When Jonathan Demme passed away on April 26, 2017, after a battle with esophageal cancer and heart disease, the world lost a true original. Demme, like many other directors of his generation, started out working with Roger Corman on a number of low-budget exploitation movies. But even those early movies were infused with Demme’s characteristic energy, enthusiasm and keenly observed humanity. They would be traits that defined his career, even as he moved through more modestly budgeted movies to commercial juggernauts and critical darlings. It’s hard to equate him to another filmmaker (American or otherwise), even now.
Demme was a restless tour-de-force – always creating, inventing, pushing himself further into uncomfortable territory or unexplored genres. His fearlessness was only matched by his creativity. And he had a lot of creativity.
But before we get started, a couple of notes.
Firstly, I am not including Demme’s considerable documentary output. This is not to diminish their power or importance, but has more to availability and a lack of time. Stop Making Sense is arguably the greatest, most artistically accomplished concert film of all time, one that continues to delight and inspire even to this day. And the filmmaker’s gorgeous, black-and-white Netflix film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is not only brilliant, but also stands tall as Demme’s final film. He made an entire trilogy of Neil Young films, chronicled Jimmy Carter and made a movie about his cousin that was admitted into Cannes. (I am also including his filmed version of Swimming to Cambodia in this category, since it is based on a nonfiction monologue.)
Also, it’s worth noting how difficult it is to find some of these movies, despite Demme being a certifiable American auteur. In putting this piece together, I had to grab Blu-ray discs from a number of specialty labels, including Kino Lorber Classics and Criterion, with one of his most important films, Melvin and Howard, only available in an out-of-print Blu-ray from the now-defunct Twilight Time. (I got it – on sale! – just before they went under.) Few are available on streaming platforms and many of them aren’t even available to purchase digitally. It’s insane and outrageous. Who will step up and restore the near-mythical director’s cut of Swing Shift? #ReleaseTheDemmeCut anyone?