R.I.P. filmmaker Jonathan Demme, director of “Something Wild,” “Stop Making Sense” & other Night Flight faves

By on April 26, 2017

We’ve just learned of the death of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, a favorite filmmaker of ours, who died today, Wednesday April 26, 2017, from complications due to heart disease and esophageal cancer. He was 73 years old.

Demme had been working in the movie business since the 1970s, and we’ve featured excerpts of quite a bit of his work here on Night Flight many times, just as we did back in the 1980s, during broadcasts of the original “Night Flight” program on the USA network.

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Demme, working with Anthony Hopkins on The Silence of the Lambs(photo by Ken Regan/AMPAS)

His films have been nominated for many different awards throughout the director’s long career in the industry. His films include big box office features and smaller, b-movies, and a lot of work with musicians, including numerous documentaries and music videos by artists like Bruce Springsteen and the Pretenders.

To many, he is best known for his most mainstream films, which were too few and far between, including Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), Beloved (1998), and his remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004).

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His often emotionally-charged movies are remembered for their colorful characters but it is his masterful use of the camera in telling a story that makes his work so remarkable.

To many others, he’s likely best remembered for his directing of several classic concert films, including those by the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (1984) — and Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006).

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Demme on the set of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Paramount Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Demme was born on February 22, 1944, in Baldwin, New York. Growing up, Demme had always wanted to be a veterinarian, enrolling in classes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, but the necessary chemistry class proved to be too difficult, and so he dropped out.

He was a truly obsessive film buff, but had to figure out a way to make a living, so went home to Miami and resumed working in animal hospitals for awhile, and then thought he’d try journalism, and turned to the local newspaper, who hired him as their film critic.

His life changed when his father — then head of publicity at the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach — introduced him to studio mogul & producer Joseph E. Levine, who got him a job as a press agent at Avco Embassy In New York City after seeing that Demme have favorably reviewed Zulu, one of Levine’s movies.

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He then met Roger Corman, and like so many others, Corman took him under his wing and gave him his first work in the film industry; the two became very good friends and often worked together on movies.

Demme later said about it:

“I couldn’t have been happier and I then had the opportunity to become a publicist. Now I was inside the movie industry, meeting amazing people, and I didn’t want to do anything else—until I got a call to be Roger Corman’s unit publicist. On my first meeting with him, he said, ‘You write good production notes. You’re hired as the publicist, and listen, do you know how to write a script?’ I went, ‘Yeah, sure.’ It wasn’t like a dream come true. It was just an extraordinary thing. So Roger buys the script and says,‘Jonathan, you would probably be a good producer. You can produce it.’ And, again, I never had any dreams of producing movies.”

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Demme made his debut as a producer in 1971 with b-movie biker film, writing the screenplay for Angels Hard as They Come, which was directed by Joe Viola. He’d been working in Ireland as a publicist on the set of one of Corman’s films when he was invited to pen a motorcycle movie — based very loosley on Rashomon — for Corman’s new company, New World Pictures.

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Paul Rapp, Roger Corman and Jonathan Demme, on location in Arkansas for 20th Century Fox’s Fighting Mad

Demme’s first film as a director, the babes-behind-bars b-movie Caged Heat (1974), came next, and he then continued working with Corman on many of his future projects, including Crazy Mama (1975) and Fighting Mad (1976).

He had his first true success with his first big studio films like 1977’s Citizen’s Band, which was later retitled Handle With Care (the film explored the CB radio craze, big at the time).

Another of our favorites of his was 1980’s Melvin and Howard, which told a very odd little shaggy-dog story about a desert rat who meets multi-millionaire Howard Hughes and then claimed that Hughes had named him the heir to his fortune. Film critic Pauline Kael called it “an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination,” and she compared the film to Jean Renoir by way of Preston Sturges.

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1984’s Swing Shift came next, but the critics weren’t too kind about the film, which explored the lives of working women in factories during World War II, but he had difficulties with the film’s executive producer and leading lady, Goldie Hawn, who saw the film as a star vehicle for herself. Demme walked off the project.

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After contemplating what to do next, he ended up becoming a documentarian to capture what was happening in the music scene, working with the band Talking Heads on their 1983 concert tour film Stop Making Sense, (1984) which won a couple of awards, including National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Documentary.

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Demme (center) directs Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (Orion Pictures Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection)

He then confidently moved back to the world of mainstream films, and began to have more success with films like Night Flight fave Something Wild (1986) — a surprising comedy set in New York in the mid-’80s, with an awesome soundtrack — and he directed he Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia (1987), during which Gray told, in a long monologue, about his experiences in Southeast Asia on the set of The Killing Fields.

1988’s Married to the Mob brought even more acclaim. The film — starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a mob wife trying to leave the life and go straight — was hilarious and fun.

In 1991, Demme directed the Academy Award-winning Best Picture The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Oscars, including Best Director. He was also awarded the DGA Award for his work on the box office hit, which was based on a terrifying serial-killer novel written by Thomas Harris.

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Anthony Hopkins (left) and director Jonathan Demme (right), The Silence of the Lambs

The film racked up five Academy Awards in total — including Best Actress for Jodie Foster and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, for his portrayal of Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.

He followed that colossal success with another very successful film, 1993’s Philadelphia, which again won him a couple of Oscars. Many believe it’s Demme’s greatest cinematic achievement, bringing much needed awareness of the AIDS epidemic to the multiplex.

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Philadelphia told the story of a gay lawyer with AIDS — Tom Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award for the role — who is fired by his firm and wins a wrongful-termination suit with the help of an initially homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington).

Five years later, in 1998, Demme turned Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved into a compelling and emotional movie, starring Oprah Winfrey,

In 2003, Demme directed The Agronomist, which he won Best Documentary.

He followed up this success with a remake of the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, another of his films to star Denzel Washington.

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In 2007, he directed a documentary about the 39th president in Jimmy Carter Man from Plains.

Most recently, Demme Ricki and the Flash,about an aging rock star portrayed by Meryl Streep, who plays an aging rocker who must return home to Indiana due to a family crisis.

Last year, in 2016, Demme returned to the concert film to direct a Justin Timberlake concert in 3-D, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.

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We’ve left out quite a bit here, but wanted to make sure our readers knew how much we loved his work. He had been battling esophageal cancer and died of complications from heart disease, according to a family source. He was originally treated for cancer in 2010, but the disease came back in 2015.

One of his very last jobs was an episode of the Fox TV police drama “Shots Fired,” which is scheduled to air on tonight, April 26, the same day Demme’s death was announced.

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(photo by Bob Vergara)

Regarding that video at the top of the post, we’ve found a wonderful supercut created by filmmaker and video essayist Jacob T. Swinney, who we’ve featured here on Night Flight many time (check out his Vimeo page).

Swinney explains Demme’s “signature twist” of the extreme close-up as seen in seven of his feature films, a defining characteristic of a Jonathan Demme picture from 1986–2004.

Swinney:

While many close-ups share the same conventions, Jonathan Demme put a signature twist on this old and practical technique. Most filmmakers choose to employ the close-up shot during scenes of crucial dialogue — the scene cuts back and forth to the characters’ respective close ups, each character looking to the opposite side of the screen in order to mind the 180 line. This is a standard, yet effective, procedure and is seen in almost any film.

On the other hand, Demme prefers to line up his characters in the center of the frame and have them look directly into the lens of the camera. As the scene cuts back and forth, the characters usually match placement and seem to be looking right at us, conveying a unique sense of urgency or poignancy.

Demme’s approach to the close-up is effective on many emotional levels, and this is largely due to the eye/lens relationship. When Dr. Hannibal Lecter hisses at Agent Clarice Starling, we feel equally victimized. As Andrew Beckett succumbs to AIDS, we feel an overwhelming sensation of sympathy. These characters seem to be looking at us, and we therefore connect on a deeper level.

Examining a Demme close-up out of context may seem like breaking the fourth wall, but within the film, Demme utilizes the shots so naturally and fluidly that we never leave the cinematic realm.

R.I.P. Jonathan Demme.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.