There are so many things you could say about the life and career of Jonathan Demme.
You could say he was an eclectic filmmaker. You could say he loved people, onscreen and off, in all their messy glory. You could say he was restless. You could say he loved his character actors (and you have to love a guy who couldn’t make a movie without trying to find a place in it for Charles Napier). And all of that is true. It’s right up there onscreen.
For me, of course, the thing that marks Demme as one of the greats is the deep and abiding love he had for music.
One of the first things that struck me about Jonathan Demme was the way he utilized music, and musicians, in his films. It was in the way he cast them, with artists like Rick Springfield and David Johansen and Chris Isaak (Married to the Mob and The Silence of the Lambs effectively launched Isaak’s acting career). It’s in their scores, often composed by the likes of Howard Shore or David Byrne. It’s in the songs he chose. Demme put a lot of thought into how his movies would sound, and how that sound would affect their audience. And the result was a unique film experience. If you didn’t know a Demme film by sight, you’d always know it by sound.
It was in the music videos he directed, for artists ranging from New Order to Bruce Springsteen (as seen above). And, of course, it was there in all the concert films he directed, for everyone from Neil Young (three times!) to Justin Timberlake. It was never enough for Demme to simply put a camera in front of the artist. He had to create an experience that would immerse the viewer in the artist’s world. And there’s no better testament to that than the film that forever enshrined him in music history.
That was my first Jonathan Demme film: the Talking Heads concert experience Stop Making Sense. And it’s the mark of a great film, and a great band, and a great filmmaker, that after more than thirty years – yikes, I’m old – it’s still fresh and exciting and so vital, same as it ever was.
(I’m Lee Hurtado. You really had to know that was coming.)
One of the many things that make Stop Making Sense so unique is its narrative structure. That a concert film should even have a narrative structure is unusual to begin with, but that’s how Byrne, Demme, and the band conceived it. From the opening scenes, when Byrne walks out on that empty stage with that guitar and that boombox, we’re watching the birth and evolution of a band, from a single idea to a full, lived and shared experience. And with the cinematography of the great Jordan Cronenweth, you’re drawn into that experience as completely as if you were there at the Pantages back in 1983.
Of course, it helps immensely that the music – from “Psycho Killer” to “Slippery People” all the way to “Crosseyed and Painless” – is just so GOOD. But the staging, and the way Demme and Cronenweth bring it to life onscreen, makes Stop Making Sense more than a mere document of songs performed. This film, in its own way, is ALIVE.
And that’s how I’ll remember Jonathan Demme.
Thank you as always for following along. Until next time…