Jonathan Demme , who graduated High School from Southwest High here in Miami, a few blocks from where i am, passed away yesterday. And if I didn’t write about what his work meant to me, I’d be remiss. Demme was an inspiration. So it’s fitting that this story starts with Celia Cruz. Even after seeing the big suit – it still starts with Celia Cruz.
To me, Celia was the music of my parents and something I never thought twice about, although I knew I liked it unconsciously. And then there I was watching Something Wild at the Plitt Gables theater and all of a sudden over shots of the New York City skyline, the sounds of Celia Cruz and David Byrne came on singing Loco de Amor (Crazy For Love). It sounded otherworldly and magical and it completely decontextualized and Re-contextualized my appreciation of an artist who would become one of my favorites of all time. But Demme did a lot of re-conextualizing for me – his love of humanity , in all it’s glory ,made him an enthusiastic cheerleader for all the characters in his films – even the villains. Hello, Hanibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, Ray Sinclair, and Tony ‘The Tiger’ Russo – his boldness and championing of ‘people’ , just regular fucking ‘people’, lifted up everything he touched.
His art was broad reaching – and it landed in different ways in things and pieces people may not even register as being his work.
I saw my first Demme film, Stop Making Sense at the classic Teatro Trail / Trail Theater in the heart of Little Havana on 37th Ave. and Calle Ocho. Usually it was home to a great Cuban exile comedian and impressionist named Roblan but for this engagement the theater had been outfitted with a Quadrophonic sound system to ensure maximum Life During Wartime. The film was formal and subtle but full of boogie and I read up on Demme after , so by the time Something Wild was released I bought my tickets for opening night. My girlfriend and I had a blowout – and I think I stormed out of the theater – (young and nuts) but my pals Juan and Carlos remained behind and let me know and left messages saying “you’ve got to go back and see it on Saturday" and "it's literally like being tickled and then slapped and then tickled and then slapped. I've never seen a movie like that.”
Of course they were right and Something Wild , with it's amazing vistas of Americana and kitsch and cool and sex and love and danger - wound up being my fave of his films (that I’ve seen). I was given the soundtrack to the film as a gift that Christmas and of course I played it all the way through and got to know the charms of Sister Carol, who closes the film, rapping over of the credits (She became a supporting player in his next film, Married to the Mob. She could have just as easily been rapping about Demme ; “It Is A Wild Thing. Do Your Own Thing…” He was damn good at loading up his movies with ‘songs you should hear’. The record may not have contained Cheo Feliciano or songs like Nice Up Dancee and Medicine Show like the movie did, but it had Steve Jones & Jimmy Cliff & New Order - it was sort of a contrast to the soundtracks from the average 80s films, which seemed put together by someone who 'knew what was hip', it seemed Johnathan Demme was hip. Hip and Humanist is a pretty great combination.
For me personally, probably the most influential piece of art he made or the most meaningful for me was the (co-directing with Godley & Crème) video he made for the Sun City project from Stevie Van Zandt & Arthur Baker. I remember the still of Demme on the streets of NYC directing Little Steven (Steve in an American Ballet Theater satin touring jacket) and I remember the behind-the-scenes video on MTV the shots of Demme shooting Bob Dylan & Jackson Browne out in LA, and directing the scenes in Central Park, just a big dance celebration. It's the only non-corny multi celebrity song and the video is a spectacular piece of political filmmaking. Excuse me, 'humanist' filmmaking , almost beyond politics, especially since at that time 23 million South Africans couldn’t vote. It spoke to my own politics and feelings and it was pure power. Demme was smart as heck in his staging and clearly inspired – placing Springsteen tween David Ruffin & Eddie Kendricks , a lost Temptation.
The word is that there's hours of stuff that he shot for Bruce Springsteen that's never seen the light of day for one reason or the other – you can imagine it must be pretty hot. I love his video for Murder Inc. shot at tiny NY club Tramps. I love the way he got him singing live to the track as the boss takes to the streets of philly for the video of the same name – and even though I only saw the film once, the song remains. And of course I love the video he shot for If I Should Fall Behind from the bosses sorta ‘reunion’ tour. Only a director of Demme’s depth & power could pull off getting E street to relax and perform like that for camera.
A formal, genteel (in the best sense of the word - and gentle too), thoughtful and deeply American artist, his wedding party toast scene in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED stands out in my mind as one of my favorite things I've seen in the last 20 years at the movies, and that’s what the film is really about to me - that scene, my goodness. There in all its richness – is Demme’s America. How hard must it have been to keep that in the movie? It’s tough to surprise me at this age but certainly his appreciation of life and human beings shines through every time. I never saw Ricki and the Flash but I have a great fondness for Rick Springfield and his music ( yes I do) and maybe I would've gotten a kick out of seeing Meryl Streep sing. I never saw it. Maybe it's a complicated little character study. (Maybe).
I love the Debbie Harry cover of Liar Liar that ends Married to the Mob & i love the crazy casting in that film; Chris Isaak in a clown suit, shooting into the windshield, Mercedes Ruehl's great Proto-Carmela Soprano turn, the great Dean Stockwell doing his fine thing.
I’ve never seen Melvin and Howard , I've never seen Citizens Band (film)/Handle with Care - but the scene when they break into the house and it's the wrong house in The Silence Of The Lambs is one of the most unforgettable moments I've ever experienced at the movies. After the midnight screening I attended opening night, I dreamt about it for weeks – I’ve never revisited that movie but it has always remained in my head as an example of how to completely guide the audience in the most masterful way.
I’ve never seen the Charade remake, though I saw pieces of it and it looked pretty fabulous. I’ve never seen Beloved (it looked pretty scary).
I did a short film about free speech & freedom of expression that People For the American Way commissioned to be shown before the premiere of The Agronomist , his doc about Jean Léopold Dominique owner of Haiti's first independent radio station. In Miami we heard lots about him as he helped our Haitian community here tirelessly, visited detained Haitian families at the Krome Detention Center & hosted film showings benefiting the Haitian Refugee Center. The Agronomist was his 2nd Haiti doc. The first was ‘87’s Haiti: Dreams of Democracy.
Yesterday Cheryl Little, of Americans for Immigrant Justice , wrote: “In 1994, he was instrumental in reuniting 200 children stranded in Haiti with their U.S. citizen parents. In 1995, he rallied a Hollywood “A List” of friends to obtain humanitarian parole for 100 orphaned Haitian children detained at Guantanamo. Later, after learning that Haitian women and children were languishing in horrific conditions while in immigration custody, he jumped on a plane to Miami to hold a news conference and was instrumental in securing their release. And ‘Most recently, he used his voice to condemn the inhumane treatment of Central American children held in “hieleras” (“ice boxes”)—overcrowded cells on the Southwest Texas border.’ He made Right to Return: New Home Movies From the Lower 9th Ward & I'm Carolyn Parker about New Orleans after Katrina.
Yesterday The Miami Herald wrote, ‘In lieu of flowers the family has asked that donations be made to the Miami-based group Americans For Immigrant Justice, which specializes in Haitian rights issues’.
Yesterday I got the news that one of the good guys died. He was way too good, way too talented, way too cool and way too young to die.
Rest in Peace Wild Thing.