For good reason, several of pop music’s greatest visionaries — Neil Young, David Byrne, Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders — turned to filmmaker Jonathan Demme when they wanted to put their work on a big screen.
It wasn’t simply because of Demme’s estimable film resume, which includes “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” As much as he devoted his life to his passion to the art of filmmaking, Demme also innately understood the look and the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, which translated into some of the most beloved rock documentaries ever.
That list starts with “Stop Making Sense,” his brilliant 1984 treatment of the Talking Heads’ groundbreaking tour that played out like one long, powerful musical crescendo, visually, emotionally and sonically.
Shortly after that documentary, Demme directed “Something Wild,” a whirlwind of a feature that also incorporated pop music in savvy ways — the film features about four dozen songs. The offbeat romance felt at times like a rock ’n’ roll nightmare (also delivering one of the great on-screen debuts ever when then-virtual unknown actor Ray Liotta showed up and took the movie on a wildly dramatic turn).
His connection with the rock community went on to include an unprecedented three collaborations with rock superstar Young, who has directed several unique music films of his own: “Journey Through the Past,” “Rust Never Sleeps,” “Human Highway” and “Greendale,” among others.
There’s a moment in Demme’s 2011 film, “Neil Young Journeys,” that crystallized the defiant rock ’n’ roll attitude he and Young shared. In the middle of one song, Young sputtered out a word with such intensity that it sent a blob of saliva flying directly into a tiny camera mounted atop his microphone.
On reviewing the footage, Young and Demme immediately agreed it should be part of the film rather than relegated to the cutting-room floor.
“I thought it was pretty psychedelic — all the colors are spewed around and everything,” Young told me at the time. “That’s how close you are — dangerously close."
Demme too thought it said something important about the way Young approaches his art and that it wasn’t simply about shock value.
“When he sings a song about every single drug he’s ever taken and, while singing it, gobs the lens and creates a psychedelic effect, it was almost like a mandate to use it,” Demme told me.
Young explained why he returned time and again to working with Demme. The two first worked together on the sweetly elegiac “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” culled from his 2006 concerts at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, then “Neil Young Trunk Show” in 2009 and later “Neil Young Journeys.”
“It’s not like a rock ’n’ roll outward expression, it’s more of an inward expression, yet there’s a lot of sonic noise with it,” Young said of Demme’s work in “Journeys.” “It’s an interesting blend of things you don’t usually get at the same time, which I felt just great about. I felt fantastic to be there and to be part of it. I’m glad we got what I think was a good performance, and that he captured it the way he did.”
When I reviewed “Trunk Show” I noted, “In the end you sense [that Young] truly is interested only in capturing and sharing the wild ride that he’s all too aware he’s on.
“It’s not about ego — not with [Demme’s] unforgiving, inches-away shots of his thinning hair, graying sideburns and expanding jowls,” I wrote. “It's not always pretty, but ‘Neil Young Trunk Show’ is very much rock ’n' roll.”
Shortly after that review was published, I was surprised to receive a disarmingly sweet e-mail from Demme in which he wrote, “I enjoyed your take on the picture very, very much — I hope I haven’t crossed some dreadful line in expressing this to you!”
Interviewing him a couple of years later about what kept him coming back again and again to work with Young, he told me, “The privilege of teaming with Neil three times — it’s like, 'I got to do that in my life?’ He’s been a gigantic character in my heart and brain since I was a hippie like him back in the ’60s. His music was my companion for decades before I even met him.”
For Young’s part, the rocker said, “Jonathan’s the artist here; I’m just the performer. … We work together on what’s in [a film], what’s out, the running order, but I basically give Jonathan free rein because it’s Jonathan. It’s a Jonathan Demme film, and I’m [just] contributing to it. I focus on performing the songs and getting into the music. It’s a good working relationship.”
After their third film together, I asked Demme if there were any horizons left for them to explore together.
“It would be so greedy for me to go, ‘I hope to get to do it again,’” Demme told me. “But if they want to do something again, I’m all over it.”
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