wanted my head to look smaller, and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.”
So costume designer Gail Blacker created what Talking Heads fans have long referred to as “the big suit.” Byrne was always willing to discuss his origins, which he traced back to a trip to Japan. There as he said Entertainment Weekly in 2012 “he saw a lot of traditional Japanese theater and I realized that yes, this kind of front outline, the suit, the merchant’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top. upper.”
His friend, the fashion designer Jurgen Lehl, said that “everything is bigger on stage”. “I think he meant the gestures and the way you walk and what not,” Byrne told David Letterman in 1984. But he took it literally and thought, “Well, that solves my costume problem.”
Byrne wore a large suit for only one number, “Girlfriend Is Better” (from which lyrics Stop making sense takes its name), has become one of the most iconic elements of the acclaimed film, referenced even in animated children’s films. A New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it “a perfect psychological fit” and noted that “when he dances, it’s not like he’s moving the suit—the suit seems to be moving him.” The association was not without frustration; he once speculated that his tombstone would be inscribed with the phrase “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” But now that Stop making sense returns to cinemas in a new 4K restoration, almost 40 years after its first release, he has come to terms with the fact that the time has finally come to pick it up at the cleaners. Unsurprisingly, it still fits.
A brief history of Talking Heads: How the band went from scrappy CBGB’s Punks to New Wave superstars
An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theater with Masters of the 20th Century Form (1964)
As Talking Heads and Brian Eno wrote “Once in a Lifetime”: Cutting-edge, weird, and utterly brilliant
Japanese Kabuki actors captured in 18th century woodcuts by the mysterious and masterful artist Sharaku
How Jonathan Demme Put Humanity Into His Movies: From The Silence of the Lambs on Stop making sense
Talking Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The concert film you haven’t seen
based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.