Jonathan Demme always kept one foot in the music world throughout his incredible film career, whether directing live concert films for Talking Heads, making documentaries about Neil Young, or just giving Bruce Springsteen a platform for Oscar-winning hits.
He also had a brief stint in the mid-’80s — as his career as a feature-film auteur was starting to take off — as an MTV fixture helming the visual for UB40 and Chrissie Hynde’s hit “I Got You Babe” cover and co-directing the famous Artists United Against Apartheid protest video for “Sun City.” But the video of his that leaves the most lasting impression was a slightly lesser-seen clip for U.K. new wave paragons New Order: An 11-minute live short of them performing their 1985 single “The Perfect Kiss.”
The video was an odd one for New Order, primarily in how un-idiosyncratic it was. The majority of New Order’s ’80s videos were propelled either by unconventional narratives (the slasher flick / love story hybrid of “Touched By the Hand of God,” or the New York club-night character study of “Confusion”) or modern-art melanges (the heavy-handed costuming and choreography of “True Faith,” or the stop-animated doodling of “Blue Monday ’88”), but “The Perfect Kiss” was simply the quartet, in a room, playing their song. And despite the verité-ish framing of Demme’s video, it actually might have been the band’s most arresting visual ever.
Live videos are traditionally geared to glamorize the artists and bands they film, to capture them at the peak of their live powers and generally make them seem like superstars. “The Perfect Kiss” has no such illusions or ambitions. It captures an extremely apprehensive-looking New Order performing in exceedingly workmanlike fashion, without an audience to hype or anything but the camera to impress (beyond a couple blurry figures silently observing from a room over). Singer Bernard Sumner’s voice sounds pinched on the verses, and a little flat. Some of the synth riffing feels off. It is, somewhat ironically, a rather imperfect rendition of the epic synth-pop single.
And for the entire video, New Order seem stressed. The video captures just what a difficult, nerve-wracking experience playing live is — particularly for a band like New Order, performing compositions that are half programmed and half live instrumentation, where there are so many different hooks and rhythmic elements shooting off that bassist Peter Hook has to trade in his four-string for some sticks halfway through to knock out the drum-pad blasts on the song’s bridge. Throughout the video, Demme captures the performers in close-up — both of their facial expressions as they concentrate on the parts they’re playing (or prepping for what comes next) and on their fingers as they perform the actual work of producing the music — creating an uncomfortable intimacy that feels less like witnessing a great band at work than eavesdropping on a co-worker’s conversation from another cubicle.
What all of this serves to do, though, is to make the band seem profoundly human. Seeing Sumner psyching himself up at the mic before his initial entrance, or seeing the look of dogged concentration on Hook’s face (through mouth-gripped pick) as he slaps out the song’s intro, as the band collectively produces this gorgeous, explosive synth-pop symphony… there’s an exquisitely powerful rawness to the whole experience, something sweated and bled and earned. When the performance ends, and the band’s four members are given one last individual glance from the camera, it’s not triumph, exhilaration, or even relief on their faces — it’s exhaustion, anxiety and the sense of an emotional toll being taken on them that only the people in that room could truly understand.
Undoubtedly contributing to the moment’s psychic fatigue is the fact that “The Perfect Kiss” was already one of the band’s most personally felt anthems, alternately life-affirming (“I know, you know/ We believe in the land of love”) and fatalistic (“Now I know the perfect kiss/ Is the kiss of death”) and sometimes both simultaneously (“Pretending not to see his gun/ I said, ‘Let’s go out and have some fun!“) It’s been interpreted to be about everything from the AIDS epidemic to the suicide of the band’s former lead singer Ian Curtis, and while Sumner has never confirmed either, the presence of a poster for Joy Division — the band’s Curtis-era incarnation — looms like an apparition in the background, casting an extra pall over the proceedings.
Demme’s aptitude for unshowy visual flair and visceral understanding of music and the artists who make it probably could have allowed him to become one of the great music video directors, if his feature filmmaking success hadn’t captured most of his time and success. But while he only shot a handful of videos in his career, through his Stop Making Sense film and through the “Perfect Kiss” video, he helped expand the art form to capture bands not just as they want to be seen, but as they actually are, with results far more electrifying than the average stadium-rock glam fest.