‘Documentary Now!’ Stops Making Sense With ‘Final Transmission’

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Documentary Now! Final Transmission

One of the greatest concert movies ever made is the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Directed by Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense features a band working at the top of their game with an impressive stage show working in unison with the music and wild dance moves of leading man David Byrne. For the second time this season of Documentary Now!, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are taking on a film by Jonathan Demme, the first being Parker Gail’s Location is Everything, and the resulting episode, Final Transmission, might be their finest yet, which is really saying something considering the high level of quality that the show has been churning out since its inaugural episode.

Final Transmission isn’t simply a recreation of Stop Making Sense with goofy songs, it takes certain aspects of Demme’s film and morphs them into scenes that resemble a conventional music documentary. Stop Making Sense never stops to give biographical information about the Talking Heads, opting solely for a cinematic version of a concert. Final Transmission gives the audience biographical information of its art rockers, the fictional band Test Pattern, which is necessary for a half hour comedy program.

The premise of Final Transmission is that the art house rockers Test Pattern are wrapping up their influential tenure as a band with a farewell concert. Lee (Armisen) strolls out on stage by himself with an acoustic guitar accompanied by a toy robot providing the beat, a funhouse mirror image of Byrne with his boom box and acoustic guitar belting out “Psycho Killer” all by his lonesome. Singing his own song “This is My Street,” Armisen takes on the model of Byrne almost effortlessly, mimicking Byrne’s bizarre dance movies while occupying a large suit; the song even hits upon the tendency of the Talking Heads to repeat the hooks of their songs endlessly.

For the next song, Lee is accompanied by Marky (Hader) and the band’s drummer (Jon Wurster). With each successive song, the number of band members expand, an obvious gag on the growing numbers of the Talking Heads as Stop Making Sense progresses, and Test Pattern is eventually joined by Anita (Maya Rudolph), who is the wife of Lee – the origins of their marriage are rooted in one of Lee’s many performance art pieces. The origins of Test Pattern are rooted in Lee and Marky’s tenure at the Connecticut School of Art Design, art school being the origins of countless rock ‘n’ roll bands over the years. This leads to one of the funnier songs in the episode, “Art + Student = Poor.”

As happens with countless bands, Test Pattern starts to tear at the seams because of the competing egos in the spotlight. Lee is devoted to expanding the sound of the band, experimenting with world music with songs like “Indeng Indeng,” which features Balinese bells that Marky describes as sounding like “a dozen dumb doorbells.” It’s a great little gag that plays upon the David Byrne’s forays into world music, as well as countless other ‘80s acts, and the contempt for this experiment is exemplified by the malcontented expression on Hader’s face. Meanwhile, Lee looks down at the songs written by the other band members, telling the audience that Marky’s lone song “Everybody’s Moving Around” is “almost over” while the band still plays. Lee has the same condescending attitude towards Anita’s lone song, which was also the band’s biggest hit. It’s genuinely hilarious watching these competing voices struggle for their moment in the spotlight, resenting each other for their individual artistic endeavors.

Towards the end of Final Transmission, Test Pattern diverges from being modeled simply on the Talking Heads. Armisen’s Lee then takes on the persona of Tom Waits, and the episode shifts into a spoof of Waits’ concert film Big Time. Armisen takes on a raspy growl to his voice as he sings “meet at the burned down hair salon; no wait, that place burned down.” Even if you’re a fan of both Tom Waits and the Talking Heads, as I am, you can still find ample humor in this madcap episode of Documentary Now!.

All of the songs in Final Transmission are truly authentic spoof of their genres. At moments, Test Pattern really has the sound of some of the Talking Heads’ most classic songs. In others, they sound like countless other ‘80s bands that secured their lone hits. And the Tom Waits-styled numbers have the same whiskey-soaked growl that has become Waits’ trademark. Adding a layer of musical authenticity to the episode is the inclusion of Jon Wurster, who is not only the excellent drummer of Superchunk and the Mountain Goats but also an accomplished comedian in his own right as half of Scharpling & Wurster, the minds behind the hilarious rock ‘n’ roll themed The Best Show. Combined with the phenomenal stage work and lighting to complement the visual style brought to the episode by directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas that perfectly mimics Demme’s concert film. Simply put, Final Transmission is another triumph from those in front and behind the camera on Documentary Now!.

Week after week, Documentary Now! is delivering catnip to cinephiles with their intricate spoofs of documentary classics. With Final Transmission, it seems as if the show has reached its apex – though I doubt the creative team will become complacent. Written by Armisen and Erik Kenward, Final Transmission is another hilarious episode featuring a visual style that seems pulled right out of the source material. Test Pattern’s reign as new wave icon may have come to a close with Final Transmission, but they will be preserved forever because they’ll be intrinsically tied to the brilliance that is Documentary Now!.

Documentary Now! airs on Wednesdays at 10pm only on IFC.

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