On Film And Stage, Jonathan Demme Looked Into The Heart Of The Song
Since Jonathan Demme's passing on Wednesday, we've been thinking about how much music infused the director's work – not just Stop Making Sense and his other concert films, but also the music moments in his narrative films (Something Wild, Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married, Ricki And The Flash). To that end, we reached out to a few musicians who worked with him or were simply fans to share the moments that connected them to his work, how Demme understood music's movement on film, or just a loving memory.
Glenn Mercer (The Feelies)
What I admire most about his work is that he was confident enough to be adventurous, willing to try things out of "left field," and he had the ability to trust his instincts. Having The Feelies appear as the entertainment at a high school reunion [in Something Wild] shouldn't make sense, but he had the vision to see how it would work. Our scenes are crucial to the film's arc — the whole tone of the movie turns at that point, and he was able to envision how the various songs would help carry the audience through those mood shifts. And he coordinated everything in such a brilliant way that it always seemed effortless. He radiated so much enthusiasm that it inspired us to try something out of our usual comfort zone and to put our faith in his unique vision.
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club)
There was a buzz going around about Jonathan Demme's outstanding film, Melvin and Howard. Talking Heads were staying at the Kensington Hilton London, in 1981, when we finally saw it for the first time in our hotel room. Based on the true story of Howard Hughes and the good Samaritan who rescued him after a near-fatal motorcycle accident in the Nevada desert, it had a wonderful cast who played with such charming poignancy that you knew you were seeing tragicomedy being reinvented. Even the music was in a style that you didn't know whether to laugh or feel sorry. Such was the song that's since become a Christmas perennial, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." We loved it so much we would go on to thoroughly enjoy and admire every film he would make.
In 1983, Talking Heads had arranged a tour of the United States that was a far more ambitious production than we'd done before. We thought we ought to film it for the archives. Jonathan came to see us early on in the tour. He introduced himself backstage, saying he felt the show would make an excellent film. As a great lover of music as well as a great storyteller, he was really excited to find that our production flowed as a narrative, which was atypical of other rock concerts.
Not surprisingly, we all liked Jonathan from the get go, discovering the contagion of his unique joie de vivre that matched his massive creative talent. He didn't so much work for us as completely with us. Since Talking Heads decided to pay for the film ourselves, we had the creative freedom to do it our way. Jonathan was the perfect catalyst on our team to make that happen.
It was decided to shoot the film over three nights in December of 1983 at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, a long way from CBGBs! A huge music fan, Jonathan understood what we were asking when we said we wished the camera to act as a sensitive eye for the viewer without the imposition of a self-conscious camera that draws attention to the shot itself. Most important, he was sensitive to the fact that each musician had as much excitement to bring to the screen as to the music.
Jonathan was passionate about his work. He used the highest standards of technology available. He got the smartest crew, from lighting to camera placement, right down to the editing. Instead of aiming cameras to bounce around to create an artificial sense of excitement, he agreed to feature our performance with nuanced slow cuts that allowed our music to tell an uplifting story without the use of cornball gimmicks. He really got it when we told him we wanted the concert to speak for itself without the insertion of interviews with our band.
Throughout the shooting and the editing that followed, Jonathan made certain that the viewer might visually enjoy the quirkiness and intensity that each band member brought to the stage without ever losing focus on the central dynamic, which made for a better story than, say, closeups on keyboard fingering. We very much appreciated that he gave women in the band and on the crew the same respect as the men. It was this sort of thoughtfulness in his direction that amplified his loveliness and brought out the best in all of us. Aiming to make a concert film for the ages, he chose our band as the one for it, making us happy and proud to be part of our film. We will remain forever grateful for what he achieved with Stop Making Sense. We love him still and we always will.
JD understood how to shoot music on film, which is why he wanted us all to play and sing live in Ricki And The Flash. Musicians really playing and singing looks different on film than lip syncing and miming, no matter how well the lip sync and mime is done. There is excitement when musicians connect in a live setting that Jonathan totally understood. At the end of a musical number he would come dancing out onto the set, as turned on by the music as anyone. He was a man who loved music with his whole heart and soul.
A scene I was having difficulty with (in RATF) — and finally nailed after his words of encouragement and guidance — was greeted with a war whoop from JD out by the monitors that I'll never forget. He was patient with my screw ups and incredibly supportive when he thought I did well. I also loved that he brought family and his dogs with him and made the set feel like a warm, comfortable and safe place to be. A beautiful human being.
Jonathan Demme understood how to capture music on film in a way that kept the heart and the energy intact. He made incredible movies including Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, which will define filmmaking forever, but he had a musicality to him, too. You can see it in the rhythm and the flow of his work.
I have already said that I learned so much watching him work when he shot our show in Wildwood, New Jersey, about songs I already knew... He looked into the songs, but also the heart of how we played them. He cut our set in a way that took the tension and energy, added mystery and intimacy, and captured that hot night in Wildwood as the essence of what we try to do every time we hit a stage.
He so loved music, where it came from and how it brought life across in the songs. That really struck me for someone so accomplished. You know? And as someone who loves to get out onstage and play, feel those songs pouring out, his love for how music looks when it's being played live has stayed with me.
Tunde Adebimpe (TV On The Radio)
He loved music entirely. He had an intense love for people and things that connect people across perceived boundaries and he saw and felt music for the ground floor human connector that it is. You have friends who get excited about a song or a band or performance and will talk to you obsessively about how they're the best thing in the world, and Jonathan was that times a billion. The wedding scenes in Rachel Getting Married were populated with musicians who were supposed to have been friends of my character Sidney's, who was a record producer, but Fab Five Freddy, Cyro Baptista, Sister Carol East, Donald Harrison Jr. and Robyn Hitchcock are all artists that Jonathan had collaborated with on other projects through the years. It was being in the middle of a mixtape he made you. He was genuine fan, and luckily for us, a master artist who was able to translate the specifics of what he saw and heard and fell in love with into pieces for the world to enjoy.
I remember my audition for Rachel Getting Married. I was told that I was going in to read with the casting director, and when I got there, it wasn't just the casting director, it was Jonathan, it was the producers, it was a whole bunch of people sitting around a very long table. It was not what I was expecting. Tense. Jonathan asked me to sit down next to him and he was beaming, he said some incredibly nice things about TV On The Radio, and then started asking me about where I grew up, and what I was listening to, and we started talking about King Sunny Ade and juju music and about 70's punk, about art — he just went on and on, and it really seemed like we were the only two people in the room.
I'd almost forgotten why I was there, when he said, "Well man, so great to meet you and hang, let's stay in touch about all this!" Someone said something about maybe scheduling another time to read with someone who'd already been cast, and I went on my way. Probably two or so weeks went by, no call, but I was just so happy to have met this person who's work I'd admired for so long, and have them be so cool, that I kind of put it out of my mind. Pretty soon after that I was walking to band practice, and an unknown number popped up:
" It's Jonathan!"
"Hey! You got it, pal! You got the part!"
"Oh cool, thanks!"
"Yeah buddy! See you in a week!"
Directors don't usually call you to tell you you got something, they have someone to do that. Also, I don't know that he knew whether I could particularly act or not, I hadn't read for or with anyone. So, this man, who had pretty much zero reason to do so, called me and invited me to be a part of this special thing. We called each other a bunch in the eight years after working together and talked about music and art and life, and it was he was always on fire, inspired and inspiring. A brilliant, interested, humble, endlessly enthusiastic, deeply human being who felt that every person and situation he focused his attention on was incredibly special, and he couldn't wait to show that special-ness to the world.
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