Jonathan Demme R.I.P: On the opening credit sequence of Something Wild

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Jonathan Demme died yesterday. His 80s films – Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Stop Making Sense (1984), Married to the Mob (1988) and right up to Silence of the Lambs in ‘91 – marked my youth. Something Wild (1986) in particular resonated with me: its combination of hipness and gaucheness, the central love story between Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, the urban-suburban tensions, the danger amidst so much bubblyness.

I took a look at it again yesterday, part-nostalgia, part-commemoration, and by the end of the opening credits I was once again reminded of all that made me love his work. The playfulness with which the shiny O in Orion announces the drums and the music starts. The hybridity of the music,  Talking Heads adapting a Latin beat, Celia Cruz’s voice, the first you hear on the soundtrack. adding joy and warmth to the song, enveloping the beat.

Demme was urban, cool, hip, funky – all the words we used then. But part of what made him so is that New York, the New York filmed so lovingly in these opening credits, wasn’t where his world ended. New York was such a great place because it’s where people from all over the world went to. But people from all over the world being there to Demme was an invitation to explore those worlds rather than a reason to close himself off within his own urbanity.

Like the fusion of rock and salsa David Byrne sings — some fools would say appropriated — Demme adapted, included. Here in the credits we see John Sayles and John Waters, as different as filmmakers and as people as you can possibly get. Sister Carol and the Feelies get billed in the front rather than the end credits were most people would place them. The score is by John Cale and Laurie Anderson. The cinematography is by Demme’s long-time collaborator, the great Tak Fujimoto. Demme brought all these talents together, collaborated with them.

I love how the title, in graffiti colours and with lettering that seems cut with rough scissors, tries to bounce with the beat rather clumsily. There’s a home-made feel to this beginning; it’s a labour of love, it’s not that it’s not pretty but it lacks slickness. Feeling, even slightly distanced and absurd, like the words of the song ‘like a pizza in the rain…no one will take me home…loco de amor,’ will break through. I also love how it announces some themes, the focus on trees, people on tugboats, alternating with the New York skyline, some skyscrapers shown as grim as the projects: the protagonists will soon move from here and go into the jungle that is the suburban heartland. I love also how there’s a play on expectations that is also a subverting of them. Here the ending shot of the sequence begins with a huge ‘ghetto-blaster’ playing the song, a clichéd image from the period, but here on the shoulders of a preppily handsome young man rather than a thug gangster as you’d expect. ‘Love’ is used a lot in this paragraph; there’s a lot of love in Demme’s work and maybe because of that, there’s also a lot to love.

José Arroyo

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