Hip Priest: The Musical Legacy of Jonathan Demme

Few filmmakers ever displayed as much savvy about music—or were so eager to show off their sheer love of it—than Jonathan Demme. The director, who passed away on April 26 at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer, established his impeccable and impressively diverse tastes long before indie-movie hotshots like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson followed suit in the 1990s. Of course, he did that most prominently in his many music docs, a rich bounty that ranged from his epochal Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense (1984) through the sorely underrated Robyn Hitchcock curio Storefront Hitchcock (1998), his three lovely films on Neil Young, to one of his final projects, the JT Netflix spectacular Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Demme’s music mania. The soundtracks of his early efforts were the handiwork of a deep fan—who else would’ve loaded up a road comedy like Melvin & Howard (1980) with Crazy Horse, Faron Young, Eddy Arnold, and the Sir Douglas Quintet? For Something Wild (1986), he lived up to the film’s title with a brilliant hodgepodge of killer salsa and dub reggae tracks along with the Fine Young Cannibals and the Feelies. Appearing on screen as a cover band playing a high school reunion, the latter group were one of many faves Demme actually used as actors, a tradition he’d continue with Chris Isaak in Married to the Mob (1988), his pal Hitchcock in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe in Rachel Getting Married (2008). Don’t forget the many music videos that bear Demme’s imprimatur, too, including “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen—originally commissioned for his 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia—and New Order’s haunting “The Perfect Kiss.”

It’s no surprise that music often a played a major part in his characters’ lives, too. One such signature moment comes in Demme’s biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), when actress Brooke Smith’s ill-fated character drives down the highway hollering along to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” happily unaware of the nastiness that awaits when she stops to help ol’ Buffalo Bill. (Demme used songs by The Fall, Gang of Four, and Wire’s Colin Newman to enhance the horrors to come.) Demme evidently loved the Petty classic so much, he put it in the repertoire of Meryl Streep’s Chrissie Hynde-like rocker character in the 2015 comedy Ricki and the Flash. That’s why both versions deserve pride of place in this tribute to a man who may have loved music even more than he did movies.