The Review/Short Read/

The Cult (Gems) of Demme

From Caged Heat and “Gidget Goes to Hell” to Cousin Bobby and Storefront Hitchcock, the director’s most obscure work is among his most inspired

by
Apr 29, 2017

Jonathan Demme, who passed away this past week from cancer, leaves behind a rich and varied oeuvre, one that critics and audiences were never able to pin down. A problem case for anyone looking to label him an auteur, Demme moved from project to project without an obvious through line. From early work on exploitation fare, to independent passion projects, to videos and concert films, to Hollywood for-hire gigs, to uncompromising documentaries, he kept us guessing for his entire career. How many directors can claim such a thing? While we may not have another film to look forward to from Demme, what we do have is a remarkable filmography to dive into and, in some cases, uncover. Upon closer inspection, it may not be so hard after all to find qualities linking his films, be it a fascination with performance, sensitivity to race and class, or his always present humanist curiosity and compassion from behind the camera.

For those looking to explore Jonathan Demme’s lesser-known work, here are some suggested starting points:

CAGED HEAT (1974) After producing and co-writing director Joe Viola’s 1972 rager The Hot Box, Demme directed a women-in-prison film all his own with an uncredited helping hand from producer Roger Corman. While Caged Heat is an appropriately campy genre exercise, Demme’s characteristic conscientiousness nevertheless comes through in his treatment of his characters and some playful subversion of gender roles.

Notable Demme-ism: It was on this debut feature that the filmmaker struck up a collaborative relationship with newcomer cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who would go on to shoot several of his major features including Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs, and Philadelphia.

CITIZENS BAND (1977) Also known as Handle with Care, this is the film where Demme’s affinity and empathy for quirky characters became more pronounced. Capitalizing on the CB radio fad of the time, Demme creates an endearing comedy about the intersecting lives of small-town misfits — who go by radio handles such as “Chrome Angel” and “Hot Coffee” — that touches on the follies of human communication. Inadvertently, Demme presages by nearly 20 years both the connective potential and drawbacks of the internet age.

Notable Demme-ism: Citizens Band marked the director’s first outing with celebrated character actor Charles Napier, who would appear in 10 more Demme features, among them Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, and Philadelphia.

WHO AM I THIS TIME? (1982) An hour-long drama produced for PBS’ American Playhouse series, this Kurt Vonnegut adaptation is one of Demme’s slightest yet most charming works. There’s something disarmingly surreal about the contrastive appearance of its low-budget TV aesthetic with its top-billed stars, Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken, who already had career-defining performances in their rearview. The subjects are, again, quirky small-towners: Helene, who is just passing through, is serendipitously roped into playing Stella opposite Harry’s Stanley in a community theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire. A love story with a pointed look at the blurred lines between real life and performance, Who Am I This Time? is an outlier in Demme’s dramatic work that crystallizes his interests and talent.

Notable Demme-ism: The director displayed his trademark musical nous by tapping John Cale to provide the original score.

Rev. Robert W. Castle, aka Cousin Bobby

COUSIN BOBBY (1992) On the surface this may appear as little more than a home-movie project about Demme’s reunion with his cousin Robert W. Castle (1929–2014), an Episcopalian priest in Harlem. However, starting with Bobby Castle’s stunning life story, this documentary expands into an incisive look through his eyes at the segregation and oppression of impoverished minorities in America. Active in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Castle was friends with Isaiah Rowley of the Black Panther Party and had deep ties to his people. Bobby’s progressive views earned him as many enemies as friends, but his stalwart loyalty to those not just in his church but in his community serves as instructive and inspirational, not to mention all too rare. Demme’s admiration for his cousin and solidarity with Castle’s idealist vision come through in every frame.

Notable Demme-ism: The film’s key final passage features KRS-One’s 1990 BDP track “Edutainment,” an apt summary of both Bobby Castle’s and the film’s message.

Bonus: Demme’s endearingly idiosyncratic opening credit:

STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK (1998) While it’s not driven by a performance with the same madcap brilliance as provided by David Byrne and Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock has every right to be a canonical concert-doc classic. British psych-pop genius Robyn Hitchcock belts out song after song, interspersing them with eccentric monologues. With the performance staged in a New York City shop, Hitchcock’s back to the window, Demme’s knack for never wasting a frame is on full display as he ingeniously keeps the storefront view in perpetual flux; passersby peer in, the sun goes down, the curtains go up, tinted windows slide in, candles are lit, and the set constantly shifts before our eyes.

Notable Demme-ism: Always keen to cast favourite musicians in small but memorable parts (see both The Feelies and former Suburban Lawns singer Su Tissue at the high-school reunion in Something Wild; Chris Isaak as a SWAT Commander in The Silence of the Lambs; TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe as the groom in Rachel Getting Married), Demme found disparate onscreen spots for his friend Hitchcock in The Manchurian Candidate and Rachel Getting Married.

MUSIC VIDEOS: Any comprehensive consideration of Jonathan Demme must pay mind to his work in music videos, whether it’s his wacky beach-set video for obscure LA art-punk outfit Suburban Lawns’ “Gidget Goes to Hell,” which premiered on Saturday Night Live in 1980; his masterful anti-video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” which highlights the craftsmanship behind an in-studio performance; the palpable energy of “Away” by Something Wild alumni The Feelies; or the video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” a moving companion piece to 1993’s Philadelphia featuring the film’s Oscar-winning song.

Of course, the meeting points of music and film in Demme’s work make for some of his most interesting footnotes, whether his careful selection of classic rock in Melvin and Howard, the aforementioned reunion scene in Something Wild, the disconcertingly savvy post-punk musical taste of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, or, most recently, Meryl Streep rocking out alongside Rick Springfield in the underrated Ricki and the Flash.

If you look and listen, harmonies both literal and figurative resonate throughout Jonathan Demme’s five decades of filmmaking, a career united most firmly in feeling.