Anyone who attended last year’s Milwaukee Film Festival screening of the brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense will tell you it’s hard to have more fun in a movie theater. Attendees danced spontaneously in the aisles throughout the spacious center room at the Oriental, whether out of a gleeful sense of rebellion or simply because they couldn’t help themselves. Talking Heads seemed to virtually reinvent themselves as a performing rock band with every successive tour, and this particular performance, taken from the 1983 Speaking In Tongues tour, is one of the most infectiously danceable events ever captured on film.
It’s obvious that frontman David Byrne was in complete creative control of the proceedings during this performance, a condition that would only intensify for the remainder of Talking Heads’ existence. Of course, keyboardist (and Milwaukee native) Jerry Harrison had already released a solo album, The Red And The Black, two years earlier, and had been making music for a living (more or less) since the early ’70s. Once Talking Heads called it quits, Harrison branched out into various other showbiz activities, and remains busy in the industry to this day. While he has mostly stayed behind the scenes, he appears onscreen in two films screening this weekend: Stop Making Sense (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Oriental) as well as the newly-released Memphis music scene documentary Take Me To The River (Sunday, 4:30 p.m, Oriental), a film he also produced. In case you happen to run into Jerry in person at either of these screenings, allow us to provide you with some talking points.
In 1971, while studying architecture at Harvard, Harrison had the dubious honor of linking up with fellow student Jonathan Richman, bonding over a love of The Velvet Underground. While this would prove fortuitous in a rock-trivia sense, the initial incarnation of seminal indie-rock pet band The Modern Lovers would only manage to record a single nearly-lost classic album before Richman decided he wasn’t into his old songs any more, nor indeed the style in which he and his band played them. The Lovers disbanded unceremoniously in 1974, and Richman went on to slightly greater fortune and fame as the inventor of preemptive anti-sophisti-pop.
The Lovers’ self-titled debut didn’t even get cobbled together and released until 1976, but Harrison had apparently made enough of an impression on the East Coast music scene to attract the attention of oddball New York art-school spaz Byrne, who pulled him into Talking Heads shortly after the band signed to Sire Records and released their first single, “Love → Building On Fire,” in 1977. After all, what would a new wave band be without keyboards? As Byrne gradually transformed from a painfully awkward, jittery yelper into a radiantly charismatic artistic mastermind, Talking Heads became the weirdest hit-makers of the 1980s, ultimately exerting an incalculable influence on virtually all of the best rock bands that came after them.
The band splintered in 1991, and an ill-advised last gasp as The Heads (minus Byrne) resulted in an album and tour in 1996, but aside from the requisite Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction reunion (2002), Talking Heads are the last remaining collection of former rock stars that haven’t caved and done a lame cash-grab tour despite all members still being alive. Meanwhile, Harrison had kept busy on his own even prior to the breakup, releasing two more solo albums in addition to a delightful one-off single as part of Bonzo Goes To Washington, the most obscure supergroup ever assembled (a trio with Bootsy Collins and…Daniel Lazerus, whoever that is). The track is called “Five Minutes,” and it’s basically a sample of Ronald Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” joke speech, with some rudimentary beats and, well, Bootsy Collins. Recorded in 1984, this timely bombshell of satire wasn’t going to make any major label deadlines for a pre-election release, so Harrison heroically rushed it into production on Sleeping Bag Records, single-handedly ushering in the Walter Mondale era and sparking the current golden age of American politics.
Following his 1990 album Walk On Water, Harrison more or less retired from active pop music duty, but he transitioned very quickly into the role of in-demand producer and guest performer, particularly in the wide world of jam bands. He also saw sizable hits producing bands like Live, Crash Test Dummies, and The Verve Pipe (“The Freshmen.” Never forget.) as well as helping out hometown heroes Violent Femmes and The BoDeans. But although he’d appeared on the silver screen in a handful of music-related films, nothing could have truly prepared him for his role of a lifetime. It was the middle of the aughts. Harrison was in his mid-50s, and he’d had no significant acting experience, yet somehow he impressed the producers of the instant-classic Winona Ryder vehicle The Darwin Awards that they cast him as “Guy in Bar No. 1.”
Clearly, the movie bug has bitten Harrison. Take Me To The River is his first film production credit, and it’s a loving tribute to the legacy of Stax Records and the multicultural music scene that flourished around it before its untimely collapse in 1975. The movie also documents the creation of a collaborative album, featuring soul legends like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite, and Charles “Skip” Pitts recording standards alongside modern-day hip-hop stars (yes, Snoop Dogg is involved) and young music students getting their first taste of the rich Memphis legacy.
While the multiple generation gaps are painfully obvious at times during the film, it’s worth seeing just for the magnetic performances of some of the most revered names in the history of American music. Likewise, the movie’s (understandably one-sided) account of the rise and fall of the Stax empire in tandem with the civil rights movement is a story every music fan needs to know. Harrison was instrumental in bringing a no-boundaries approach to pop music, and he appears intent on spreading this message of inclusiveness and integration now through film. His hometown can use all the reminders it can get.
Take Me To The River also screens Monday, October 6, 7:30 p.m. at the Oriental, and Wednesday, October 8, 2:30 p.m. at the Times Cinema.