On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, I was very saddened to learn of the passing of one of my all-time favorite film directors (and one of the most-celebrated), Jonathan Demme. He died of complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease, and just turned 73 in late February.
When folks think of Jonathan Demme’s filmography, one of the first movies to come to mind, naturally, would be the brilliant 1991 horror-thriller, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which, to this day, is one of only three films ever to win Academy Awards in all five major categories – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (for Ted Tally), Best Actress (for Jodie Foster), and Best Actor (for Anthony Hopkins).
Another of the films Jonathan directed that most folks will instantly think of is his heartbreakingly incredible 1993 film, PHILADELPHIA. That film won Academy Awards for actor Tom Hanks and for Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Streets Of Philadelphia.”
For that video (co-directed with Jonathan’s nephew, wonderful Ted Demme, who passed away in 2002), and unlike most music videos, they had Bruce sing the lyrics live instead of lip-syncing to the song in the video. And it paid off. Not only did “Streets Of Philadelphia” receive the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it also won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song, four Grammy Awards (Song Of The Year, Best Rock Song, Best Male Rock Performance and Best Song Written For A Motion Picture), and an MTV Video Music Award for Best Video From A Film. And, it gave Bruce his last big hit, reaching No. 1 in at least eight countries, and the Top 10 in another eight, including here in America.
As great as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA are, those aren’t the movies I instantly think of when I think of Jonathan Demme. The first movies I think of (which he directed) are the incredibly fun SOMETHING WILD from 1986, 1987’s genius SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA with the late, great Spaulding Gray, the hilarious MARRIED TO THE MOB from 1988, Robyn Hitchcock’s sensational 1998 concert film, STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK, and most of all, the film I have long considered as THE BEST concert film of my generation, 1984’s STOP MAKING SENSE with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.
In a Facebook post on the day Jonathan passed away, Robyn Hitchcock reminisced: “I last saw Jonathan Demme four years ago today (April 26). Had no idea till this morning that it would be for the last time. Here we are in New York in 1996 where he filmed me in concert in a shop window ‘Storefront Hitchcock’.
“Jonathan was a born movie-maker: he loved people and he loved filming them. Fictional or actual, he caught so many lives and glimpses of lives and framed them for others to enjoy. Jonathan was a true keeper of souls, and now we must celebrate his. He did a lot for me, too – thank you, JD. ‘Are you ready for your close-up?’”
That Wednesday night, in a journal entry on David Byrne’s website, davidbyrne.com, he shared a letter which he apparently worked on for hours following the news of the passing of Jonathan Demme. In the letter, David wrote, “One could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career. Jonathan was also a huge music fan – that’s obvious in his films too – many of which are jam-packed with songs by the often obscure artists he loved. He’d find ways to slip a reggae artist’s song or a Haitian recording into a narrative film in ways that were often joyous and unexpected.
“Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense.”
Jonathan’s and David’s creative minds complimented each other. In David’s letter, he mentions how Jonathan helped him while he was developing the 1986 Talking Heads film, TRUE STORIES, how he wrote a song for SOMETHING WILD (“Loco de Amor,” performed with legendary Cuban-born Salsa vocalist, the late Celia Cruz), and how he scored MARRIED TO THE MOB.
STOP MAKING SENSE, to me, is Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece in film. It’s just as much a masterpiece for David Byrne and Talking Heads as well. In fact, it’s both names that grace the 1984 movie poster for STOP MAKING SENSE, and rightfully so.
In researching for this blog post, one of the coolest things I read was that, long before crowd-funding for films and albums became commonplace, Talking Heads (then at the peak of their career) raised the $1.2 million dollars themselves so the film could be made. Pretty damn cool.
In a 1984 review for the concert film, the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert, hailed the film and then some: “The overwhelming impression throughout STOP MAKING SENSE is of enormous energy, of life being lived at a joyous high… It’s a live show with elements of METROPOLIS [referring to Fritz Lang’s 1927 Sci-Fi film marvel]
“…But the film’s peak moments come through Byrne’s simple physical presence. He jogs in place with his sidemen; he runs around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and making music… He serves as a reminder of how sour and weary and strung-out many rock bands have become…”
STOP MAKING SENSE has many memorable moments (well, the whole thing is memorable), but one that comes to mind is that “big suit” David Byrne sports in the film. The suit increases in size throughout the course of the film, and when they perform “Girlfriend Is Better,” the suit is so ridiculously (and brilliantly) large. On a DVD interview for the film, David Byrne explains what the “big suit” represents: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” I love that quote; it’s so true.
The film version of STOP MAKING SENSE was released on April 24, 1984, months in advance of the soundtrack album, which, in its original LP form, had just nine songs, and some of them edited or different mixes than what appeared on the cassettes or CDs. Despite the soundtrack only having nine of the film’s songs, the soundtrack spent more than two years on the BILLBOARD Album chart, and was certified Double-Platinum 10 years after its release, selling more than two million copies in the U.S. alone.
In 1999, when the film celebrated its 15th Anniversary with a theatrical re-release, Sire and Warner Bros. restored the songs in the film to include all 15 songs by Talking Heads, and “Genius Of Love” by Tom Tom Club.
Talking Heads bandmates, Tom Tom Club co-founders and longtime husband and wife team Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz remembered the T-Heads liking Jonathan “from the get go, discovering the contagion of his unique joie de vivre [exuberance] that matched his massive creative talent. He didn’t so much work for us as completely with us. Since Talking Heads decided to pay for the film ourselves, we had the creative freedom to do it our way. Jonathan was the perfect catalyst on our team to make that happen… We will remain forever grateful for what he achieved with STOP MAKING SENSE. We love him still and we always will.”
As for my own little tribute to Jonathan Demme, I honestly could have chosen any song from STOP MAKING SENSE, but the only song I would ever choose is the forever beautiful “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” (originally from their 1983 breakthrough album, SPEAKING IN TONGUES). Or, as THE NEW YORKER once described it, “a love song only in spite of itself (it dispenses about as much hope as Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’).” Irregardless, “This Must Be The Place” is one of the most amazing songs (the live STOP MAKING SENSE version especially) that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a few.
You’re already missed, but I’m so grateful for the films and memories you left us. R.I.P. Jonathan, and many, many thanks…