by Gary Meyer
The Castro Theatre in San Francisco was packed for the World Premiere of Jonathan Demme’s first concert film at the Closing Night of the 1984 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Festival Director Peter Scarlet introduced Demme who then brought David Byrne, back-up singer Lynn Mabry, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison and producer Gary Goetzman on stage. Demme explained that he had been working on the film practically up to the screening.
“We’ve never seen this before either.”
The Art House community will come together for a special national showing of Stop Making Sense on Wednesday, July 19 in a “Celebration of Jonathan Demme.” A complete list of theaters can be found here (with some later dates noted).
And I suspect many cinemas will have a scene similar to what happened that night at the Castro and at thousands of subsequent screenings around the world.
The opening credits roll on the Castro’s giant screen with the distinctive hand lettered titles created by Pablo Ferro. There is silence and then a low sound of wind…no… that is an audience anticipating something special. The silhouette of a guitar emerges followed by a human shadow that quickly is replaced by a pair of legs in white slacks, socks and tennis shoes walking on stage.
“Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play” and a tape recorder beat box is set on the floor. A foot starts to tap as the camera lifts to see David Byrne singing and playing one of the band’s earliest songs “Psycho Killer.”
The fans are into it. It is a low-key solo performance that builds until Byrne starts wandering, shaking and stumbling all over the bare stage as he finishes the number.
For each of the next songs performed— “Heaven,” “Thank You For Sending Me” and “Found A Job” —another band member joins the ensemble, in essence offering a short history of the Talking Heads’ development.
And so it goes with each successive number until the stage is full of musicians and backup singers.
All hell is about to break loose—in a very good way. And the tempo keeps building as we are fully into the most unique concert film I have ever seen (avoiding those cliché cuts to audience reactions and interviews—we are the audience and we almost feel like we are part of the band). It does not take long before people can’t help but stand and start dancing. Some are running to the front to be just under the screen where Byrne is now wearing a big suit (while the shy in-person David has quietly joined the audience largely unnoticed). Others are standing on their seats. Nobody sits down for the rest of the show. We are exhausted and energized and feel it could have gone on forever. How long before we see it again?
We had to wait until October when the successful theatrical engagements were enthusiastically received by critics and audiences but rarely with the energy of that first screening.
Byrne later said, “My character starts off as Mr. Stiff White Guy and does his very, very best to get down and get loose by the end of the show, to kind of shed his inhibitions.”
After playing first run for more than a year at the uptown Manhattan 57th Street Playhouse someone got the idea of starting a weekly midnight showing at the Waverly Theater in New York. There were audiences who wanted to shed their inhibitions. And they did! Those screenings became dance concerts and other theaters across the world started their own long-running late shows often with Big Suit contests.
David Byrne Jumping Jack Handmade Puppet from Etsy
The east coast distributor Cinecom had a terrific lineup of movies and a team of talented young film enthusiasts including co-founder/Executive VP of Marketing and Distribution Ira Deutchman, Director of Sales Richard Abramowitz and Vice President of Creative Advertising Tom Moody.
Ira Deutchman explained, “The only ads we could afford for the midnights were small 2” ads in the Village Voice. After many weeks of running the same ad in the Voice, we got bored and wanted to mix it up.”
Richard Abramowitz help me track down Tom Moody in Auckland, New Zealand —he is no longer in the film business. He explained last week, “It started with our original ad campaign. The movie, of course, already existed (complete with the opening credits), as did the LP cover, which included the big suit artwork and the hand lettering from the film.”
“We had worked with a young, not-very-experienced designer named Gregory Homs and I thought he’d be a good person to help with the campaign. Gregory and I felt very strongly that the hand lettering, at any size, could easily become the image to advertise the film. And we felt it was distinctive enough, and with the white letters against a black background, so strong graphically, that it wouldn’t matter what the text actually said. As great as the big suit would be for the one-sheet (and for the LP, over which we had no control), the big suit, when converted to black-and-white and reduced in size, would look like an indistinct blur. Not everyone agreed to this concept but we persisted.”
“That was where the idea for the different languages came from.
Gregory and I tried to translate ‘stop making sense’ into different languages, which proved to be fairly difficult, since those three words aren’t actually an existing expression that means anything, even in English. Rob Marcus, who worked in a legal capacity at Cinecom at the time, provided the legalese version (“Witnesseth whereas . .”), and a French acquaintance came up with the French version (“Arréte de signifier”). Gregory, I have to say, came up with the vast majority of the languages represented on the ad slick.”
“We originally intended the ad slick to be used solely for the ongoing midnight presentations of Stop Making Sense at the Waverly Theater (now the IFC Film Center) in Greenwich Village. The idea for using the foreign language ads spread, though, and I think it was used widely around the country.”
The ad slicks are hard to find and to our knowledge this is the first time they have ever been seen on the Internet.
The special limited edition poster below was created in-house for friends of the project and is equally rare.
So many of us were caught off guard the April morning we learned Jonathan’s passing.
From his start making action pictures for Roger Corman through an extensive career where he found that balance between making independent fiction and non-fiction films, often with a focus on music or social issues— as well as big name actor studio hits that won critical praise, awards and box office success— all made with integrity. Those who worked with him had the highest respect for his work ethic and sensitivity.
His cancer had been kept quiet and Demme was busy in his last year making music and issue-oriented documentaries. Watch them at Eat My Shorts.
Demme loved cinema classics and art films, championing them and art cinemas in many ways including his support of his neighborhood art house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.
When I visited the Pleasantville, New York theater in October, 2016 they were preparing for “Saddle Up Saturdays with Jonathan Demme,” a series of westerns he curated and introduced.
The JBFC Founding Director of Programming wrote a tribute that eloquently says what each of us lucky enough to have met him or were affected Jonathan’s generosity would be at a loss to express so perfectly.
David Byrne posted a remembrance of his collaborator, who he recalls as a passionate music lover — Demme directed music videos for Bruce Springsteen, New Order, The Feelies and more. There were musical projects that surfaced through his career, among them the album Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti, a collection of songs which Demme compiled after directing a documentary about Haiti. You can read Byrne’s full piece below.
My friend, the director Jonathan Demme, passed last night.
I met Jonathan in the ’80s when Talking Heads were touring a show that he would eventually film and turn into Stop Making Sense. While touring, I thought the show had turned out well and might hold up as a movie, and a mutual friend introduced us. I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career. Jonathan was also a huge music fan — that’s obvious in his films too — many of which are jam-packed with songs by the often obscure artists he loved. He’d find ways to slip a reggae artist’s song or a Haitian recording into a narrative film in ways that were often joyous and unexpected.
We very much saw eye to eye when we met and the late Gary Kurfirst, who managed Talking Heads, found us the money to shoot Stop Making Sense. We booked four nights at the Pantages Theatre in LA at the tail end of a tour for filming. Jonathan joined us on the road and became familiar with the band and the show. Jonathan was going through a bit of a nightmare during filming — a studio and a star wanted him to reshoot parts of a big budget film he’d just finished called Swingshift. He was dealing with that in the day and shooting our low budget movie at night. Guess which one will be remembered? That said, Swingshift was filled with empathy for the women workers in U.S. factories during WWII — it was character driven, as much of his other work is.
Stop Making Sense was character driven too. Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was — it made the movies something different and special. Jonathan was also incredibly generous during the editing and mixing. He and producer Gary Goetzman made us in the band feel included; they wanted to hear what we had to say. That inclusion was hugely inspirational for me. Though I had directed music videos before, this mentoring of Jonathan’s emboldened me to try making a feature film.
Jonathan helped me as I was developing True Stories, I wrote a song for his film Something Wild, a score for Married to the Mob and we made a test sequence for a never completed documentary featuring Robert Farris Thompson called Rule of the Cool. Jonathan went on to make a lot more features — some hugely successful, others not so much. He interspersed these with a number of documentaries and music films. The documentaries are pure labors of love. They tend to be celebrations of unsung heroes — an agronomist in Haiti, an activist (cousin) and pastor and an ordinary woman who does extraordinary things in New Orleans post-Katrina. The fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love. He often turned what would be a genre film into a very personal expression. His view of the world was open, warm, animated and energetic. He was directing T.V. episodes even this year, when he was in remission.
Jonathan, we’ll miss you.
Psycho Killers in Heaven: Why Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense is the Greatest Concert Film of All Time roundtable discussion.
On Stop Making Sense at AFI Silver Docs, 2007
Martin Scorsese’s statement on Demme:
“Whenever I ran into Jonathan, he was filled with enthusiasm and excitement about a new project. He took so much joy in moviemaking. His pictures have an inner lyricism that just lifts them off the ground—even a story like The Silence of the Lambs. I have great admiration for Jonathan as a filmmaker—I love the freshness of his style and his excellent use of music, from Buddy Holly to Miklos Rozsa. There’s so much more to be said, and I hardly know where to begin. I also loved him as a friend, and to me he was always young. My young friend. The idea that he’s gone seems impossible to me.”
Demme on directing on concert films
Filmmakers Barry Jenkins, Edgar Wright, Ron Howard, Kevin Smith and other Tweet their thoughts
Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen pay tribute
Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins pay tribute to Jonathan Demme
David Sims in The Atlantic.
The Art of Performance: A Conversation with Jonathan Demme at the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2016