Why Jonathan Demme Was One of the Greatest Concert Movie Directors Ever
Jonathan Demme’s death at the age of 73 prompted an outpouring of online memorials from film lovers who remembered the Oscar-winning director for his varied career: everything from the chilling, intelligent thriller The Silence of the Lambs to the brittle 2008 indie drama Rachel Getting Married. But for music fans, those highlights don’t even scratch the surface of what cemented his legacy.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Demme was arguably the greatest concert filmmaker ever – look at the number of them that he made, the range of artists he chronicled and the sheer brilliance with which he shot musicians playing (and playing with each other). Many great directors have tried their hand at concert films, but few could match Demme’s skill at capturing their joy and their celebration of communal creation. Taken together, his concert docs are one of the great collective odes – not just to making music but to being alive.
Demme’s best concert movie is his first – and also a strong contender for the greatest ever made. He had seen his favorite band, the Talking Heads, play at the Hollywood Bowl in early 1983 and decided to make a movie about their tour. When he approached the group about the possibility, he was still an up-and-coming auteur, recently graduated from Roger Corman B-movies to the critical acclaim of 1980’s Melvin and Howard, which won Oscars for Mary Steenburgen and Bo Goldman’s original screenplay. The band had dug the movie and were intrigued at the prospect of collaborating with the director. As drummer Chris Frantz recalled to Rolling Stone in 2014, “Jonathan’s not that much older than we are and he was hot at the moment, at least theoretically.”
Talking Heads singer David Byrne had a vision for how the tour should be filmed, inspired by the minimalist theater pieces of Robert Wilson. The frontman and the filmmaker worked to create a new kind of concert movie – one in which the intimacy and interplay between the musicians was emphasized, not just reproducing the show but giving viewers a sense of what it was like to be up-close.
Filmed over four nights at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater, Stop Making Sense was deeply theatrical thanks to Byrne’s Kabuki-inspired flourishes and performance-art showmanship. But its high-art aspirations are beautifully complimented by Demme’s instinct that filming each individual musician would reap major rewards. And along those lines, the director decided to shove aside one of concert movies’ oldest conventions: the lame cutaway shot to the audience.
“In the cutting room we quickly discovered that there was always something far more interesting going on on stage than in the ‘best’ of our audience footage,” he told Time in 2014 about shaping Stop Making Sense. “This led to the realization that if we pulled back from showing the live audience, it made our film feel that much more specially created for our movie audience!”
No movie before Stop Making Sense had so pointedly conveyed the thrill of watching artists work together in the same space to create such dynamic, propulsive music. Demme’s cameras captured every smile and every silently exchanged look, putting the viewer right in the thick of the action. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Talking Heads were at the height of their powers – effortlessly blending punk, funk, New Wave, pop and gospel – but Stop invited us to sit back and marvel at human beings’ seemingly inexhaustible ability to perform such dazzling songs with unfiltered enthusiasm and flair. And part of the reason we soaked it in was because Demme insisted that his film eschew the gimmick of using lots of fast cuts to suggest excitement. Why not, he suggested, just let the camera linger on the artists?
As Demme told Time, “The use of extended shots instead of quick cuts is a result of my belief that there is great power available by holding on any extended terrific moment and letting the viewer become more deeply involved in the performance at hand, instead of constantly interrupting the flow with un-needed cuts. Too much cutting usually speaks to a lack of editorial confidence in the players and the music.” There’s no shortage of confidence in Stop Making Sense, which deserves to be ranked alongside Singin’ in the Rain as one of the all-time great musicals, their makers pumping happiness directly into our veins.
After that, Demme continued to bolster his feature career with quirky, comic-oddball hits like Something Wild and Married to the Mob. But he still kept a foot in the music world. In 1985, he shot the video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” utilizing the same techniques he’d incorporated in Stop Making Sense. Simply filming the band members as they perform the Low-Life track, Demme draws our attention to small details: the picking of individual guitar strings, the tapping of keys on a synthesizer. And because he stays on these shots longer than expected, the video ends up being one of the most human and direct in a genre where the cool artificiality of the music usually dominated. “The Perfect Kiss” reminds us that flesh-and-blood people made these New Wave songs, and so watching Bernard Sumner sing brought newfound levels of poignancy to the track, unearthing the fragility beneath the sheen.
By the 1990s, Demme had become an industry mainstay, winning a Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, which also went on to nab Best Picture. And yet, music remained central to his movies – most notably in 1993’s Philadelphia, which contained original songs from friends Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen; Demme actually co-directed the video for Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” which would go on to win an Oscar. The video, stark and pained like the song itself, showed Springsteen walking the streets mournfully intoning the lyrics. (By the way, Demme’s co-director was his nephew Ted, who was instrumental in bringing hip-hop to the masses by creating Yo! MTV Raps in the late 1980s, furthering the family’s merging of sound and image.)
But it wasn’t until 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock that Jonathan Demme returned to making a full-on concert film. (That is, if you don’t count his work on 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, a theater piece in which monologist Spalding Gray reflects on, among other things, his role in the drama The Killing Fields.) Devoted to singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, Storefront Hitchcock preserved the intimacy of Demme’s other musical work but also made room for small little flourishes in lighting and backgrounds from song to song – the ideal visual representation of a quirky cult artist.
Demme’s next musical project would be far more ambitious, however, crafting three documentaries to Neil Young, each of them devoted to a different aspect of the songwriter’s persona.
Filmed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, 2006’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold was a warm salute to Young’s country-rock side, focusing mostly on the release of his recent record Prairie Wind. In a larger sense, though, the movie paid tribute to a musical survivor who had just been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which only made the album and concert’s reflective, wistful spirit all the more poignant.
Three years later, Demme shifted direction as wildly as his subject, delivering the ramshackle, lo-fi concert movie Neil Young Trunk Show, in which Young put away the pedal steel and cranked up the electric guitars to 11 for loud, stomping garage rock. Lovingly sloppy, Trunk Show had none of the smooth elegance of Demme’s earlier films – and was all the more joyful because of it. Then, in 2011, he completed his trilogy with Neil Young Journeys, which was split between live performances and scenes of the rock star tooling around his Canadian hometown telling endearingly rambling stories about whatever came to mind. Taken as a whole, the three films are hardly definitive portraits of a major songwriter, but in their varied approaches, they neatly summarize an artist who changes guises from album to album, never giving us the same Neil twice. “The camera loves him,” Demme once said of his old friend, and that affection is felt in every frame.
In his later years and in between feature-film projects and the occasional TV directing gig, Demme made films about country star Kenny Chesney and jazz/fusion artist Enzo Avitabile. But those were just warm-ups for his grand concert-film finale. Demme had been impressed by Justin Timberlake after seeing him in The Social Network, and when the two met, Timberlake (a huge Stop Making Sense fan) proposed making a concert film from his 20/20 Experience Tour. And so was hatched Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, which immortalized the singer’s final shows of that tour, which took place in Las Vegas in early 2015.
The grandest undertaking of all his concert films, Tennessee highlights the glory and spectacle of a mammoth pop show, never letting the audience forget how large the audience is and how completely Timberlake commands them. But Demme’s trademark intimacy and interplay are all over the film, too. We see different members of his band, the Tennessee Kids, as they play their instruments, Demme emphasizing once again how a group of artists come together to make music. Patiently-held shots revel in Timberlake’s ebullient personality and faultless dance moves – he’s a born showman just like Byrne was decades earlier – and Demme gives him room to enrapture us. It may be the coziest big-arena show you’ll ever see.
Talking to Rolling Stone last year, Demme was asked what the secret was to making a great concert film. Ever modest, he gave the credit to his performers. “It comes down to two things,” he said. “Whoever’s doing the work of making the music, they have to have a cinematic quality. … I wouldn’t say showmanship, exactly, but that the people creating the music are interesting characters. And second, that their experience makes for an interesting, if only interior, journey for us to watch.”
Before his death, he was still scheming about other concert films he wanted to make – like one on Nigerian musician Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. “We’ve only started to scratch the surface of what can be done with performance films,” Demme said. “I’d love to see them get bolder and bolder.” His were the ones that have shown the way.