clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jonathan Demme’s Song

Saying goodbye to the filmmaker with a big heart and music in his soul

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

There is a moment in Stop Making Sense — the 1984 film documenting the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues concert tour — when David Byrne dances with a standing floor lamp during the instrumental break in "This Must Be the Place." It’s an impromptu, loose-limbed pas de deux as exhilarating as any old Hollywood musical (even if one of the partners is an inanimate object), captured by director Jonathan Demme in a series of shots that provide just enough distance from Byrne’s pirouetting that we can appreciate the choreography while sharing his personal space. This must be the place. Who would ever want to leave?

Jonathan Demme died Wednesday morning at the age of 73, leaving behind a body of work as varied and remarkable as anything in modern cinema. A former movie critic, he began his filmmaking career pumping out B-movie cheapies for Roger Corman and ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Director in 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs — surely his most famous movie, although saying it’s the one he’ll be remembered for belies the remarkable diversity and breadth of his filmography. Demme made kinetic screwball comedies (Citizen’s Band, Something Wild) and probing, sensitive dramas (Philadelphia); he tackled cheapjack thrillers (Last Embrace) and stranger-than-fiction character studies (Melvin and Howard); he adapted a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel (Beloved) and a play by Henrik Ibsen (A Master Builder); he remade two 1960s classics (Charade as The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate); produced documentaries about Jimmy Carter (Man From Plains), Haitian radio host Jean Dominique (The Agronomist), and his own cousin (Cousin Bobby); he made three films with Neil Young, one with Justin Timberlake, and filmed Meryl Streep covering Bruce Springsteen in Ricki and the Flash.

Like his friend and fellow Neil Young chronicler Jim Jarmusch, Demme was moved to make movies about the things that he loved. Of all the directors who came of age in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, only Demme and Terrence Malick could claim to have never been a hired gun. "Everything I’ve made so far, big or little, fiction or documentary, has been something that I’ve been really enthusiastic about," he said in 2012 in an interview with Collider, and this sense of excitement and engagement became his artistic signature. Where other directors’ work was instantly recognizable based on the position or movement of the camera, Demme’s films were distinguished by the curiosity of the man behind it.

Demme’s fondness for outsiders and iconoclasts was evident even in the early exploitation movies he made during his apprenticeship for Corman, who remained a lifelong friend and collaborator.

The women-in-prison classic Caged Heat (1974) tempers its prurience with a woozy, tender surrealism that must have been startling to the grind-house ticket buyers hoping for leering T&A; not only does the film’s menagerie of distaff jailbirds (including a wheelchair-using Barbara Steele) stand in solidarity against their perverted, abusive male warden (Warren Miller), but a musical number featuring two prisoners in male drag complicates and inverts the inherent voyeurism of the exercise.

Caged Heat inaugurated Demme’s fascination with performance — of characters possessed by music and movement, their inner lives externalized for all to see.

In 1980, Demme broke through with Melvin and Howard, the fact-based account of Melvin Dummar, a Utah service-station owner who became a national figure in the late 1970s after being named in the so-called "Mormon Will" as a beneficiary of the late American billionaire Howard Hughes. Demme’s film dramatizes Dummar’s famous, possibly apocryphal encounter with Hughes — whom he claimed to have rescued off the side of the highway in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash — as an allegorically loaded meeting between blue-collar and working-class America. The impossible social and economic distance between the two men is collapsed by a pop song: Encouraged by his humble chauffeur, Hughes (indelibly played by Jason Robards) sings a duet of a silly novelty Christmas song ("Santa’s Souped Up Sleigh") before transitioning into a gravelly voiced solo rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird." (Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the film’s biggest fans and calibrated the color scheme of The Master to match Tak Fujimoto’s brilliantly dingy Melvin … imagery).

Melvin and Howard is probably the funniest and most rollicking of the comedies Demme made in the 1980s (although Something Wild, starring Melanie Griffith as a free-spirited grifter guiding poor, gormless Jeff Daniels into one dangerous situation after another, runs a close second). Critics accustomed to the director’s gentle, humanist sensibility were shocked when he signed on to direct the movie version of Thomas Harris’s grisly best seller The Silence of the Lambs, and if the film is somewhat atypical of Demme’s work — its clockwork plotting leaves no space for the kind of downtime he typically likes to spend with his characters — it’s so brilliantly shot and acted that it instantly became iconic.

Demme’s decision to stage the encounters between FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and incarcerated people-eater Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) almost exclusively in huge, screen-filling close-ups brought some of the language of silent cinema to what was at heart an airport-paperback potboiler. The giveaway that Demme was at the controls may have been the soundtrack, which juxtaposed Howard Shore’s moody, orchestral score against a vintage hit by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, or the appearance of old boss Corman in a cameo.

A massive box-office hit and multi-Oscar winner, The Silence of the Lambs was Demme’s greatest success even as it sparked plenty of backlash. The film was protested and picketed by GLAAD over its depiction of the transgender serial killer played by Ted Levine, and Demme took the criticisms to heart. "It was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker and as a person," he told The Daily Beast in 2014, and it’s possible to see 1993’s Philadelphia, about a lawyer with AIDS suing his firm for wrongful dismissal, as something of an act of atonement. As a piece of filmmaking, Philadelphia is weirdly stodgy and serious, but the scene where Tom Hanks’s Andrew Beckett listens to Maria Callas’s "La Mamma Morta" and narrates the song’s lyrics to his lawyer (Denzel Washington) belongs in Demme’s pantheon of transporting musical numbers. Moving around the room attached to a rolling IV stand, he could be David Byrne dancing with the lamp, the camera hovering above him like a proud, benevolent angel.

Demme’s last film was the Netflix original Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016), a spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense that indicated that Demme, who had once been a patron of post-punk bands like the Feelies, had not grown staid in his enthusiasms. But when I think of his late work, the film I treasure is Rachel Getting Married, a generous, emotionally transparent drama about a black sheep girl’s tortuous homecoming for her sister’s nuptials.

I could talk about Anne Hathaway’s amazing, still-career-best performance as the self-destructive, 12-Stepping protagonist, or the naturalism of Jenny Lumet’s screenplay, or how the scene where Bill Irwin’s patriarch engages in a good-natured dishwasher-loading competition with his prospective son-in-law punctures macho bonding rituals. But what sticks with me is a song performed near the end of the film, during the endless (in a good way) wedding ceremony, by Robyn Hitchcock, the English musician who Demme profiled in 1998’s Storefront Hitchock. The melody is light and airy — a throwaway — but the refrain is as apt a summation of Jonathan Demme’s filmmaking as one could ever hope for: "We’re up to our necks in love."