Director Jonathan Demme, who passed away in 2017, will be forever remembered for Silence of the Lambs. No matter how many prequels, sequels, or well intentioned TV series, they will never approach the genius of the original. Philadelphia can also be put into the category of great Demme films. Utilizing his growing clout and influence, he was one of the first to tackle the AIDS epidemic in film.
Just for those two films alone, Demme would stand as one of this country's great directors. But he was so much more. One of my all time favorite films, Swimming to Cambodia, was directed by him. Who would have thought you could film a monologue performance and be able to make a full length feature out of it? But that's exactly what Demme did in filming Spalding Gray's thoughts, insights, and ramblings based on his experiences on and off the set of The Killing Fields.
Demme also made several documentaries over the years with subjects as varied as his activist Episcopal priest brother, Haiti, and former President Jimmy Carter. But in various interviews, Demme made it clear that music was his first love, movies came second. In fact, many of his films were chock full of music with the accompanying soundtracks. One of his last films, Nicki and the Flash, was about a woman (Meryl Streep) who left her family to become a rock star with later attempts to try to make amends for the damage she had done.
Demme liked to make films about singer-songwriters and other musical performers. One such film that caught my attention back in the 90's was Storefront Hitchcock. At first glance, I was thinking what the hell is this? The film involved Robyn Hitchcock who began his career with the British group The Egyptians before embarking on a long and storied solo career. The film was nothing more than Hitchcock performing his songs in a vacant New York City storefront with the occasional rubbernecker peering through the glass. But the more I watched, the more I was hooked (Demme's intention, I'm sure) and became an avid Hitchcock fan ever since. He had the flair for grabbing his audience and not letting go. Demme's musical projects earned him a Grammy nomination in 1987 for best long form music video for Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid.
I care very little about musical artists such as Justin Timberlake and Kenny Chesney. Just not my cup of tea. But given the Demme film treatment, it at least piques my curiosity enough to check it out. In 1984, Demme directed the Talking Heads "performance film" Stop Making Sense. It wasn't so much about the concert experience as it was the performance. He doesn't utilize the quick cutaway audience shots so prevalent in festival concert films. The often mercurial, difficult, cranky Neil Young was able to enlist Demme for three film collaborations. Perhaps the best of the three was Neil Young: Heart of Gold filmed at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville after Young suffered a brain aneurism. His last project was a history of rock and roll for the Rock Hall of Fame compiled from footage from various Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
How did Demme direct? Did he simply let the camera roll and stay out of the way? Well in 1986, Demme offered his insights on making a great movie, "You get a good script, good actors and try not to screw it up. That's the formula baby". And I think that's what made him great – allowing the actors and performers to find their own way through a part, a song, a monologue. I know that has worked well for me be it a teacher, director, or an editor.
Thank you Mr. Demme, that is the formula baby!