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.
In the case of Final Transmission, the episode pivots from Stop Making Sense to another classic concert film, 1978’s The Last Waltz, for interview sequences with the band members. This juxtaposition isn’t just a function of Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz being relatively obvious reference points for a rockumentary parody. It also uncovers a common thread connecting those films that I hadn’t previously considered — Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz both subtly assert the dominance of a lone “genius” (Byrne and The Band’s Robbie Robertson) at the expense of the rest of the band, in part, because this conforms to the convenient cinematic narrative of a “leading man” supported by bit players. Instead of working around the complex structures of the respective bands, both movies imbed the conventions of cinema onto each group, to lasting (and possibly destructive) effect.
The best rock mockumentaries (including CB4, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) tend to follow the example of This is Spinal Tap – which is to say, they satirize musicians and the conventions of pop music. Final Transmission has plenty of that. (I’m loath to give away any of the jokes, though I must single out Maya Rudolph’s absolutely spot-on Patty Smyth impression for praise.) But Documentary Now! is ultimately most concerned with filmmaking, and how documentarians apply pre-fab narratives to shape reality into satisfying stories. So, it’s the unseen director of Final Transmission, Harrison Renzi, who is the episode’s true focal point. (Renzi, a Demme surrogate, is also the director of Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything, a riff on Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia that aired earlier this season.)
Most shows would be content to simply laugh at the fashion and pretension of ’80s art-rockers. But Documentary Now! actually delves into how these stories are created, and eventually forged into myths. I’ll understand if this is not your thing. But if it is your thing, it will so be your thing.