FEBRUARY 20, 1944-APRIL 26, 2017
I cannot express to you enough of the level of surprise I felt when I opened up my e-mail and saw a report from Variety that filmmaker Jonathan Demme had passed away from complications due to esophageal cancer and heart disease. He was 73 years old.
Aside from not ever really knowing that he had been so severely ill, I was actually more surprised by his age as he was a filmmaker that seemed to be so youthfully restless, as his life's work consisted of narrative feature films, documentaries, television work and music videos all culminating with his final film, the concert documentary "Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids" (2016), plus one episode on the FOX television series "Shots Fired."
The filmmaking legacy of Jonathan Demme is of such vastness that it would be impossible for me to speak of it at length as I have not actually seen so much of it, and to that, it is indeed my loss. But, what I can express to you is again that seemingly youthful restlessness that spoke to me. That seemingly endless curiosity that informed his work, creating an image in my mind of this bemused seeker armed only with a camera traveling around pointing his instrument at any and everything that fascinated him. Demme's complete ouvre was a showcase for that explicit fascination, which he documented and presented completely without judgement, and possibly only with the agenda to allow us to see the world through new eyes, therefore giving us a larger understanding of our shared humanity.
It is imperative that I pay my respects at this time for this uniquely idiosyncratic filmmaker, a figure who, time and again, expanded and exploded any pre-conceived notions of what I thought the movies could and could not be. How much weaker my cinematic education would have been if I had never seen even one of his films.
1. "MELVIN AND HOWARD" (1980)
I first came upon this film at the age of 11, the year it was originally released, via the rave reviews given by the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, both in print inside of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, respectively as well as their television movie review program, which I think was still airing upon PBS at the time. It is because of Siskel and Ebert that I saw so many different kinds of films that I otherwise never would have seen as I valued their opinions and teachings so powerfully and Jonathan Demme's "Melvin And Howard" was no exception.
I eventually saw the film for the very first time about a year after its theatrical release when the film began its cycle upon a Chicago pay TV channel called ON TV. Admittedly, I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the film after that first viewing. But, somehow, this story, set in the early 1970's about a down-on-his-luck Nevada milkman (played by the wonderful Paul Le Mat) who kindly picks up a disheveled, bearded elderly gentleman who turns out to be the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (played by Jason Robards) captured and most importantly, held my attention for its duration.
Within this film, Demme gave me a peek into an environment that was world away from my middle class Chicago life. It was a world filled with characters and personalities that I really had never seen before or would have even given a chance if not for Siskel and Ebert. But, it was Jonathan Demme's skill as a storyteller and cinematic world-builder that kept me watching and even returning, as I gladly re-watched the film as much as six or seven more times during its pay TV cycle. While I have not seen this film for perhaps over 30 years, there are sequences and moments that I am still able to recall instantly. Actually, even writing this little about it now, I am inspired to try and track down the film and see it again through the vantage point of my adult eyes and broader worldview.
2. "STOP MAKING SENSE" (1984)
The concert film against which most concert films have been compared with and rightfully so. Demme's "Stop Making Sense'" is undisputed in its assessment as being one of the finest and most unique concert films ever made, and this is from a filmmaker who also directed "Storefront Hitchcock" (1988) starring Robyn Hitchcock as well as the Neil Young trilogy consisting of "Neil Young: Heart Of Gold" (2006), "Neil Young Trunk Show" (2009) and "Neil Young: Journeys" (2011).
But, "Stop Making Sense" is a true cinematic and musical treasure, elegantly filmed and presented with such joyous abandon and inventiveness which makes it ripe for watching over and again. Demme was the perfect directorial match for a band as unorthodox and idiosyncratic as Talking Heads as he created a fully unorthodox and idiosyncratic format in which to present them and their music. By eschewing with shots of the audience having a great time, "Stop Making Sense" focuses solely upon the story of the band as they enter the stage one by one until the core foursome plus their auxiliary members explore their timeless and innovative polyrhythms, melodics and lyrics with a boundless childlike enthusiasm that was a wonderment to regard.
Bandleader David Byrne in particular made for a defiantly unique screen presence as well as musician as his anxious antics and sheer athleticism made him compulsively watchable, leading to the iconic imagery of the "Big Suit." Just unforgettable!! No wonder the band never toured again after mounting the stage s how from which this was filmed. And therefore, no wonder has there never again been a concert film like this one.
3. "SOMETHING WILD" (1986)
One of the best films of the 1980's...period.
Again, introduced to me through the notable enthusiasm of Siskel and Ebert and even further compounded, and audaciously so by a terrific Math teacher who was so overcome by the film that she could not even begin the morning's class session before extolling her excitement over having seen it over the previous weekend.
Jonathan Demme's romantic comedy/thriller hybrid more than lived up to its title as the road odyssey, featuring a straight-laced "closet rebel" (played by Jeff Daniels) taken for the ride of his life by the openly rebellious free spirit Audrey a.k.a. "Lulu" (Melanie Griffith in her best performance to date) and who are both being menaced and pursued by a terrifying criminal named Ray Sinclair (a fantastic Ray Liotta), exuberantly blew apart storytelling cliches and conventions to became a completely unpredictable and equally unforgettable movie.
Demme presented this fearlessly irreverent vision through an explosion of colors, relentless energy, striking humor, bold sexuality, truly surprising violence, and a huge heart while entirely set to the an astonishing multi-layered, multi-cultural soundtrack (of no less than 49 songs) that superbly boasted Demme's impeccable musical tastes.
In many ways, as with "Stop Making Sense," the only filmmaker with whom I could compare Demme with in the instances of these two films would be Martin Scorsese, whose concert film "The Last Waltz" (1978) and his own audacious, wild night experience with the brilliant "After Hours" (1985). Great company to sit with indeed and much for Scorsese as it was for Demme.
4. "PHILADELPHIA" (1993)
Quite possibly Jonathan Demme's most impassioned slice of humanity could be found within his legal drama that gave homosexuality, homophobia, HIV and AIDS the precise dose of empathy and artistry to make a seismic impact within the mainstream movie-going audience.
The casting of Tom Hanks, one of our favorite Hollywood "everymen," as an attorney who happens to be a closeted homosexual and AIDS patient who is unjustly fired by his law firm was a masterstroke, just as much as the casting of Denzel Washington as the homophobic attorney who gradually decides to take up the discrimination case of Hanks' character. I am expressing this view because who within our mainstream movie-going audience would wish to watch Tom Hanks dying over the course of two hours? Our empathy is already built into our shared love of this particular actor and the screen persona that he has conveyed throughout the entirety of his career. With regards to Denzel Washington, Jonathan Demme was much more shrewd by having this African-American male work as the stand-in for the presumably predominant Caucasian mainstream movie-going audience, through which Washington's evolution would mirror.
But "Philadelphia" succeeds as far more than something akin to brilliant "stunt casting," as Demme is fully concerned with showcasing precisely the elements that make up our shared humanity from careers, families, hopes, fears, desires, and most profoundly, our shared mortality. Because in the end, we are all headed to the same conclusion regardless of our sexual orientations and preferences, so what kind of a society would we be if we denied anyone the ability to live to the fullest of their particular truth? Certainly, this is a life lesson that feels to be even more urgent in the 21st century, but in 1993, mainstream movie going audiences needed a push with this deeply affecting, beautifully acted film that worked as a movie that carried a message rather than a demonstrative and hollow "message movie."
5. "BELOVED" (1998)
For me, this film stood directly alongside Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" as two of the finest films 1998 had to offer, yet audiences didn't warm to this passionate, poetically political film whatsoever, which is a tremendous shame due to the shattering beauty of its uncompromising power.
Yes, the film's leading actress Oprah Winfrey's pilgrimage to bring the iconic Toni Morrison novel to the screen is more than worth any accolades the film ever received and quite brilliantly, her choice to handpick Jonathan Demme could not have been any more perfect as his cinematic and humanitarian sensibilities completely captured the interpersonal and supernatural drama of Morrison's source material.
But, what struck me the most about "Beloved" was that Demme fully fashioned a film about our country's Reconstruction period--the nation, certainly, as the film is set after the end of the Civil War. But, primarily as a story about the reconstruction of the African-American race and how we began our attempts with rebuilding ourselves after surviving the nightmare of slavery, a system that was designed to annihilate us. This is indeed a most difficult film and rightfully so. But, if you have not seen the film, trust me, dear readers, as I would never steer you wrong. The rewards of "Beloved" are enormous as Jonathan Demme guides us through nothing less than an existential journey from holocaust to horror to healing.
One of the very best films of the early aughts and Jonathan Demme's last, truly stunning and sharply delivered narrative feature.
Serving as a brilliantly perceptive and poignant study of a family travelling through a whirlwind of joyous uplift as well as emotional minefields when Kym (an outstanding Anne Hathaway) returns home in her first week out of drug rehab to attend the weekend wedding ceremony of her sister Rachel (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), "Rachel Getting Married" superbly avoided all of the cliches and trappings that are typically found within the cinematic wastelands of self-consciously quirky "dysfunctional families" that never, ever ring true. By contrast, Demme presents a family with the perfect amount of realism, frailty, fragility, nuance, texture, fury and overarching love that would be present within anyone's extended families.
Furthermore, Demme's presentation of this particular extended family, growing even larger with the notably inter-racial marriage of Rachel and Sidney (played by Tunde Adebimpe from the band TV On The Radio) , who is African-American, gave us a view of the changing face of the American landscape precisely at the moment the United States of America was about to elect its first African-American President. No, this aspect of the film was not through any sense of faux political correctness. Demme gave the audience a healthy dose of a social/political reality in regards to how diverse our country's population and the families within have all become.
Filled and even over-flowing with an immense joy of life, music, love and family, Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" represented this idiosyncratic filmmaker at his finest.
From his romantic comedies, psychological thrillers, documentaries that contain subjects as varied as President Jimmy Carter to even Demme's own Minister cousin and even more, I think what we have gathered most of all is one filmmaker's full vision and exploration of the world in which he lived, what that world meant to him, and the unabashed glee with which he created his films that carried those messages to the world.
Humanity. Possibly the theme I have returned to the very most throughout the longevity of this blogsite. Humanity is the defining characteristic that I am able to find when looking at Jonathan Demme's filmography. Who knows? Perhaps if we took a look at the world through his cinematic eyes, our viewpoint could potentially be expanded, possibly leading to a greater understanding of our shared existence. That is the greatest gift a filmmaker can have, I would think. And to celebrate, treasure and cherish the gifts he has left behind for all of us, it is to our duty and entertainment to accept what he so joyously offered.
Jonathan Demme...Rest In Power..