Remembering Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)
The heart of cinema was hit with a huge blow on April 26, 2017, when news broke that Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme had passed away. Not only adept at dramatic fare, Demme reinvented the concert film, unleashing Stop Making Sense on the masses in 1984. One of many prolific directors that owed his career to producing legend Roger Corman, Demme was forever in the man's debt, thanking him with various roles in his pictures over the years. Like everyone else in the film world, we will miss him dearly, he brought a life to his films that's rarely seen in Hollywood. We're thankful to have been subject to his work and have gotten together with our memories of this great director.
Philadelphia was one of the first major Hollywood films to take on the AIDS epidemic, and Jonathan Demme's film is warm and empathetic. The picture takes great pains to show the various forms of homophobia and the misconceptions surrounding HIV. Now, the film feels somewhat quaint in that mid 1990s Hollywood way. Demme often has his actors speak directly into the camera with the intent to educating the kind of audience that would only care about HIV when it affects a WASPy cisgender movie star like Tom Hanks. The film did bonkers box office numbers - about $207 million worldwide - and won two Academy Awards (Best Actor for Hanks, and Best Original Song for Bruce Springsteen).
It's a groundbreaking movie, and laid the blueprints for wider depictions of homosexuality in mainstream media. It's easy to see why everyone went bananas for Tom Hanks in the film; he has the kind of role critics like to call “brave.” However, Denzel Washington’s performance is astounding. Washington is the audience surrogate character, nakedly displaying the inherent prejudice everyday decent people have. He isn’t a monster, nor does he completely mend his ways too easily. Transformation is a difficult, long process, and Demme doesn’t shy away from the ugliness within good people. Jonathan Demme’s direction is triumphant and compassionate, slyly avoiding any melodramatic flourishes or showy tricks.
- Manish Mathur
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Pauline Kael’s review of Melvin and Howard was titled “The Man Who Made Howard Hughes Sing” which is the first thing that comes to mind when I hear Jonathan Demme’s name, the sentiment is as sweet as the film's unimposing sincerity toward its stranger than fiction story. Demme didn’t make a movie about the infamous Hughes, but bookends the life of Melvin Dummar - his rocky home life, aspirations and various careers with the very (alleged) encounter with the elusive Hughes that could have made him richer than he ever imagined. After the media feeding frenzy and legal battles, Melvin loses his chance to named the beneficiary of $156,000,000 but chooses to remember Hughes as the man he shared a song with during their brief rendezvous.
Demme’s comedic sincerity eschews the condescension that could have participated in exploring the life of an amiable dreamer whose values and ideas put his best intentions at odds with American consumer culture. Finding tenderness and gravity in the banalities of Midwestern suburban life Melvin and Howard is a film brimming with warmth and humor; and yes, Jonathan Demme did make Howard Hughes sing (in a manner of speaking) which is an uplifting way to remember a prolific career in film. Demme made Hannibal Lecter iconic, one of the best concert films ever with Stop Making Sense, he brought a global epidemic to light in Philadelphia, but to me he’ll be the man who made Howard Hughes Sing.
- Alex Miller
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Arguably the best concert documentary ever made, Demme managed to capture new wave band Talking Heads at the height of their popularity in this ingeniously realized piece of filmmaking. Opening with frontman David Byrne playing their staple song ‘Psycho Killer’ with just an acoustic guitar and a drum machine, each later performance adding group members Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, as well as backing band members, to the point where it reaches a climax with a full lineup rendition of ‘Burning Down The House’. Impeccably orchestrated and a fever dream of a religious experience, music films don’t get more fun than Stop Making Sense - even when it moves into stranger abstract territory with its performances. Byrne dons a large suit for ‘Girlfriend Is Better’, where the film gets its title and poster art from, and ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is done in a single take, against the varied shooting style across the rest of the film. It’s powerful enough to make fans out of those completely unfamiliar with the band, not merely from the music, but from the range of jubilance and rejoicing on display. Over 30 years later, it’s still a force to be reckoned with, with its bountiful amount of love and artistry and weirdness.
- Rob Trench
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The film that skyrocketed Jonathan Demme to the mainstream, the intensely unsettling horror film The Silence of the Lambs, is just one of a handful of pictures to win the Big Five at the Oscars. Taking home statues for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, Silence holds up over 25 years after its initial release in 1991. Working from a tight screenplay by Ted Tally, Demme, along with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, crafted one of the scariest films ever made, filled with performances and imagery that scarred an entire generation of horror fans.
For a movie with such disturbing subject matter, by all accounts, Demme was a delight on the set. That's the one thing you'll hear about the man from anyone that worked with him over the years; no matter the situation or story, there was a lightness to his personality that reassured everyone that "it'll all be okay." It's rare for such an exacting filmmaker to have such a reputation, with nary a bad word to be said. Hollywood is much poorer with this loss, and we as fans of his work, are poorer still.
- Matt Curione
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
How do you remake a classic? The Manchurian Candidate from 1962 is as prescient as ever — especially in 2017, even scarily so. Jonathan Demme’s take on the 1959 novel and original movie manages be just as powerful and perfect for our time. Released four months before the 2004 presidential election, the remake set its sights not on foreign powers controlling a Vice Presidential candidate, but rather a large corporation with shadowy motives. Whether it’s communists or conglomerates, Demme keeps the intrigue and stakes of his political thriller as high as the Frank Sinatra-led original.
It helps that Demme has an all-star cast. How do you match Sinatra? Well, you cast Denzel Washington. What about Angela Lansbury? Let’s try Meryl Streep, who I’m surprised didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this, as she gives a fiery, "all-the-awards-worthy" monologue within the first 10 minutes. The rest of the ensemble is filled with the best of the best — Jon Voight, Vera Fermiga, Jeffrey Wright, Miguel Ferrer, and also Ted Levine (who’s a joy to see once again in a Demme movie). It also helps that Demme is once again working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Truth About Charlie). Demme’s signature extreme facial close-ups are made possible by Fujimoto’s camerawork — imagine the skin-crawl inducing visuals of Lambs transferred over to a political thriller and you’ve got Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, a remake that shouldn't work, but absolutely does.
- Marcelo Pico
Something Wild (1986)
Two people from opposite sides of society unexpectedly meet and over the course of a weekend, discover their inner wild side through a series of various escapades. While it sounds like a simple premise, what Jonathan Demme does with Something Wild is a true testament to his abilities to defy convention. We meet lawyer Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) who ‘rebels’ in small spurts, catching the attention of Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a feisty free-spirit who captures him for what seems like an affair, but turns into a more controlling kind of affair once the personal anxieties between the two begin to emerge. The second half moves into darker territory, once Lulu’s old flame Ray (Ray Liotta) comes into the picture, and Charles gets a first hand look at what a real wild man is like, forcing him to take action and transcend his prescribed shortcomings.
Like it’s multi-genre soundtrack, the plot moves in a cavalcade of directions, leading up to a conclusion with palpable suspense that feels like a preview of the intensity Demme would bring to The Silence of the Lambs a few years later. While the film’s style is dated by today’s standards, there are few films that take so many risks within their storytelling, and still manage to come off as satisfying. It may not be his most remembered outing (even with a Criterion Collection release), but Something Wild is, to put it bluntly, a wild ride, and a fun one at that too.
- Rob Trench
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016)
After directing five concert films for such legends as Talking Heads, Neil Young, and Robyn Hitchcock, Jonathan Demme’s final film strays from the folk rock and post-punk scene of his previous work and instead documents the final performance of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, the Netflix released documentary, demands one thing of society that, for whatever reason, not a lot of people do: to take JT seriously. Not just the honesty in his lyrics; but the artistry behind his pop/neo soul sound, the impeccable set design behind his invigorating stage show, and the boundless respect he holds for his musicians and fans on and off the stage. It’s a life-affirmingly beautiful documentary, one that indulges in the auditory and visual pleasures of his music, as well as the stunning set design and theatricality of his performances. It opens with a short segment about Justin and the “Tennessee Kids”, the group he performs with, before shifting into an all out, glorious concert film.
The picture is great as background or foreground entertainment - I’ve seen the documentary three times paying full attention but I’ve put it on in the background countless times. It has this mythical aura to it - the last night of his three year world tour feels like the end of a chapter but the beginning of a new one; and that beautiful harmony of nostalgia and blinding excitement is present in every song, in every lighting cue, and in every smile at the thousands of fans lucky enough to catch the historic tour before it ends. As Justin stands on a translucent stages that slowly extends over the screaming Madison Square Garden crowd, Timberlake’s melody comes, almost literally, from the heavens. He soars above the men, women, and children who unconditionally adore him - and as he spreads his wings and glides above them, the most amazing thing happens: you forget that he can’t fly.