With the passing of Jonathan Demme earlier this week, I was reminded of two films of his that continue to have had an impact on me. Both of these movies were made before his peak years directing Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the 90’s. These were works from the early 80’s: Stop Making Sense and Something Wild.
Ironically, I had made chances to watch both films last year – and the reflections that follow on them are sometimes personal and sometimes aesthetic commentary.
Stop Making Sense
This recorded concert from the Talking Heads stands as one of the two great live music films of the 80’s – with Prince’s Purple Rain being very much its equal, if equally different in purpose, take and tone. David Byrne and the group were very much at the quirky height of their indie-funky powers of expression – and SMS shows how ready they were to deliver visually as well as musically.
Watching the film again last year, it was hard not to feel both the datedness of the rear screen projections – a technology that has become so advanced and integrated into live concerts now, that is easy to forget that this concert was at the forefront of using that technology as a stage element. What looked cool then, now appears kind of quaint – but the vibe is still there and carries it. The staging of the rest still makes for a great experience – and the music still holds.
To that last point – my wife and I attended an art opening two weeks ago at a small gallery here in Cincinnati. The basement space featured a sale/exhibit by some young and therefore inherently cool artisans. I was surprised to hear coming over the Bluetooth speakers someone’s download of the Talking Heads Box Set. The music is older than the artists there, but it fit – maybe the way we would have played Coltrane or Miles Davis when we were in our 20’s.
Which brings me to a memory. It was probably back in 1986, when I was in my 20’s and very much in my Bohemian actor days, and staying in Lexington, KY to act in the summer Shakespeare Festival there. I was playing Macduff in the season’s production of Macbeth. There was a Friday night party at the house that the director was renting with a few other guys. He was still a student at UK, and much too young to have been given the helm of this show – but the rest of us were somewhat veteran by comparison, and knew we could make the show work. But to the point. Out in the back yard, a pickup truck had been parked, and a TV and VCR set up on crates in the bed. The film that was playing was Stop Making Sense. The Assistant Director, a nice hipster sort of fellow, who had even less theatre experience than the director, said as we were all outside with beers in hand and watching what was then a cutting edge concert film: “I know Shakespeare is supposed to be Shakespeare and all, but really – how can Macbeth compare with this?”
The very question was sacrilege to me then – and remains so to a lesser extent now. But watching the film again last year, I was struck with this thought about Stop Making Sense: as retro as this sound and fury may seem now, it still signifies something very much indeed.
This sexy road comedy with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels never really took off, but Demme’s structure of the storyline switched something on in me – a realization of how a plot could pivot by adding new information about a character, changing how the audience sees them and how the world of the story evolves as a result.
Griffith plays a Soho hippychick (initially) named Lulu with a deep wild side, and Daniels is a seemingly straight-laced Wall Street type who has a bit of rebellious streak of his own. When she catches him trying to skip out on paying the check at a diner, she tempts him to go along with her in what turns out to be part seduction and part abduction. She blackmails him in different ways at different points early in the film, but it’s apparent that deep down he wants the adventure more than the chance to escape. Of course, that’s up until her ex-husband – a recent escapee from prison, who decided he wants her back. The role is played by a young Ray Liotta, and honestly, it remains one of the scariest performances I have ever seen. Liotta has made a career out of playing fierce badasses, but in this early appearance by him, the dude is dangerous – a human switchblade.
The storyline in Something Wild has very distinct changes at each of the four acts – along the way we find out Lulu’s real name is Audrey, and we watch her clear transitions from funky downtown temptress, to dutiful daughter, then fearful ex-wife on the run, and finally, romantic interest in a world of trouble.
It’s not a great film, but it has a lot of smart observations and story twists. I remember seeing it in the cinema when it was first released, and was taken by how much social commentary was delivered in the background. There is one scene at a rural gas station where a few kids with a beatbox are old school rapping. That whole scene was new then – and whether Demme threw it in for bas-relief or comic relief (it works as both), it put the story and the world in a different slant.
Before rewatching the film last year, I wondered how well many of those takes on social context would hold up. To speak true – they don’t resonate the same now as they did then – but that was to be expected.
What strikes me as I write about these two films are the basic techniques they have in common – mechanisms that would only be there because of how Jonathan Demme saw the whole nature of the show as event, and the event as show – at least at this stage of his career. Although, the adding of new elements to the change the perceived picture is what lies at the heart of Something Wild, it’s there in Stop Making Sense, as well.
The concert opens with David Byrne walking on stage with a guitar and beatbox (again), where he performs a solo version of Psychokiller (makes me think of Liotta here). Then with each song, new band members and stage elements are brought into the performance – expanding the experience in an organic but fundamental way.
With each addition, in both movies, there is the sense that the last bit was great, but we are moving on to something bigger, and maybe stranger – and there is no going back.