Great artistes are, by their very nature, fundamentally curious. And, by that account, American filmmaker Jonathan Demme – who died, aged 73, from complications of esophageal cancer – was indeed great, for his curiosity knew no bounds. In a career spanning more than four decades, Demme made 18 fictional features and 15 documentaries, besides directing a slew of episodes for many TV series, including the 2017 American drama Shots Fired, whose sixth episode, helmed by the filmmaker, aired on the day of his death.
Besides his limitless curiosity, Demme will be most fondly remembered for his unflinching commitment to cinema, right till the very end. Even with his cancer resurfacing in 2015, Demme didn’t stop working, didn’t dim his love for the movies. At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Demme was in the audience, watching Moonlight. After the film got over, during the Q&A, he waved his hand frantically, wanting to ask a question. When he was chosen randomly, he inquired about the film’s sound design, without introducing himself. It took the moderator, festival director Cameron Bailey, a few seconds to place that the questioner was Demme.
Demme’s excitement about Moonlight, a film about a gay African American boy, was perhaps understandable – more than two decades ago, his 1993 drama Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream depictions of homosexuality in Hollywood. A massive success, Philadelphia was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two – best actor (Tom Hanks) and best original song (Bruce Springsteen).
Music was central to Demme’s filmography, who was known for making several concert films, including the celebrated 1984 documentary Stop Making Sense, centred on a live performance by American rock band Talking Heads. In the subsequent years, he made six more documentaries on different musicians, including his last directorial effort, the 2016 Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. In his early twenties, Demme wrote rock music reviews for the Boston newspaper Fusion, and decades later, in a 2012 Rolling Stones interview, said, “Shooting live music is the most purely cinematic thing you can do. Ideally, the cinema is becoming one with the music. There is little artifice involved.”
Born in Baldwin (New York), bred in Miami, Demme enrolled at the University of Florida, wanting to become a veterinarian. His interest in science, however, soon dwindled and after graduation he veered towards the arts, working for the acclaimed independent producer Roger Corman, who later financed his debut feature, the 1974 exploitation film Caged Heat. Demme’s initial films, Handle With Care and Melvin and Howard, got limited theatrical release but wide critical acclaim. However, he broke into the big league a decade later with The Silence of the Lambs, which won Demme an Oscar for best director – and won the top five Oscars (best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best actress), becoming only the third film to do so. He followed that up with Philadelphia. Since then, Demme, true to his style, directed six films, spanning different genres: horror (Beloved, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel), mystery (The Truth About Charlie), political thriller (The Manchurian Candidate), dramas (Rachel Getting Married, which opened the 65th Venice International Film Festival and won Anne Hathaway an Academy Award nomination for best actress, and A Master Builder, an adaptation of an acclaimed play) and comedy-drama (Ricki and the Flash).
Demme’s works inspired several filmmakers and writers. His 1986 quirky comedy, Something Wild, which had shades of film noir, inspired Bret Easton Ellis to write American Psycho, which itself became an acclaimed film years later. When filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was asked, “Which three directors influenced you the most?” He replied, “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme.” Anderson, in director’s commentary for Boogie Nights, called Demme the “greatest influence style-wise” – especially his use of close-up shots, where characters look directly into the camera, usually preceded or followed by their points of view, planting the audiences deep into a scene. Wes Anderson, too, has cited Demme as a major influence, calling his close-ups as “just shy of a Jonathan Demme.”
With an eclectic body of work that recognised no boundaries and an incredible curiosity to create, Demme’s demise has been a profound loss for American cinema.