In 1984, the same year that Stop Making Sense was released, another meticulously crafted Talking Heads concert movie made its debut as well. I refer to Once in a Lifetime, a 69-minute piece of experimental television that surely startled the great piebald tapestry of viewers tuning in to Britain’s Channel 4 that night.
From the perspective of today, Once in a Lifetime (some sources call it Talking Heads vs. the Television or Talking Heads vs. Television) is very much a document of its moment, as filtered through the cheerfully experimental sensibility of David Byrne (although Geoff Dunlop was the director). It elevates quick-cutting montage using heterogenous sources to the non plus ultra of confrontational video art. This was 1984, the high-water mark of MTV; other directions were not considered. It would have been obscurely baffling and disappointing if a movie like this had not used aggressively random splicing.
Once in a Lifetime opens with barrage of video content and a few voiceover musings by Byrne before getting to the footage of a Talking Heads show at Wembley, which is amusingly described in an early scroll as a place where a “Horse of the Year Show” might occur—this might be the last foray into actual humor in the movie.
As far as I can tell, the Wembley footage was shot in 1982—anybody know? Did anybody reading this attend?
What makes the movie remarkable is the band’s willingness to have its performances messed with. None of the songs are presented straight—all feature some form of montage or visual comment. The strategies for each song are largely dictated by the song’s content. For instance, “Life During Wartime” is puncutated with footage of urban strife, in the form of police sirens, drug use, and automated weaponry. “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” features an unwitting ancitipation of “Road to Nowhere” in the form of a lengthy take of a dusty southwestern horizon receding from the camera. “Once in a Lifetime” weaves in ample footage of American evangelists; it struck me for the first time that Byrne’s famous forehead-slapping gesture is an obvious reference to evangelical ritual (I know, I’m an idiot). Testament to the Heads’ commitment to experimentation, the live rendition of “Once in a Lifetime” gives way to perhaps 20 seconds of the music video (you’ve surely seen that before).
Implicit in this mode of presentation is an imperative of showing UK audiences what vulgar America is “really” like, so a premium is placed on material not available overseas, such as the evangelical footage, the TV commercials, the news coverage, and so on. For “Mind,” the chorus of which is, let’s recall, “I need something to change your mind,” the accopanying montage is all about good old American hucksterism, particularly billboard advertisements and the patter of late-night TV commericals. While listening to “Big Business,” the viewer sees images evoking technology, industrialization, and the assembly line.
The boldest stroke is probably “Psycho Killer,” an ingenious montage folding together perhaps twenty different versions of the song, each with its specific venue, camera quality, sound quality, outfits, and so on. They seldom stay with any version for more than about a line, but the result is not unpleasurable. For “My Big Hands (Fall Though the Cracks),” Byrne busts out a megaphone. “Swamp” features a series of stills of Byrne’s face, often distorted through video or computerized effects, and ends with a freeze frame of Byrne’s singing, hot red visage—a clear reference to nuclear annihilation.
The video is a must-see for any Talking Heads fan—I’ve emphasized the experimentation but you also hear a dozen songs (nine Talking Heads numbers, three from Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel score), and that’s always a good thing. But the emphasis on the avant-garde nature of the proceedings tends to undermine the “concert” aspect of the movie. Early on Byrne says in a voiceover, “When the performance is successful, something sort of transcendent happens that has to do with the audience and the musicians losing their egos and immersing themselves in sort of one identity or whatnot. It need only happen in a performance for maybe thirty seconds or so, and that justifies the whole thing.”
I take Byrne at his word, but to judge solely from Once in a Lifetime, it’s sheer poppycock.
“Life During Wartime”
“Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)”
“Once in A Lifetime”
“My Big Hands (Fall Though the Cracks)”
“What A Day That Was”
“Crosseyed And Painless”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Zen rockers: Talking Heads performing at CBGB in 1975
Remain in Light: Talking Heads live in Rome, 1980