This week Documentary Now spoofs one of the most well-known and recognizable concert films in rock history: Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film was shot during the course of three shows at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in 1983. It’s memorable not only for the new wave rock and the minimal, yet artsy, stage design, but also for David Byrne’s cream-colored suit that grows progressively larger as the film hurdles toward the end. The Documentary Now version, “Final Transmission,” sticks closely to the source material (though it ditches the ballooning suit). In its dedication to authenticity, the episode was even filmed before a live audience of extras and fans—providing viewers with tuneful treats and jokes that resonate even further with Talking Heads’ fans.
Documentary Now directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, along with co-creators and stars Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, have an uncanny talent for recreating both the big moments and the minutiae from the original works. “Final Transmission” continues the trend from the top of the episode with Armisen channeling Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne. As Lee Smith, lead singer-guitarist for Test Pattern, Armisen struts onstage in a cream suit equipped with a guitar and a toy robot. Fans of Stop Making Sense will recall that Byrne walked onstage with a guitar and boom box/cassette player before unleashing a great rendition of “Psycho Killer.”
Instead of parodying the Talking Heads’ classic a la Weird Al Yankovic, Armisen performs an original Test Pattern tune. The song is catchy, poppy and well-played, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that Armisen is a bona fide musician. Like the original film, the sparse set design changes frequently, and additional Test Pattern players join Smith onstage with each subsequent song. Bass player Markie (Hader) sings about art school with Lee—they met at the Connecticut School of Art and Design (CSAD)—and offer the audience lyrical gems like, “Got into art school / I’m gonna paint what’s in my mind … Art student = poor / Art student = fun.” We can’t poke too much fun at these lines, though. After all, just take a look at the “Psycho Killer” lyrics: “Psycho Killer / Qu’est-ce que c’est / Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better / Run run run run run run run away oh oh….”
Music dominates the episode. Armisen and Hader alone are formidable, but when joined by fellow Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph, Test Pattern becomes magical. (Rudolph’s musical credentials are no joke, either. She now performs semi-regularly with Princess, her Prince cover band.) As the concert goes on, there are moments that are nearly identical to Stop Making Sense, like the digital signs at the back of the stage with random words and phrases. “Onions” reads one of the signs in Stop Making Sense. In “Final Transmission,” it’s “Executive Bathroom.” Inside jokes like these make watching Documentary Now something like a scavenger hunt, adding another layer for diehard fans.
Of course, there’s underlying tension among the bandmates, and Documentary Now plays up Lee’s passive aggressiveness. He relinquishes the microphone just long enough so that Markie and Anita can take turns singing lead, much like the Tom Tom Club break in the original concert film. Lee begrudgingly acknowledges in an interview, cut into the concert footage, that although “Save Time for Me,” with Anita on vocals, was the band’s biggest hit, he doesn’t consider it part of the Test Pattern canon. “It’s just a song that I play guitar.”
During other points in the episode, “Final Transmission” strays from the original: A Balinese Gamelan joins Test Pattern onstage; Lee randomly starts singing like Tom Waits; and as mentioned earlier, the Documentary Now episode intercuts interviews with the key players, which allow some of the episode’s best jokes to punch through. During her interview, Anita says that while she was dating Markie, she ended up marrying Lee. “He married a lot of objects,” she says, as pictures of Lee with telephones and other items appear on screen. “I was the only human.” During his interview, Markie comments on Lee’s incorporation of Balinese music during the show. “I didn’t love the Balinese stuff,” he deadpans. “It just sounds like a dozen dumb doorbells.”
Documentary Now already covered the rock doc last season with its two-part finale, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of The Blue Jean Committee, Part 1 and 2.” Those episodes, based on shows like VH1’s Behind the Music, tracked the rise and breakup of soft rock kings, with the storyline pulled from many of the ‘70s biggest bands. In “Final Transmission,” the episode still hilariously captures the infighting and the clash of personalities, but like any good concert doc, it keeps its focus squarely on the music. And with Armisen, Hader and Rudolph as Test Pattern, we’d listen all day, with or without that gamelan ensemble.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.