In praise of Jonathan Demme's soulful cinema

Jonathan Demme was the maker of compassionate cinema full of interesting faces and funky music; in August, Glasgow Film pays tribute to Demme in the cinema's ongoing CineMasters series. Here's what made the director, who died in April, so special

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 27 Jul 2017

When the great American filmmaker Jonathan Demme died back in April at the age of 73, everyone who ever worked with him was in agreement: he was a good guy. Roger Corman, the B-movie giant who gave Demme his start in the business, said that “his greatness as a filmmaker is only exceeded by his greatness as a human being.” You didn’t have to meet Demme in the flesh to come to this conclusion, however. All you have to do is watch one of his movies; the compassion radiates from the screen, even when he was making films about serial killers (Silence of the Lambs), escaped convicts (Caged Heat) or new wave rock bands (Stop Making Sense).

Demme had been working as a publicist when Corman brought him under his wing in the early 70s to churn out cheapies at the recently formed New World Pictures. Demme wasn’t the first young talent to get a break from Corman. The likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich had also cut their teeth with him at his previous company American International Pictures, while filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Ron Howard would go on to make work at New World.

It’s notable, however, that these ambitious young filmmakers tended to cut and run after just one exploitation flick, to make more personal projects. But Demme stuck around longer than most, making three scuzzy but vivid pictures for his mentor (women-in-prison yarn Caged Heat, breakneck gangster movie Crazy Mama and Peter Fonda revenge thriller Fighting Mad). Demme would go on to make more reputable movies, but Corman’s punky and pragmatic approach to filmmaking stayed with him.

One Corman tip was particularly influential, Demme told The Onion’s Scott Tobias. “He gave you kind of a visual credo: the importance of imaginative editing and imaginative camerawork in order to keep the eye involved, because if you lose the viewer's eye, you're going to lose the viewer's interest.”

No one could lose interest in a Demme image, which tended to be shot by his favourite cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto. Sometimes the visual style was handheld and scrappy, as in expressive family drama Rachel Getting Married, which looks more like a beautiful home movie than a studio feature. In others, like Demme’s most celebrated film Silence of the Lambs, the camera movements are as silky and precise as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, but with none of his chill. In both modes, the freewheeling and classical, it felt like the images were welcoming us into his world.

Demme and Fujimoto’s signature shot – the subjective close-up, where a character addresses the other person in a scene while staring straight into the lens – does just that. It’s a rarely deployed piece of film grammar, thanks to its disruptive, fourth wall-smashing qualities. But Demme employs the technique to quite the opposite effect: he uses it to create intimacy. “You want the audience to be in the character’s shoes,” he told Paul Thomas Anderson at an Austin Film Festival on-stage event, “because I’m working on the premise that the more deep in the character’s shoes the audience is, the more they’re going to care what’s happening to them.”

The subjective close-up is what gives the encounters between Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Hopkins’ Lecter in Silence of the Lambs such power. They share barely ten minutes together on screen, but so intense are their conversations, and so close is the camera to the actors’ faces, that it feels half the movie is just them talking. The technique can work to more whimsical effects too, such as in Demme’s delightfully ditzy farce Married to the Mob, in which we come face-to-face with a succession of ridiculous mafios characters and their big-haired wives, or to ramp up tension like in Demme’s feverish remake of The Manchurian Candidate

Subjective close-ups are perhaps most effectively used by Demme, however, in his heartfelt AIDS drama Philadelphia, where their generous deployment turn us into vessels for its characters' bubbling emotions. It follows Tom Hanks as Andy Beckett, a hotshot young lawyer wrongfully dismissed from his firm when its partners (headed by Jason Robards) discover he has the disease, which was still barely understood by the general populace on the film's release in 1993. By placing us in Andy’s shoes, we’re direct witness to the looks of revulsion, fear and ultimately compassion that the character experiences throughout the movie.

Perhaps Demme’s love for this technique stems from his love of people and their faces. “I can't think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you,” wrote Pauline Kael in her astute review of Demme's 1986 comedy-thriller Something Wild. “Each time a new face appears, it's looked at with such absorption and delight that you almost think the movie will flit off and tell this person's story.”

This attention to minor characters was another maxim drummed into Demme at New World: “[Corman] stressed the importance of having as many characters as possible that are in every way just as interesting as your main characters, even if they get less screen time,” said Demme. In Something Wild, his very finest film, Demme takes Corman’s dictum to the extreme.

It’s a screwball road movie (at least it begins that way) following straight-laced New York yuppie Charlie (Jeff Daniels), who gets swept up by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) – a charismatic bohemian with a Louise Brooks bob – for a wild weekend out of the city. As the odd-couple drive across the American landscape, Demme keeps pausing the joyride for some delightful brief encounters. We meet helpful gas station attendants, young choir singers, angry chefs, sweet waitresses, bored teenagers, and two delightful old ladies who run the thrift shop where Lulu gives Charlie a makeover. Each one leaves an impression.

Something Wild also displays Demme’s love for Americana and the textures of everyday life. His films, particularly the early ones, are riots of colour and kitsch, and all the costumes and props – from Michelle Pfeiffer’s garish earrings in Married to the Mod to the standing lamp that David Byrne dances with in Stop Making Sense – look like they might have come from that same thrift-store where Lulu takes Charlie shopping. This thrown-together, 'let’s put on a show' quality adds to the feeling of community in Demme’s films.

Shortly after the filmmaker’s death, Jodie Foster, his star in Silence of the Lambs, talked about the joyous atmosphere Demme would create on set. “We all had smiles on our faces,” she told NPR, “not just the actors that he worked with over and over again, but lots of crewmembers, his prop master who's done a thousand films with him. All of us are completely devoted to Jonathan because it really was this family that he championed. He put a lot of faith in people.”

Music is never far away in a Jonathan Demme movie either – he once said “music was my first love; movies came second.” It blares from car radios and speakers, and his characters love to dance, to get lost in the music.

He loved musicians too. If he wasn’t collaborating with them (John Cale, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Bruce Springsteen are among those who’ve written music especially for him), they would invariably turn up in his movies: Rachel Getting Married has enough musicians in the cast (Tunde Adebimpe, Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol, Donald Harrison, Cyro Baptista, Angela McCluskey, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson) to hold a day-long festival.

And of course he was a genius at capturing live music performances. He directed ecstatic concert docs for Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock), Neil Young (Heart of Gold, Trunk Show, Journeys) and Justin Timberlake (Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids), which he made with the same wit, compassion and visual imagination as his narrative features. Best of the lot, and probably the best concert doc of all time, is his Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense.

Filmed in 1984 while Demme was having a rough time on studio project Swing Shift, it’s a film full of creativity that takes clear joy in showing David Byrne and his band performing their art. It begins with Byrne alone on an empty stage with a guitar and a boombox singing Psycho Killer, and with each subsequent track an element is added on stage – a new band member, a new instrument, a new stage prop – until a full, riotous party is taking place.

Stop Making Sense redefined how we look at musical performance on film. There are no backstage interviews and the concert audience are unseen until the band’s encore. By stripping these extraneous elements away, Demme makes it feel like Byrne and his crew are putting on the show live, just for us.

While Demme emerged during American cinema’s renaissance in the 1970s, alongside the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and George Lucus, he’s rarely included in the New Hollywood conversation. When Peter Biskind wrote Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his romanticised and exhaustive account of this generation of filmmakers, he failed to give Demme a call, and most other accounts of New Hollywood leave him as a footnote at best.

This omission can’t be because of quality. Demme’s 70s films like Last Embrace, Citizen’s Band and Melvin and Howard can stand shoulder to shoulder with any by his contemporaries. Maybe it’s the circuitous path his career took? He’s veered from slice-of-life dramas, to documentaries, to screwball comedies, to horror pictures – perhaps Demme's sheer eclecticism has curbed his auteur status.

Or perhaps it’s pure sexism. Unlike the boys’ club members celebrated by Biskind, Demme was as interested in female protagonists as he was in male ones. Ask actors like Jodie Foster, Melanie Griffith, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard, Philadelphia), Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) and Thandie Newton (Beloved, The Truth About Charlie) what they thought of Demme and they’re likely to tell you he gave them one of the roles of their career.

Whatever the reason for Demme being unjustly underrated over the years, there’s a sense the tide is turning. The outpouring of praise following his death gave film fans a whole list of lesser-known films to seek out (masterpieces like Citizen's Band, Melvin and Howard and Beloved seem particularly underseen). Glasgow Film, meanwhile, will this month anoint Demme one of its CineMasters.

As part of the series, Glasgow film fans have an opportunity to catch four of Demme’s finest films on the big screen, starting with that euphoric Talking Heads concert Stop Making Sense – it’s a film that must be seen with an audience (6 & 9 Aug). Then there’s Something Wild on 35mm (13 & 15 Aug), which will be preceded by an introduction from The Skinny.

This is followed by the deeply moving Philadelphia (20 & 22 Aug); be sure to be in your seat early for this one – its opening sequence set to Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia is stunning. The season rounds off with the vivid and spiky family drama Rachel Getting Married (27 & 29 Aug). Take a look at Glasgow Film's trailer for the season below and pick up your tickets over at – it's a perfect introduction to Demme’s compassionate and vital filmmaking.

Jonathan Demme: CineMasters, GFT, 6-29 Aug
The Skinny's Film editor, Jamie Dunn, will introduce the screening of Something Wild on Sun 13 Aug. Buy tickets here