Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jonathan Demme Passes On

Jonathan Demme, who directed such feature films as Something Wild (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), as well as such documentaries Stop Making Sense (1984) and Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), died yesterday, April 26 2017 at the age of 73.  The cause was complications from oesophageal cancer and heart disease.

Jonathan Demme was born in Baldwin, New York on Long Island on February 22 1944. He spent much of his childhood in Rockville Centre. The family later moved to Miami, Florida, where Jonathan Demme attended high school. As a teenager he worked at a kennel and an animal hospital. He attended the University of Florida with plans to become a veterinarian. He changed his mind after he failed chemistry and became the movie critic for the university newspaper. He also became the movie critic for a shopping guide in Coral Gables, Florida.

It was a review for the film Zulu (1964), published in that Coral Gables shopping guide, that would lead to Mr. Demme's career in film.  Embassy Pictures Corporation distributed Zulu in the United States. Embassy Pictures founder Joseph E. Levine was staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, where Jonathan Demme's father Robert Demme was the publicist. Robert Demme introduced his son to Joseph E. Levine. Mr. Levine, having been impressed by Jonathan Demme's review of Zulu, gave him a job. Jonathan Demme worked in the publicity department of Embassy Pictures and in various other publicity departments in the film industry before moving to London in 1969.  It was in London that he got his first credit on a film, as music coordinator on Sudden Terror in 1970.

The Seventies saw Jonathan Demme credited as a publicist on Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), as well as a credit for directing the opening sequence to Naughty Wives (1973).  He wrote several screenplays during the decade, including Angels Hard as They Come (1971), Rio Tigre (1972), Black Mama White Mama (1973), Caged Heat (1974), and Fighting Mad (1976).  He also served as a producer on Angels Hard as They Come (1971) and The Hot Box (1972).  He made his directorial debut with Caged Heat (1974). In the Seventies he directed the films Crazy Mama (1975), Fighting Mad (1976), Handle with Care (1977), Last Embrace (1979), and Melvin and Howard (1980). He directed a 1978 episode of Columbo.

The Eighties saw Jonathan Demme direct the films Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), and Married to the Mob (1988). It was with the classic 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense that Jonathan Demme began making documentaries. During the Eighties he would follow it with the documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. He also directed episodes of the TV shows Saturday Night Live and Trying Times, as well as music videos for UB40 & Chrissie Hynde and New Order.

In the Nineties Jonathan Demme directed the feature films The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998).  He also directed the documentaries Cousin Bobby (1992), The Complex Sessions (1994), and Storefront Hitchcock (1998).

In the Naughts Mr. Demme directed the feature films The Truth About Charlie (2002), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and Rachel Getting Married (2008). He also wrote the screenplay for The Truth About Charlie (2002). He directed the documentaries The Agronomist (2003), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), Jimmy Carter Man from Plains (2007), and Neil Young Trunk Show (2009). He directed the documentary TV series Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward.

In the Teens Jonathan Demme directed the feature films A Master Builder (2013) and Ricki and the Flash (2015). He directed the documentaries  Neil Young Journeys (2012), Enzo Avitabile Music Life (2012), What's Motivating Hayes (2015), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).  He directed episodes of the TV shows A Gifted Man, Enlightened, and Shots Fired. He directed episodes of the documentary TV shows P.O.V. and The New Yorker Presents.

Jonathan Demme was certainly a versatile director. He directed a wide range of different sorts of movies, from romantic period pieces (Swing Shift) to comedies (Married to the Mob) to horror movies (The Silence of the Lambs). In fact, while he may have been best known for the critically acclaimed films he made later in his career (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married), I think I actually preferred some of his earlier work. Films like Melvin and Howard and Something Wild were unlike anything else being made at the time. They were idiosyncratic in ways that much of his later, more commercial work was not.

Of course, in some respects I think Jonathan Demme may have been a better documentarian than he was a feature film director (and he was a very good feature film director).  Stop Making Sense numbers among the greatest concert films ever made. Cousin Bobby is a touching film exploring the mission and memories of Jonathan Demme's cousin the Rev. Robert Castle, an Episcopalian minister in Harlem. I'm Carolyn Parker centred on Carolyn Parker, the last woman to leave her New Orleans neighbourhood as Hurricane Katrina approached and the first one who returned to her neighbourhood. Mr. Demme was indeed very good at directing feature films, but I think that he could easily have made a living making only documentaries. When it came to film in many respects Jonathan Demme was a jack of all trades, although he was a master of most of them. He was equally at home making comedies, horror films, and documentaries.

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