Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme has passed away at the age of 73. Demme won his Academy Award for directing the 1991 Best Picture, “The Silence of the Lambs” – which is the most recent film to win Oscars in all five major categories: Picture, Director, Lead Actor (Anthony Hopkins’ iconic work as Hannibal Lecter), Lead Actress (Jodie Foster) and one of the Screenplay categories.
Two years later, Demme followed-up with the drama “Philadelphia”, starring Tom Hanks as lawyer Andrew Beckett, who was represented by attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) in an AIDS discrimination lawsuit against his former employer. I watched “Philadelphia” for the first time just a few weeks ago. Hanks and Washington deliver powerhouse performances, and the film has a deep, emotional core. It earned two Oscars, one for Hanks and the other for Bruce Springsteen for the opening song “Streets of Philadelphia”, which sufficiently sets the tone.
Demme re-teamed with Washington on 2004’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”, which also starred Meryl Streep. In 2008, Demme directed Anne Hathaway in the indie drama “Rachel Getting Married”, which earned her a Best Actress Critics Choice Award. And Demme would go on to direct three documentaries on singer Neil Young.
Music was one of Demme’s passions, which was likely why he was attracted to 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash”. The dramedy starred Streep as an aging rock singer, who never made it big, looking to make things right with her family. Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield and Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer, co-starred.
All of the songs in “Ricki” were performed “live”. Demme’s goal was to give audiences a concert-like experience, and he succeeded. Streep’s renditions of “American Girl”, “Drift Away” and “My Love Will Not Let You Down” were guided by smart, memorable, effective direction.
Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”) wrote “Ricki”, and she told me about working with Demme in 2015:
“I have to say, because of Jonathan Demme’s involvement – he’s been…working with musicians for years. He’s like ‘The Music Guy of Hollywood’. And so he had a lot of great connections, and he was able to get just about everything he wanted. I love [‘The Silence of the Lambs’], but I also love a lot of his other movies, like ‘Rachel Getting Married’ and ‘Something Wild’ and ‘Stop Making Sense’. He’s so versatile. There’s really nothing that he can’t do.”
And this past October, Netflix debuted “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids”. Demme shot the final two nights of JT’s 20/20 Experience World Tour and blended them into a fantastic, 90-minute concert film. As I wrote in my review, it’s “a master-class in producing, directing and editing a live entertainment event. Demme provides an immersive, 360-degree view of one of the greatest showmen of our time at the top of his game.”
Demme’s dedication to movies, music, and blending the two made him one of the most innovative and impactful directors in the industry. He will be missed.