Jonathan Demme loved people. There are villains in his movies — most notably that charming aesthete Hannibal Lecter, who loved people, too, only as food. And his biggest hits were about strife: the hunt for a serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs”; the battle against discrimination in “Philadelphia”; familial wounds in “Rachel Getting Married.” (“Beloved,” with Oprah struggling through postslavery life, famously bombed, but it deserves a Mulligan.)
But throughout all of these films runs a boundless curiosity in people, good or bad, in the dregs or doing just fine. When he left us in April, at the age of 73, he robbed the cinema, and the world, of one of the great, goofy humanists. BAM’s very nearly comprehensive series, “Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold,” makes it impossible to miss the gentle, kind, inquisitive soul always lurking behind the camera, a big, welcoming smile on his face.
Being an enthusiastic citizen of the world, Demme’s interests ran wide and deep. He started out in Roger Corman B-movies, like “Caged Heat,” before sidelining into endearing character studies like 1980’s “Melvin and Howard.” Even the fun ones contained multitudes: “Something Wild,” from 1986, starts out as a blue twist on the screwball comedy then U-turns into a dark, dark neo-noir that takes us straight into the brink. But he doesn’t leave us there; he always found a way back into the light.
Demme spent a handful of years christened as an important Oscar-winning filmmaker. Still, we’re imagining something as bait-y as “Philadelphia” looks very different when seen in between his 1977 CB radio lark “Citizen’s Band” and his sturdy remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” as scheduled here.
Peppered amongst his dramas and comedies and thrillers are another obsession: music. It’s not just in his many concert movies, each one of them distinctive. (Who else could make “Stop Making Sense” — aka the greatest one ever made — plus three very different Neil Young movies and last year’s killer “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids”?) It’s also in “Rachel Getting Married,” which ends with its troubled heroine, played by Anne Hathaway, pushing her problems to the side and letting everyone sing and dance and cheer.
Music is key in “Ricki and the Flash,” too. It also closes with a wedding, but this time it’s the protagonist — a middle-aged never-was rocker played by Meryl Streep — who orchestrates the joy. Streep rips into a cover of Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and suddenly all the pain and grievances and spats between her and her disapproving family melt away. For four or five minutes, at least, all is love.
“Ricki” proved Demme’s theatrical swan song. It’s a helluva moment to go out on. It reminds us that his films didn’t only entertain or enlighten. Even a studio comedy like “Married to the Mob,” featuring peak Michelle Pfeiffer with an adorable Brooklyn accent, left you wanting to be a better, kinder and more generous person.
"Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold" runs from Aug. 4 through Aug. 24 at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.
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