Jonathan Demme Was a Music Titan

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Jonathan Demme Was a Music Titan

You didn’t need to watch Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 concert film, to know that director Jonathan Demme was a huge music fan. From his earliest feature films to his video work with artists like Bruce Springsteen, New Order and The Feelies, it was always clear that the Oscar-winning filmmaker, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 73, was a master at marrying images and music.

It goes beyond the way Demme populated the backgrounds of his many feature films with some of his favorite artists, like Chris Isaak, reggae singer Sister Carol and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio. Think about the closing sequence of 1993’s AIDS parable Philadelphia, where Demme added dramatic weight to the funeral of lawyer Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) with Neil Young’s heartbreaking titular ballad. (He also directed Springsteen’s video for the Oscar-winning song, “Streets of Philadelphia.”) Or how, in Silence of the Lambs, he quietly injected post-punk creepers—like Colin Newman’s “Alone” and The Fall’s “Hip Priest.”—into the scenes set in Buffalo Bill’s underground murder dungeon.

Demme’s deep love and appreciation for music naturally is most evident in the work he did with bands and artists of all stripes. Though best known for the sweep and vibrancy he helped bring to Stop Making Sense, his awe at the power of great songs and curiosity about the machinations needed to perform them shone through regardless of the artist, whether it was UB40 or Justin Timberlake.

In honor of Demme’s life and peerless work behind the camera, here’s a look at some of his greatest musical contributions.

1. Stop Making Sense (1984)
This 1984 document of the Talking Heads’ tour in support of their biggest album to date (Speaking in Tongues) is remembered largely for its fantastic live performances, captured by Demme and his crew, including Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. But it was Demme’s gambit to embrace the artifice of what he was filming in ways that elevated it from a mere concert document to an artistic statement. There was no hiding the fact that the tape player “used” by David Byrne to accompany him on “Psycho Killer” wasn’t miked up or amplified. And there was no way to get many of those tight closeups of Byrne and his backup singers during “What a Day That Was” without doing reshoots. Those are the things you think of after the fact, though. While you’re caught up in the grooves of “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Take Me to the River”, the perfect pacing and fluid camera moves put you right in the eye of the tornado that was the Heads’ touring band.

2. New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss” video (1985)
In Stop Making Sense, Demme supplemented David Byrne’s visual flair (like the big suit) by using the camera to stand in wonder at the band’s ability to play their instruments and combine their talents in song. A purer representation of that is this 1985 clip, which was filmed in New Order’s practice space in Manchester. Demme and cinematographer Henri Alekan (Cocteau’s Beauty & The Beast, among many others) used still camera shots focusing on the hands and faces of the four band members as they played the song live. Their complete concentration may feel odd when placed against the disco-pop groove of the song, but it helped emphasize how they wove all these simple and perfect elements together. This put the spotlight on New Order as a band, a cohesive unit at the height of its creative powers. Keep an eye out, though, for those quintessentially Demme moments, like Peter Hook staring straight into the camera after playing an electronic percussion part or the figure dancing in the background in certain shots.

3. Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
A perfect companion piece to Stop Making Sense, this humble concert film captured singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock performing live in an unused storefront. Like the Talking Heads movie, the lighting and sets change with each song, but they are done in a fashion that is appropriately arch and cheeky for the music being played. The gorgeous ballad “Airscape” is lent a dreamy air by the use of a mirrorball spinning and shooting light around Hitchcock. A lone candle appears next to him as he sets into the song “I’m Only You.” But the smartest thing Demme did was to leave every second of Hitchcock’s brilliantly meandering stage banter to serve as a reminder of the musician’s singular genius.

4. Bruce Springsteen’s “Murder Incorporated” video (1995)
Springsteen famously likes to avoid lip syncing in his music videos whenever possible. So when we do see him on camera, he’s usually singing the song live even if the track behind him is the studio recording. But for this promo clip made to promote a greatest-hits album, you actually get the full E Street Band live experience, featuring Springsteen’s raw, grinding vocal. Demme set the mood for this rocker by lighting the group from below, adding plenty of shadow and depth to the song and drawing your eyes closer into each expressive face and body.

5. Neil Young Trunk Show (2009)
Of the three documentaries Demme made with Young, this ranks as the best of the bunch because it plays up the oddball side of the Canadian singer-songwriter just as much as it does his many musical personalities. We get some unfettered access to what Young is like behind the scenes as he holds court backstage; weird touches like a man in a red suit painting away while the show goes on, and a look at the many gears that need to be in motion to make both a live show and concert film happen. There’s a meditative quality to it as well, as Demme keeps returning to the center and focusing on Young as he plays some powerful acoustic songs and then brings out Crazy Horse for a fiery electric set.

6. Enzo Avitabile Music Life (2012)
One of the more fascinating entries in Demme’s filmography was this 2012 work profiling the Italian musician Enzo Avitabile. More than any of Demme’s music-centric films, this one is constructed like a documentary, following the saxophonist to his hometown of Naples and into his cluttered apartment, and letting him discuss the various artistic paths he has wandered down. The beating heart of the film, though, is the performances that Demme captures of Avitabile playing in a centuries’ old church with an array of musicians from around the world. Under the director’s sure hand, both sides of this film fascinate and delight.

7. Kenny Chesney: Unstaged (2012)
As part of an ongoing series of live performances captured by several well-known directors, Demme was asked to helm a concert film of country superstar Kenny Chesney in 2012. On paper, it was an unusual pairing—even Justin Timberlake, with whom the director worked on a 20/20 Experience tour movie in 2015, makes more sense—but the filmmaker comported himself beautifully. Demme put as much emphasis on Chesney’s crackerjack backing band as he did the star of the show, and he knew exactly when to speed up or slow down while working within this mixture of party anthems and heartfelt balladry.

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