Director Jonathan Demme, who died today at the age of 73, left behind a body of work that counts as one of the most diverse in modern Hollywood, applying his skills to everything from rollicking comic adventure to quietly devastating drama, transcendent concert film to cannibal thriller. Here are seven Demme films that capture the incredible breadth of his career.
Dave Kehr’s original Chicago Reader review of Melvin And Howard begins with one of the classic review ledes in American film criticism: “Tell someone that a movie is about America and—if he has any sense—he’ll head for the exit.” Ignore the gender-neutral “he” (a convention that was then just falling out of usage), and consider how this statement both qualifies and defines Jonathan Demme’s talent. His early films Handle With Care (also known as Citizens Band) and Melvin And Howard tackled populist subjects with wit and sensitivity, but never succumbed to cynicism or schmaltz. The latter was inspired by the quintessentially American story of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), a gas station attendant who claimed to have been willed a fortune by the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards). Drawing equal inspiration from Dummar’s tall tale and from his life of foibles, Melvin And Howard strikes an unlikely balance between American myth and the American mundane, aided by the ambiguity of the Nevada desert landscape and an ensemble of wonderful performances. (Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for playing Dummar’s first wife, Lynda.) This is the masterpiece of the early phase of Demme’s career and an important influence on many later American movies—most notably the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.
You could’ve pointed a stationary camera at any of the early-’80s incarnations of Talking Heads and still come away with a decent concert film. The “expanded Heads” lineup was just that talented, lively, and entertaining. But Stop Making Sense isn’t just a decent concert film—it’s the gold standard for a genre Demme worked in all the way up to 2016’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Definitive proof that control-freak tendencies and a collaborative spirit are not mutually exclusive qualities, Stop Making Sense takes place within a tightly hemmed David Byrne concept, yet Demme found all sorts of room to move within it. The director employed his own set of constraints (no audience footage until the very end, for instance) while following wild hairs like the shots that trail off from the spotlight to, say, check out what Bernie Worrell’s up to during the verses of “Making Flippy Floppy.” Whereas most concert films emphasize the “concert” part, Stop Making Sense finds endless inspiration from the Magritte-esque notion that it is not a concert, but rather an expertly photographed (The angles in “Swamp”! The lighting in “What A Day That Was”!), seamlessly edited (from three separate shows) representation of one. Even with all those cuts, the energy never wavers, and the musicians turn in performances that rank among the most compelling in the Demme filmography. In the wake of the filmmaker’s death, much is being made of the empathy and humanity in his work. You can find those qualities in Rachel Getting Married, or Philadelphia, or you can turn to Stop Making Sense’s rendition of “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” in which David Byrne cuts through years of art-damaged brittleness to tango with a floor lamp. Under Demme’s watch, it looks like an Astaire-Rogers routine for the ’80s.
As yuppie scum invaded the Earth in the 1980s, Jonathan Demme showed movie audiences that there was another way. His 1986 effort Something Wild starred Jeff Daniels as a corporate “closet rebel” who flirts with nonconformity by occasional ditching his lunch check. He’s then set free from the rat race by Melanie Griffith’s Lulu/Audrey, who entices him into a road trip that involves him posing as her husband at her high school reunion. The two have charming chemistry as they draw from each other—Audrey opens Charlie up sexually; he takes care of her after a hangover—showing the advantages of both of their lifestyles, conventional and unconventional. The film then takes a nasty turn when Ray Liotta shows up as Audrey’s homicidal ex-husband. He’s never been more menacing, and Charlie has to call on all of his newly discovered strength to save his girl. This Stop Making Sense follow-up also highlights Demme’s now-iconic use of music, with a superlative soundtrack that features New Order, Jimmy Cliff, and UB40. The Feelies even play at Audrey’s reunion, while reggae star “Sister” Carol East makes her first of four appearances in Demme films. (Director pals like John Waters and John Sayles also show up for fun cameos.) Thanks to Demme’s clear compassion for his characters, and none-too-subtle message, the movie still plays as well 30 years later: We all need to go a little wild sometimes.
There’s a reason the “one-man show” endures as shorthand for self-indulgent torture, inflicted on patient friends and family who are just waiting to deliver their post-show praise through strained smiles so they can get the hell out of there. And even with a monologuist as skilled as the late Spalding Gray, there’s nothing that would automatically translate to the movie theater, where nobody had to worry about Gray catching them yawning. Yet Demme makes 1987’s Swimming To Cambodia every bit as gripping and dynamic as one of his concert films, paring Gray’s winding four-hour stage play down to a lean 85 minutes, yet still capturing the emotional essence of his rambling, alternately funny and terrifying tale of filming a small role in The Killing Fields and how it intersects with the Cambodian genocide. Demme uses just three cameras, minimal theatrical lighting, a handful of clips, a few sound effects, and the barest of cuts, yet he symbiotically matches Gray’s tempos and moods in a way that breathes incredible life into what is, at face value, just a guy on a stage unspooling into a microphone.
The Silence Of The Lambs is a steadily tightening cord wrapped around its audience’s neck. Although it fits the general mold of a serial-killer crime thriller, it’s terrifying and gruesome enough to be categorized as horror, commonly cited as the only film in the genre ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Jonathan Demme also won his only Best Director Oscar for Lambs, a testament to the film’s masterful use of tension, as well as his skill with actors. Jodie Foster perfectly embodies the tough nut who’s encasing tender meat as the brave young FBI agent Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins creates one of the 20th century’s most intriguing and enduring onscreen villains as gentleman cannibal Hannibal Lecter, his clear blue eyes windows to the bottomless madness within. Underneath the film’s controlled exterior, Demme explores subversive and frequently messy themes of gender and identity, a psychological subtext that’s almost as unsettling as the grand guignol of Lecter’s handiwork.
In what could have been a clichéd, TV-movie-maudlin look at the AIDS epidemic—which had only recently begun making tentative, tepid inroads into pop culture—1993’s Philadelphia instead earned its weighty mantle of being the first high-profile film to take on the disease. Admittedly, it doesn’t bear much of Demme’s usual audaciousness: It’s a predictably beautifully filmed, but also beautifully predictable in its middle-of-America-friendly handling of then-controversial subjects like homosexuality and basic human tolerance. But aside from its social importance, and a deservedly Oscar-winning performance from Tom Hanks, Philadelphia deserves credit for being so affecting despite its occasionally corny, Frank Capra trappings. Much of that has to do with Demme’s ability to smartly shift tones and perspectives (Denzel Washington’s homophobic lawyer benefits most from this), as well as his ability to create emotionally honest moments—never more so than the standout scene where Hanks plays Washington his favorite aria, while Demme allows the viewer to fill in the subtext on these two men’s thoughts and feelings—even in a movie whose important message could have drowned out subtext entirely.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Shot over about a month at a sprawling Connecticut estate, Rachel Getting Married is named for the nuptials of its bride to be (Rosemarie DeWitt), stumbling through a final stretch of stressful preparation before her big day. But it’s fresh-out-of-rehab, black-sheep sister Kym (Anne Hathaway, in a hurricane of a performance) who drives the plot of Jonathan Demme’s wrenching, almost unbearably moving 2008 family drama. For Demme, the film was an unexpected DIY swerve, a stripping-down to handheld fundamentals after a decade and change of Oscar-winning prestige productions, literary adaptations, and Hollywood remakes. But it was also a career culmination, marrying the director’s gifts as a shaggy dramatist to the loose, observational techniques of his documentaries and the joyous musical collaboration of his seminal concert films. (The film’s score is entirely diegetic, performed live on set by a ragtag, multinational band.) Few films have better captured the whirlwind anxiety of an impending wedding, the lacerating honesty of an addict on the mend, and the wars of attrition between siblings who deeply love but rarely much like each other. And though Rachel Getting Married has been called everything from a late Dogme 95 experiment to an affectionate Robert Altman tribute, the cathartic and bittersweet punctuation of the climax is quintessentially, unforgettably Demme.