All Things Pass Into the Night: Jonathan Demme’s Soundtracks

Jonathan Demme Soundtracks Ted Levine in Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coveraghere.

Sometimes you still get a Black Panther, or a Baby Driver, but the days of carefully curated movie soundtracks peaked, for the most part, somewhere between the mid-80s and the mid-90s. Largely gone are films that seem to have been built around the incidental music played in them, in favor of original scores that provide far more dramatic weight (or, in the case of Hildur Guðnadóttir ’s Oscar winning score for Joker, even make a mediocre film seem better than it actually is).

When we think “soundtracks,” we think Saturday Night Fever, John Hughes, and movies that were far outlived by the songs featured in them, like Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” as heard in Reality Bites. Often left out of the conversation (suggesting that anyone other than me talks about movie soundtracks this much) is Jonathan Demme, despite his crafting some of the best, most musically diverse soundtracks of the 80s and 90s. Like Quentin Tarantino, Demme’s soundtracks seemed to be personally curated from his own music collection, featuring everything from mainstream acts like Bruce Springsteen to smaller indie bands like the Feelies to new wave to reggae. It was as if the cool middle-aged guy who ran the local used record store decided to give directing movies a try.

Even Demme’s debut feature, Caged Heat, featured music by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, a decidedly esoteric choice for a B-level women in prison movie. He wouldn’t really hit his stride in regards to soundtrack design until more than a decade later, however, after directing Stop Making Sense, arguably one of the greatest concert films of all time. The success of Stop Making Sense allowed Demme, who would also later dabble in directing music videos and concert films for Neil Young and Justin Timberlake, to not just make movies, but allow them to be full sensory experiences, featuring soundtracks that were chosen with purpose, and not because of handshake deals with record labels.

It could be fair to say that in Something Wild, Demme’s next film after Stop Making Sense (and his next feature after the disastrous Swing Shift), he went slightly, wonderfully overboard. Almost fifty songs are featured in it, only ten of which, regrettably, made it onto an officially released soundtrack. There’s almost never a moment where there isn’t music playing, at least in the background, and virtually every genre of music is featured at some point, including Cuban, classical, punk, and pop. It was an aggressively hip soundtrack for an aggressively hip movie, and a perfect accompaniment to Something Wild’s grimy-but-so-fucking-cool mid-80s Lower East Side setting. Though the movie gets surprisingly dark in its second half, after the introduction of Ray Liotta as the violent estranged husband of star Melanie Griffith’s character, it ends on a sunny note, as the credits roll over reggae singer Sister Carol performing a lively cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”

Demme’s next feature after Something Wild was 1988’s Married to the Mob, which often feels like it exists within the same universe. Even Sister Carol shows up in it, playing a hairstylist who hires Michelle Pfeiffer to work in her salon after she decides to leave her posh existence as a mafia widow. Though not featuring quite as expansive a soundtrack as Something Wild, it was equally diverse, featuring French new wave, rockabilly (Demme liked singer Chris Isaak so much he even cast him in a few small roles), and Debbie Harry, who contributed a delightfully retro cover of the Castaways’ “Liar Liar.”

Where the soundtrack of Married to the Mob differs from Something Wild is that, other than perhaps Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano,” none of the music on it sounds like anything the movie’s characters would actually listen to. You can’t picture Michelle Pfeiffer’s privileged housewife turned working class single mom kicking back to Sinead O’Connor’s “Jump in the River,” or anyone vibing to Brian Eno’s languid, trippy cover of the soul standard “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The soundtrack works mostly to create a sense of quirky chaos, perfect for a charmingly off-kilter romantic comedy in which several people are shot to death.

Demme took the opposite approach in designing the soundtrack for 1993’s Philadelphia, the first mainstream American feature film to address AIDS, more than a decade after it became a health crisis for gay men. Featuring such artists as the Indigo Girls, Peter Gabriel, and Sade, it sounded exactly like something a Boomer-aged lawyer would listen to, let alone Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, whose contributions to the soundtrack would both go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. 

Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” the more successful of the two (and eventual winner of the Academy Award) opens the film, playing over shots of a city that looks hectic, bleak, and more than a little intimidating. The lyrics are sparse and direct, with no elliptical phrasing that anyone could point to as proof that it wasn’t about the ravages of AIDS, and the lonely battle waged by those stricken with it. In case it wasn’t made perfectly clear already, Springsteen dedicated the armful of awards he received for it to those whose lives were impacted by the disease. 

Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” a softer, melancholy but peaceful track, closes the film, over a scene of the deceased main character Andrew Beckett’s family and friends celebrating his life and watching home movies of him as a child. Sung in a quavery, almost ethereal voice, it’s Young’s most nakedly sentimental song, written in the perspective of a terminally ill person (perhaps even one who has already died), and I challenge anyone to listen to it without at least developing a large, painful lump in one’s throat. The two songs, essentially sandwiching the movie, work beautifully together, with “Streets of Philadelphia” speaking of feeling alone and afraid (“Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wasting away on the streets of Philadelphia,” and “Philadelphia” expressing gratitude and affection (“Sometimes I think that I know what love’s all about/And when I see the light, I know I’ll be alright”).

However, if you want a truly iconic musical moment in a Jonathan Demme movie, look no further than Silence of the Lambs

Though much of the heavy lifting music-wise is done by Howard Shore’s eerie score, there are a few incidental songs in Silence, including Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” the perfect song to make soon-to-be kidnapping victim Catherine Martin believe that the world is her oyster, and “Goodbye Horses,” the song so nice Demme used it twice, first in Married to the Mob.  Featuring the unique vocals of Q Lazzarus (so unique that the music industry didn’t know what to do with her, and she ended up becoming a bus driver in Staten Island), “Goodbye Horses” became a pop culture oddity, showing up on the soundtracks for Clerks II and the remake of Maniac. Almost a dozen cover versions have been recorded in the past nearly thirty years, but it’s the original that endures, intrinsically tied to Silence of the Lambs forever. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you know the song, and you know the scene it’s in.

As with Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” “Goodbye Horses” is played in its entirety. It’s the song serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Levine) listens to when he makes himself beautiful, oblivious to the cries of his captive. His shimmy-dance as he transforms into the sexy, desirable woman he believes himself to be is creepy, otherworldly, and oddly mesmerizing — much like “Goodbye Horses” itself. Reportedly, an alternate version of the scene was filmed using a Bob Seger song, of all things. I regret to inform you that that clip has yet to be released as an extra on any DVD version of Silence of the Lambs, but perhaps it’s for the best. “Goodbye Horses” is a perfect match of song to scene, and you don’t mess with perfection.

Though the soundtracks for Demme’s subsequent films The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate and Rachel Getting Married were still vast and colorful, none would recreate the success of Philadelphia, or the lightning in a bottle moment of Silence of the Lambs. Demme’s final film, 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, was about the healing power of music itself, and featured some of his old familiars on the soundtrack, including Sister Carol and the Feelies. Though critics and audiences alike were largely indifferent to it, Ricki seemed a fitting farewell for Demme. Life is hard, and it’s so very long, but isn’t the music wonderful?

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