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Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs director and master of the concert film, has died at 73

Demme’s career was remarkable in its variety, but nothing encapsulates his greatness quite like his concert films.

Jonathan Demme (left) with Talking Heads leader David Byrne, the star of Demme’s seminal concert film Stop Making Sense.
Nick Elgar/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married, and more, died Wednesday morning of esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, reports Indiewire. He was 73.

Demme’s 45-year career is quietly astounding in its range and versatility. After breaking into feature filmmaking in the 1970s under the wing of exploitation-film maestro Roger Corman (with whom he co-produced and directed films like Angels Hard as They Come, Caged Heat, and Fighting Mad), Demme ascended to the plane of “critical darling” with 1980s dramas like Melvin and Howard and Swing Shift. The following decade, he captivated the mainstream with two films that are probably his most well-known: The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won the Best Director Academy Award) and Philadelphia. In between, he also dabbled in comedy (Married to the Mob, Handle With Care) and documentary (The Agronomist, Cousin Bobby), and, perhaps most significantly, made his first — of many — music documentaries with the seminal 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.

Though as evidenced by his filmography, Demme could seemingly work comfortably in just about any mode, concert filmmaking is where he truly excelled, and where he will be most missed. From Stop Making Sense through last year’s (excellent) Justin Timberlake Netflix film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, Demme proved himself an unparalleled chronicler of the unique energy that accompanies live music performance.

Concert filmmaking is an oft-dismissed branch of the documentary genre, but Demme proved time and again that concert films could be more than glorified marketing for musicians. His concert films unobtrusively but insistently tell a story, subtly guiding the films’ energy through the use of picture and sound alone (rare is the talking-head interview in a Demme concert film). He was meticulous in his approach, often shooting multiple performances to guarantee he’d have the necessary coverage to bring across a complete picture of the concert experience.

There’s so much Demme out there to appreciate — he also did a fair bit of TV work, including directing stints on Saturday Night Live, Enlightened, and Fox’s new crime drama Shots Fired (his episode of that series, the last thing he directed, airs Wednesday night). But nothing better underscores the man’s unique gifts as a filmmaker, and what a loss his death is, like his musical filmmaking. With that in mind, here are three must-watch Demme concert films.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

There’s a reason Demme’s first concert film is still considered one of the best, if not the best, of the genre: It’s a flat-out masterpiece. Spanning three live shows in Los Angeles, Stop Making Sense opens on an empty stage, which is soon graced by Talking Heads leader David Byrne. Byrne walks out with a cassette player and an acoustic guitar, before launching into “Psycho Killer.” What’s so remarkable about this opening is its confidence: There’s nothing on the stage besides Byrne to distract the eye, keeping the focus solely on the singer’s one-of-a-kind performance.

From the “Psycho Killer” opening, Stop Making Sense slowly unfolds song by song, as more and more band members join Byrne onstage, and the concert morphs from one guy onstage with a guitar to a teeming celebration of music, movement, and collaboration.

Stop Making Sense is available to stream for free via Fandor and SundanceNow, and to rent via Amazon and other streaming services.

Storefront Hitchcock (1998)

One of Demme’s lesser-known concert docs, this chronicle of British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock’s performance in an empty Manhattan storefront encapsulates the director’s canny unobtrusiveness. Demme lets the ever-loquacious Hitchcock take center stage — literally — throughout the film, using expert but unflashy framing to let the idiosyncratic musician reveal himself to a mostly unseen audience through monologue and song. It’s deceptively simple, but absolutely Demme.

Storefront Hitchcock is available to purchase via iTunes and Vudu.

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016)

Demme’s last concert film was directly inspired by Stop Making Sense — Justin Timberlake cited the film as an influence when he was in talks with Demme about chronicling the last leg of his 20/20 Experience tour in 2015. Released as a Netflix exclusive, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids shows how Demme’s skills translate to a big, flashy Vegas production that’s quite unlike previous concert experiences he’s filmed — and they translate extraordinarily well.

The film highlights the collaborative energy onstage, never treating Timberlake as a solo act but rather as a bandleader. This is where the Stop Making Sense comparison is most apt: Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is all about the emotional peaks and valleys of the concert experience, treating the stage and its many denizens — band members, background singers, dancers — as a complex ecosystem worth appreciating both on their own and as parts of a greater whole.

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is streaming on Netflix.

Bonus: Rikki and the Flash (2015)

Demme’s final narrative feature didn’t get the appreciation it deserved (well, except here at Vox), but it’s a beautiful encapsulation of his talents as a director, merging family drama (à la his Rachel Getting Married) with a narrative about an aging rocker played by Meryl Streep that allows Demme to stage some truly enchanting musical sequences. Streep’s performance of “Drift Away” with Rick Springfield (who plays her bandmate/lover) weaves a background story that’s both independent of the song being performed and completely of a piece with it. The scene’s energy is raw and vital, but its execution is meticulous — a perfect encapsulation of Demme’s unique and unmatched skill set.

Rikki and the Flash is available to stream via Starz.

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