Jonathan Demme, who died at age 73, was best known for his Oscar-winning 1991 film Silence of the Lambs, the 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia, and off-beat ’80s comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob. But Demme also had an extensive list of musical collaborations over this 30-plus year career behind the camera, including landmark efforts for Talking Heads and visually arresting videos and documentaries for everyone from Justin Timberlake and Neil Young to New Order, Robyn Hitchcock and Bruce Springsteen.
After years of toiling in Hollywood working on b-movies such as Caged Heat, Black Mama White Mama and Fighting Mad, Demme moved from comedies such as Melvin and Howard and Swing Shift to what is still considered one of the most important, pioneering concert films of all time.
With 1984’s Stop Making Sense Demme captured the ultimate visual manifestation of the punk/new wave group’s quirky sensibility, from the Kurbrickian opening credits to the gradual filling of the bare Pantages Theater stage with members of the group and the decision to shoot most of it from afar, which gave singer David Byrne’s enormous suit an even more conspicuous, exaggerated edge. Critics have long hailed it as one of the best, most important concert films of all time, a designation that surely resulted in other musicians seeking Demme out over the next three decades.
In the following year Demme dove into making music videos, directing clips for UB40’s cover of “I Got You Babe,” co-directing the all-star anti-apartheid “Sun City” and the stark live visual for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss.”
In addition to directing Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to take on AIDS/HIV, Demme teamed up with his nephew director/Yo! MTV Raps producer Ted Demme to direct the pensive 1994 video for Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia,” then reconnected with The Boss a year later to help the moodily lit video for the Boss’ “Murder Incorporated.”
In 1998 he returned to the music documentary genre with another oddball entry, a performance-based film on loveable English singer/songwriter eccentric Robyn Hitchcock, Storefront Hitchcock — which as the title suggests, found the musician sitting in an abandoned New York storefront, playing his songs and telling winding stories in between as city life streamed by outside.
Demme began a trilogy of music docs featuring Young in 2006 with Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where Young premiered the songs from his acoustic Prairie Wind album. That was followed in 2009 by the more rock-oriented Neil Young Trunk Show, which mixed footage of Young backstage in unguarded moments with what Demme liked to say was one of the longest sequences in a rock doc, a 20-plus minute version of “No Hidden Path.”
He wrapped the collaboration with 2011’s Neil Young Journeys, in which the Canadian rocker returned to his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to take a trip through his past on his way to playing a show at the legendary Massey Hall in Toronto.
Moving out of the rock world, the director dipped into country a year later when he directed an American Express UNSTAGED special for Kenny Chesney that captured the singer’s June 2012 show at Wildwood Beach, New Jersey. That same year he tempered his more commercial efforts with a left-field doc, Enzo Avitabile Music Life, which followed the little-known Italian musician as he assembled a group of international players for an exploration of world music.
Music never really left Demme’s heart, even if some of his efforts were less well-received than others. For example, his 2015 comedy Ricki and the Flash starred Oscar perennial Meryl Streep as a woman who abandons her family to live out her rock star dreams. While Streep was, as usual, captivating to watch as she dove into the role alongside daughter Mamie Gummer and a pleasantly great Rick Springfield as part of her band, the movie didn’t fare well at the box office.
One of Demme’s final projects was the 2016 doc Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, a relatively straightforward, beautifully shot concert film chronicling JT’s smash tour in support of his 20/20 Experience albums.