The film community is mourning the loss of Jonathan Demme. Over the last four decades, he turned in one of the most varied filmographies of any director in Hollywood, constantly reinventing himself behind each comedy, documentary, drama, and TV show. Demme never made the same movie twice, and cinema was all the better for it.
As tributes continue to come in from collaborators and fans, here’s IndieWire’s own appreciation of Demme and why we’ll remember him as one of the truly great filmmakers of our time.
Demme Defied Categorization
Jonathan Demme had such a remarkable range that he defied easy categorization. Even as he made beloved documentaries and Oscar-winning movies, I still get the sense that his career was underappreciated. Everyone knows “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” and “Stop Making Sense,” but less widely acknowledged efforts such as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains” demonstrated a masterful awareness of the movies as a layered artform able to convey many meanings at once. Every Demme film is a political statement and an intimate portrait of fragile humanity. (Seriously. Go through his movies and find one that doesn’t fulfill that description.)
Demme was also a great advocate of film culture. His Jacob Burns Film Center was a beacon for movie lovers who lived outside New York City, and its programming owed much to his broad sensibilities — as did its popular filmmakers-in-residence program. He also excelled at supporting new directing talent, recently showing vocal support for filmmakers including Barry Jenkins and Brady Corbet. Anyone regularly attending New York events got used to seeing Demme around, shooting the shit, talking movies. He was one of us, but also left us all in awe. On a certain level, my favorite Demme movie is Demme himself, a man who lived as cinematically as the work he created.
So… having said all of that, what’s my favorite Jonathan Demme film? I’m going to have to go with “Something Wild.” It’s a brilliant combination of the road movie with the dynamics of a screwball comedy, a New Wave-inspired crime caper, and a tremendous showcase for Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, both never better. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American romcom in today’s market on its level. But that’s no surprise — it’s a Jonathan Demme movie! – Eric Kohn
His Films Were Weird in the Best Way Possible
Jonathan Demme’s movies felt weird, in the best way possible. There’s nothing self-consciously odd in his visual compositions, which made the sensation even odder. As a high school senior in Fort Worth, Texas, “Stop Making Sense” intimidated and electrified as it introduced me to a monochromatic Talking Heads that was so much more visceral than the band’s candy-colored “Little Creatures” music videos then in heavy rotation on MTV. Of course, Demme was wholly capable of creating his own color in films like “Something Wild,” “Married to the Mob,” and “Silence of the Lambs,” and while only “Lambs” was a horror movie, they all shared a sense of unease that was hard to identify — which made them that more alluring. As for Demme himself, he was a cheerful and low-key presence that suggested a cineaste Mister Rogers. A fixture at SXSW, he always made an appearance at the Austin Film Society’s annual Hall of Fame fundraiser that precedes the festival — and back in 2004, his presence also helped me make a case to Variety as to why they should cover this funny little festival in the middle of Texas. Dammit, we lost a great one. – Dana Harris
Demme’s Use of Music Was Incomparable
Demme’s career will forever be linked with the musical performances he captured — “Stop Making Sense” might be his masterpiece, but it’s this quiet wedding song from “Rachel Getting Married” that will always be the one moment from the director’s work that I’ll think of most. A simple song of appreciation, the incomparable Tunde Adebimpe’s performance of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” prefaced with the most romantic expression of gratitude: “Thank you for marrying me.” The way Demme films the wedding guests, each looking at this pure expression of love, you can see each person’s relationship to the happy couple in the center, just in their glances. Even for a scene like this, where everyone can bring their personal experiences of similar joyful ceremonies, it takes a talented filmmaker to make an entire crowd of actors feel like they’re each invested in a story the same way that they would be at a large family gathering. He’s the wedding videographer every newlywed wishes they could have had, conveying in two short minutes what most storytellers never fully capture in a lifetime. – Steve Greene