Industry Spotlight: Jonathan Demme
Ryan Allen shines a light on the often overlooked Oscar-winning director, Jonathan Demme
You may not have heard of Jonathan Demme, but you know his movies. Starting under the wing of producer Roger Corman in the 1970s (alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard), Demme’s directing career was always varied. Though his career ranged from comedies to throwback thrillers to mumblecore dramas, nothing made him a mainstream success in the way that The Silence of the Lambs did in 1991. He died in 2017, after making 18 feature films and 15 documentaries, in a career that lasted nearly 40 years.
Demme’s most powerful filmmaking tool was his unpreventable empathy, the way that each of his films – be it fiction or documentary – found something indisputably lovable in their protagonists and exposed that to the audience. This is perhaps most obvious in his films in the early 90s, such as the aforementioned The Silence of the Lambs. The film differentiates itself from Michael Mann’s earlier adaptation of the Hannibal saga by emphasising the internal world of Clarice Starling, the ways in which her psyche must remain strong despite the horrors of the world around her. There’s also Philadelphia, which uses Demme’s signature POV shot – developed with frequent collaborator Tak Fujimoto – to have the protagonist directly confront the audience, begging for understanding in a society in which there was none.
The director’s love for people was also prevalent in his documentaries, most famously in Stop Making Sense, his concert film for new-wave band Talking Heads. In 1984, film writer Roger Ebert wrote that the film gives the impression of “enormous energy, of life being lived at a joyous high.” It’s hard to argue with that; every person on the stage at this expansive show is clearly having the time of their lives, dancing and grinning and jumping and strutting despite the sweat and harsh light covering their bodies. Each song has a completely different visual motif: there’s shadow puppetry, there’s big red screens that flash random combinations of everyday words like “VIDEOGAME SANDWICH DIAMONDS”, and – most famously – there is David Byrne’s big grey suit, a fashion choice that only serves to further emphasise his sporadic spontaneous movements. Though these may sound like absurd visual gimmicks, in the moment they feel like the natural conclusion of how this music should be portrayed. The film is pure fun, just enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake, a complete act of sincere love for music.
Demme’s most powerful filmmaking tool was his unpreventable empathy
Stop Making Sense received so much acclaim that Demme became a frequent collaborator with Neil Young, creating three concert films for him in just six years. He also caught the attention of actor, writer, and monologist Spalding Grey, which led to the release of Swimming to Cambodia in 1987. Stripping the concert film down to its bare essentials – there is just a desk, a chair, and a man who talks nonstop for 85 minutes – Demme managed to maintain the infectious energy of his Talking Heads collaboration to create a filmed monologue piece that is not only accessible but frequently hilarious.
Demme’s final release was one last concert film, this time for Justin Timberlake in 2016, and though there is a 32-year timespan between the release of that film and Stop Making Sense, it is clear that the director never lost his ability to envelop the audience in energy and love. Jonathan Demme was 73 years old when he died, but behind the camera, bathing the world in bright lights and colour and understanding, he seemed ageless.