Jonathan Demme, who succumbed to Esophageal cancer last week at the age of 73, made some of the most beloved films of the past 30 years. Whatever your poison, he had something for you. Concert film, high velocity comedy, high tension thriller, heavy hitting drama, exploitation film, he did it all. It’s not often you find a director who can so easily ride the line between documentarian vs narrative fiction, let alone all the genres, styles and forms that Demme managed to make look easy.
He was a champion of those who needed one and those who desperately deserved one, whether that meant making Philadelphia about the AIDS epidemic right at its worst or setting to film Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray, the greatest monologist who ever lived, if you ask me. He made what is widely considered to be the greatest concert film of all time; Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads. He elevated the horror film out of its rut with The Silence of the Lambs and collected five Academy Awards in total for it, the only time a horror film ever has.
After a decade of middling success at best, directing some Roger Corman exploitation films and the critically underrated films Citizen’s Band and, my personal favourite, Melvin and Howard, Demme set out on a decade that’s near peerless for its strike rate. Beginning with 1984’s Stop Making Sense, he followed with the comedy cult classic, fitting somewhere between John Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock, Something Wild starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and a yet-to-breakout Ray Liotta.
Right after, he came out with Swimming to Cambodia. Like the Talking Heads film, Jonathan Demme went to see a performance and immediately saw something he thought needed to be caught on film. He was right too. Just like Talking Heads, there’s been no one quite like Spalding Gray. The film itself walks the line between being a documentary and being a narrative feature. If, however, I was going to say Melvin and Howard was his underrated gem of narrative film then without a second thought Swimming to Cambodia is, by a mile, his most underrated documentary.
One year later, in 1988, he sprung right to the Michelle Pfeiffer helmed comedy Married to the Mob and then, in 1991, a sharp left turn into the film that would make his career, define one of the one of the most enduring characters in cinema history, give us three career highlight performances, and one of the most unforgettable uses of music in motion pictures (Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus): His adaptation of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.
When going over Demme’s filmography like this it can be tricky to work out why exactly he never became the household name he surely deserved to be. In interviews, he’s always the biggest personality in the room, his smile always wide, enthusiasm knowing no bounds. He wasn’t against wearing track pants on the red carpet or on set, and on special occasions perhaps even breaking out a pair of Pokémon themed sweats. His films won award after award. He was beloved by the people who worked with him and worked around him.
His influence on other filmmakers too is not to be overlooked. While most people when referring to stylistic influences on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights are quick to point to the frenetic camera work and editing reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, or the ensemble sprawl reminiscent of Altman’s Nashville, to Anderson himself the biggest influence on all three of his first films was Demme, noting in particular his use of close-ups. “I’d never seen a close-up that was exactly like how it ought to look in my mind until I saw Silence of the Lambs,” he said.
I can’t take credit for the title of this article, I gutted it right from the middle of what Jodie Foster had to say about her Silence of the Lambs director’s sudden passing. Her comment in full is a better closer than anything I could possibly hope to write about the man, so here it goes: “Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and always will be a champion of the soul.”
Rest in peace, Jonathan.