This week we lost one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived in Jonathan Demme. He was wildly respected by his peers, won an Oscar, created a pop culture classic, dabbled in every form of filmmaking, and yet somehow felt underrated. With few exceptions, he never strove to make grand and important movies. He always followed his passions and interests. That could be something as horrific and commercial as The Silence of the Lambs, or as small and personal as a documentary about his preacher cousin (Cousin Bobby). When his work attempted to make a statement, he never forgot to entertain. When he served up poppy froth, it always came laced with thematic depth. He made something for everyone and they were all for himself. He was playful, he was serious. He was a master. He will be missed.
Above all else, Jonathan Demme will always be remembered for his overwhelming empathy and big old heart. He loved people. His casts and crews were tribes of friends who had fun while mastering their craft. Every character who appeared in his frames felt like someone who the movie could suddenly spiral off and follow exclusively. He adored underdogs, and he questioned power structures. He was inclusionary to the oppressed long before it was trendy. He was an absolute master of his craft, yet couldn’t be more humble. There may never be another Jonathan Demme. He broke the mould and created projects that bent genres and forms to suit his interests and tickle audiences.
With no notable new releases hitting screens this week, we here at CGMagazine decided to honour the memory of the great Jonathan Demme with a humble selection of his top ten finest directorial achievements to seek out this weekend. Sure, there are iconic titles in there that you’ve likely seen, but so many of his movies were cult films that sadly shifted into obscurity over the years. If you haven’t seen any of them, watch them all. You’ll laugh, you’ll smile, you’ll be moved, and you’ll see the diverse and excitingly unique filmography that the great Jonathan Demme directed over the course of a successful forty-year career that ended too soon.
Crazy Mama (1975)
Made during Jonathan Demme’s tenure at the Roger Corman exploitation movie factory, Crazy Mama is an often unsung and forgotten gem. Cloris Leachman stars as a 50s widow who loses her business, so she packs up her family and heads on a crime spree (naturally). The production design is hilariously kitschy. The performances are delightfully hysterical. The soundtrack is goofy rock n’ roll. The tone is pure cartoonish joy. Sure, Crazy Mama is a bit sloppy at times, but it has such a relentless energy and gentle likability that it’s impossible to resist, serving as a blueprint for the colourful and eccentric crime comedies that Demme made in the 80s.
Following the controversy that Silence of the Lambs faced in the gay community, Jonathan Demme decided to use the sudden power he had in Hollywood to make the first mainstream American movie to tackle the AIDs epidemic. The tale of Tom Hanks’ unfairly fired lawyer fighting in court for his human rights can feel a bit dated these days, however, the filmmaker deliberately calibrated the movie to play for the predominantly homophobic public’s unfamiliar issues — and it worked. It was a hit big enough to open discussions and doors for future projects in this subject matter. And beyond that, the film features some spectacular performances from Hanks and Denzel Washington, beautiful songs from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, subtle technical mastery from the director, and way too many scenes guaranteed to make you cry. Philadelphia is undeniably one of the most powerful films in Demme’s filmography, if far from his most subtle.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
To remake a classic American film as beloved as The Manchurian Candidate was an insane decision by Jonathan Demme and somehow he pulled it off. Denzel Washington is brilliant as a paranoid ex-soldier who might be onto something, and Meryl Streep is even better as an evil politician/mommy. Demme executed the movie with a viscerally paranoid and suspenseful style as expected, but even better was the way the political thriller updated its focus to be about how corporations manipulate politics and elections to their will. It’s a searing indictment wrapped in a white-knuckle thriller that has aged remarkably well into our currently insane political landscape. Sure, Demme needlessly softened the ending somewhat, but what can you do? The guy was an optimist, even at his most cynical.
Caged Heat (1974)
Jonathan Demme used to chuckle whenever anyone brought up the fact that his first movie was a ‘women in prison’ cheapie made for Roger Corman. Yet, he was never ashamed because as far as cheapie ‘women in prison’ 70s exploitation movies go, Caged Heat (great title) is easily one of the best. Executed with a surprising depth of character, some welcome humour, an unexpected feminist bent (yes really), a strong sense of style for a first-time filmmaker, and all of the sex, violence, and vulgarity necessary in the gratuitous subgenre, the flick is a blast. It’s obviously a guilty pleasure, but if you have a sweet tooth for vintage exploitation movies, this is one of the best. Caged Heat is far better than it has any right to be and just as cheesy as you want it to be. Caged Heat is a damn good time.
Married To The Mob (1988)
Speaking of damn good times, there are few films as cheerfully entertaining as this 80s lark made when Demme was at his most playful. It’s a screwball romantic comedy buried within a mob movie dressed as a parody of tacky 80s excess and featuring enough quirk comedy to make Wes Anderson blush. Michelle Pfeiffer grounds it all with a surprisingly sincere performance while the likes of Joan Cusack, Mercedes Ruehl, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, and Alec Baldwin mug it up gloriously around her to the tune of a David Byrne score. Married To The Mob is far more beautifully constructed than most comedies and just as funny. It’s clear that everyone involved was having an absolute blast making this romp and it’s nearly impossible not to feel the same way watching it. It’s by far Demme’s least substantial movie, but quite possibly his most fun. So it all evens out.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
For a few years, it seemed like Jonathan Demme might have abandoned fiction films in favour of documentaries, and he certainly would tell that to anyone that would listen. Then Demme stumbled into Rachel Getting Married and made his last true masterpiece. Centered on Anne Hathaway’s messy alcoholic steamrolling through her sister’s wedding, the film easily could have descended into melodrama. Yet, Demme’s fascination and love of people in all their messiness shined through into one of his most moving and beautifully human creations. Abandoning all of his usual formal filmmaking techniques for an improvisatory exercise in shaky cam naturalism, Rachel Getting Married invites audiences to live with its characters long enough to fall in love with them. It’s nearly impossible not to feel that way by the time it’s all over. While it’s sad that Demme never quite got the freedom or a script this good again in the last nine years of his career, at least he got to make one more with feeling in the 2000s.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
It might seem strange to put Jonathan Demme’s most famous movie anywhere lower than the number one spot, but I’m trying to get people to appreciate some of Demme’s less famous creations (not to mention that the top four entries on this list are essentially interchangeable as Demme’s best). Look, you know this movie already and how well it goes down well with fava beans and a nice blah, blah, blah. Silence of the Lambs is iconic for a reason. It’s a thriller so perfectly constructed that it essentially turned the police procedural/serial killer movies into a genre in the 90s that still reverberates down to all the CSIs under the rainbow today. What the many children of Lambs lack are what only Demme could provide. A loving sense of character that made dialogue scenes between Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins the most suspenseful sequences in the movie. A masterful sense of craft that gave every scene a visceral pull. A gentle sense of humour pervades the movie in surprising ways to keep things from getting too grim. Plus, only Demme could frame it all as a feminist allegory that holds up to scrutiny, even if most people are two entertained by the obvious thrills to notice. There are few films of this genre so perfect. All the awards were deserved, even if all the parodies were necessary.
Melvin and Howard (1980)
The film that announced Jonathan Demme as a major American artist who transcended his exploitation roots is also one of the director’s strangest creations. It’s a painfully human comedy about Melvin Dummar, a man who once picked up Howard Hughes as a hitchhiker, made buddies on the drive, and then was left a substantial portion of the Hughes fortune in a mysteriously discovered will. It’s a strange story, and given that Melvin didn’t get the money, a kind of unsatisfying one as well. Yet, Demme used the oddball American tale to make one of his most deeply satisfying movies. Sure, on the surface the movie is about Melvin Dummar’s bizarre little story, but in reality it’s about so much more. This is an ode to life in all its odd, sad, strange, and unexpected forms. The tapestry of characters on display are impossible not to fall in love with long before the credits roll. You’ll want to live with these people and wish they were your friends. Frequently hilarious, often moving, and above all else truthful, Melvin and Howard is an oddball masterpiece. There’s no other movie like it.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Some might say that a concert movie can’t be ranked on the same level as a fiction film or a documentary. Those people have never seen Stop Making Sense. Jonathan Demme was so enamoured with the remarkably strange and personal show that The Talking Heads put on during their final tour that he had to film it. He broke convention by not showing the audience. He shot every song like an individual music video. He lingered on each member of the band like eccentric supporting characters in an ensemble cast. He created riveting cinema out of a live musical performance, and the film works so well that to this day when it screens theatrically, audience members are guaranteed to rise from their seats and dance like they are at a live show. There’s something special about Stop Making Sense, perhaps rooted in Demme’s deep love of music in all its forms. Despite the fact that all of his movies are filled with music, Demme never made a musical. He didn’t have to. This counts. It’s not just the greatest concert movie ever made, but possibly the greatest combination of music and film. To see it is to fall in love. Do so immediately.
Something Wild (1986)
Finally, we come to Something Wild, a wildly entertaining movie that’s almost unfair to describe to anyone who has yet to see it. Essentially, Something Wild is a love letter to everything that Jonathan Demme adores about movies. It’s a cartoonishly exaggerated romantic comedy, a vicious little thriller, a lovable exploration of the strange corners of Americana, a mix tape of some of the director’s favourite music circa 1986, an homage to the French New Wave, an exposé of the inherent violence under the surface of American culture, a lark, an art film, and pure cinema. Something Wild is the product of a filmmaker at the peak of his craft using every technique, thought, and experiment on his mind. Somehow it all comes together, and even better, is the most purely entertaining movie that the director ever made. If you haven’t seen Something Wild yet, I’m immensely jealous. This is pure cinematic magic. Not to be missed by anyone who even remotely likes movies or being entertained. Fact.