Part screwball comedy and part thriller, the unpredictable turns of Something Wild indeed chart its characters’ untamed, untapped inner resources.
After Swing Shift was wrested from his control, Jonathan Demme found some solace in music with Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, one of the greatest concert films. Demme’s next feature was another breakout, the film that perhaps more than any other in his career demonstrated that the range of music he embraced was as wide as the portrait of humanity he painted. Launched by a song from David Byrne and moving through an eclectic mix-tape of sounds and souls, Something Wild took a broad cross-section of contemporary subgenres (in movies and music) and made them his own.
After a floating view of the New York skyline (which then still prominently featured the World Trade Center), the movie begins in a SoHo diner that, almost improbably, still exists as a café today. In fact, some bus lines pick up passengers just down the street from what is now Lupe’s Café. Boldly colorful and rough around the edges, the location is a slice of gritty Downtown New York that is long gone, and it’s an apt setting for the story about to transpire.
We first see Charles (Jeff Daniels, a perfect choice for a buttoned-down Wall Street type) finishing up a meal at the diner. Across the way, Lulu (Melanie Griffith) is looking over a book about Frida Kahlo and checking out Charles. When Charles gets up to leave the diner, Lulu pursues—pointing out that he didn’t pay his check.
It’s meet-cute, 1986 style. Lulu, decked in the jet-black hair of her namesake Louise Brooks and punctuating her East Village-black outfit with an African pendant, is very much a Downtown version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Charles seems little more than the standard issue yuppie. We seem to be headed for the conventional arc of the free spirit teaching the repressed white man how to Get Down. But after Lulu drives them away for a quick motel tryst, the dynamic changes. Thinking she’s stolen Charles from a happy if boring life with his wife and kids on Long Island, she takes her straight-laced captive to her home town, where she ditches the Lulu wig revealing herself to be a somehow more mature-looking blonde named Audrey. A small town woman who happens to need a respectable date for her high school reunion.
Naturally, it’s the class of 1976. Awkwardly remembering America’s Bicentennial year, the reunion hall is decked in patriotic bunting, and in another movie this may have been a smugly ironic touch. But throughout his career, even or perhaps especially in his exploitation pictures for Roger Corman, Demme reveled in the quirks and characters of small town America and its roadside attractions, mom-and-pop shops and a then-distinct commercial landscape where individuality could still shine through the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit.
What better music to accompany this old, weird America than the Feelies, whom Demme gave a generous spotlight playing cover songs (appropriately, “I’m a Believer” and “Fame” among them) and a soundtrack placement for “Slipping (Into Something)” from their album The Good Earth. The group’s second album not coincidentally recast the nervous new wave nerd rockers of Crazy Rhythms as something of a pastoral jangle-rock band; much like Audrey and Charles re-invent themselves not as some trendy persona but as something perhaps truer to themselves, so Demme’s house band found their true selves.
It’s in this briefly comforting environment that the film’s tone changes and Ray (Ray Liotta, in a breakout role) enters the picture. Seething and tightly wound, he’s a part of Audrey’s past that she’d just as soon forget; Charles, who has suddenly become less suspicious of people and appreciates Ray’s overtures of friendship, doesn’t at first see the dark, ferocious side of Audrey’s old chum. Charles is still having fun, living a rebellious adolescence perhaps for the first time.
“I’ve known some Rays,” Demme told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “Likable guys who were always getting into trouble because they had such a desperately short fuse. But even though I fear these people, I feel for them more than I hate them. Don’t dismiss people, I always want to say—don’t write them off. Embrace them and allow them their eccentricities.”
That in a nutshell is the Demme aesthetic. The director’s films are not known for visual flash, but for a wide-open heart that refuses to dismiss even its most seemingly minor characters. His light touch brings to life characters that would seem like caricatures in other hands: from the lonely CB radio enthusiast to the reclusive tycoon to the humble convenience store clerk, Demme observes without judgement. Demme is like the little girl who sees Charles parked in front of a rural African-American church and asks him if he’s okay.
Part screwball comedy and part thriller, the unpredictable turns of Something Wild indeed chart its characters’ untamed, untapped inner resources. But the movie is also about that simple openness to another human being, no matter what their station in life, no matter if they seem different from us. Charles and Audrey have to leave the melting pot of Manhattan to really learn about the richness of the American tapestry, and they return to New York at the end of the movie forever changed, their character development not the arc of transformation so much as revelation: this is what life can be if we allow ourselves, not necessarily the spirit of wild rebellion, but of a genuine acceptance of people and their varied songs and eccentricities.