Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker who died Wednesday at 73, was perhaps best known for his acclaimed feature films, including 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and 1993’s Philadelphia. But as praised as those works were, Demme was also a highly influential documentarian, particularly beloved for his nonfiction works about music. From the Talking Heads to Neil Young to Justin Timberlake, the director captured some of pop’s defining performers for the silver screen while pushing forward the burgeoning rock-doc medium.
Read on for more about Demme’s music documentaries - including where to stream them now.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
If Demme had never made fiction movies, Stop Making Sense would probably be his crowning achievement - and to many music fans, it probably is anyway. Shot during two December 1983 concerts at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, the 1984 film documented art-pop legends the Talking Heads at their creative and popular zenith. Demme had lots to work with thanks to the band’s formidable catalog and frontman David Byrne’s mammoth stage presence, but his subtle directorial decisions - paying homage to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in the opening credits; eschewing audience and backstage shots; slow, lengthy pans - paid big dividends. Along with films such as Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, Stop Making Sense belongs on any shortlist of the greatest rock-docs ever made.
Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
Demme’s 1998 depiction of English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock was as simple as most music documentaries are gaudy. To throw Hitchcock’s solo arrangements and eccentric lyrics into sharp relief, Demme didn’t even film the musician at a traditional concert venue. Instead, he staged Hitchcock with his back to the window of a New York City storefront as he performed to a largely unseen audience. The product is a stark look at one of rock’s most underrated artists.
Stream Storefront Hitchcock on Amazon Video.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Neil Young is among rock’s most obsessively documented figures, but Demme put a fresh spin on the Canadian singer-songwriter in his 2006 film, which was the first of three documentaries he’d produce about the musician. For Heart of Gold, Demme captured Young at back-to-back August 2005 performances at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium as he played his new album Prairie Wind and a career-spanning encore set reaching back to his Buffalo Springfield days. With a backing ensemble including Emmylou Harris, then-wife Pegi Young, and Spooner Oldham, it’s a definitive capsule of Young’s late-career gravitas.
Neil Young Trunk Show (2009)
Like Heart of Gold, Trunk Show is an excellent document of the twilight of Young’s career. But where the 2005 Ryman performance was a stately, country-oriented affair, Demme’s chronicle of Young’s 2007 tour supporting Chrome Dreams II showcases the musician’s ragtag roots. Young trots out his beloved Gibson guitar “Old Black” for squalling readings of classics including “Like a Hurricane” and Dreams cut “No Hidden Path” - and Demme channels the mood with handheld, 8mm footage.
Neil Young Trunk Show is currently unavailable on streaming services.
Neil Young Journeys (2012)
Demme’s third film about Young fuses biographical scenes with another gripping performance, this time at Toronto’s Massey Hall. In 1971, Young staged one of his most beloved performances at the Canadian venue - officially released in 2007 as Live at Massey Hall 1971 - and like that gig, he flies solo in Journeys; it’s a testament to both Young’s range and Demme’s commitment that it took three documentaries to capture all the essential aspects of his live show. But the most distinctive part of Journeys might be the off-stage scenes, where Demme follows Young to his childhood home of Omemee, Ontario as the aging rocker tells stories of his youth.
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016)
“When I saw Justin in The Social Network, I became deeply obsessed with the desire to work with him,” Demme told EW last fall. Timberlake gushed to Demme about how much he loved Stop Making Sense and they eventually linked up. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids showcases Timberlake in all his charismatic glory and succeeds because, like Demme’s best music docs, he stays out of the way and keeps the focus on the performer.
Stream Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids on Netflix.