Normally, when there’s a TV show that I like, I recommend it to as many people as possible. But in the case of IFC’s Documentary Now!, which is currently in the midst of its brilliant second season, I tend to be more selective. Created by Saturday Night Live alums Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers, Documentary Now! is as specific as SNL is broad, burrowing deep into documentaries both classic and obscure to produce note-perfect parodies that only a fraction of the public will likely appreciate. On SNL, that level of specificity can be a liability. But for Documentary Now!, the whole idea is that it’s not supposed to be for everybody.
So, keep this in mind when I declare that tonight’s episode, an incredibly sharp deconstruction of the great 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, is one of the most enjoyable half-hours of TV I’ve seen all year.
For the uninitiated: Stop Making Sense depicts a highly stylized concert by New York new wave band Talking Heads filmed by director Jonathan Demme when the group was at the height of its popularity in the early ’80s. It is rightly known as the most kinetic concert film ever made, forgoing many of the established cliches that have bogged down similar movies (such as copious crowd shots) and inventing some new ones.
The band’s charismatic frontman David Byrne is undoubtedly the star of Stop Making Sense, commanding most of Demme’s attention and, in the process, unwittingly reducing the other band members to side musicians. This impression of Talking Heads ultimately defined the band. In the wake of Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads stopped touring and recorded just three additional albums before Byrne departed for a solo career.
The intra-band tension that’s implicit in Stop Making Sense is teased out in Final Transmission, the Documentary Now! redux starring a fictional art-punk group called Test Pattern fronted by cagey aesthete Lee Smith, who specializes in archly ironic anthems like “Art + Student = Poor” that skew mainstream consumerist culture. While Test Pattern is still a popular act, Smith has decided to disband Test Pattern, to the thinly veiled consternation of his his bandmates, played by Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster.
Sound familiar? If you’ve seen Stop Making Sense, the callbacks don’t stop there. The depth of homework on display in Final Transmission is exhaustive to the point of maniacal — everything from the handwritten title font to Lee Smith’s spotless white sneakers to the ecstatic backing singers to even the grain of the film is recreated with exacting detail. Again, most viewers won’t notice or care about any of that stuff. But for Stop Making Sense obsessives — and I count myself in that camp — the care put into Final Transmission feels like a special gift.
Of course, if Final Transmission were only a slavish imitation, it might feel a little empty. Fortunately, Documentary Now! doesn’t merely replicate famous films, it also comments on how they’re made and why they resonate. At its best, Documentary Now! functions as an affectionate form of film criticism, insightfully illuminating aspects of the original movies that might not have been readily apparent.