The eclectic American director speaks to SBS Film his third collaboration with the Canadian rock legend.
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13 Sep 2012 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2012 - 12:34 PM

As a man who lives by the Hudson River in New York, Jonathan Demme loves the water and he loves to chill out. Today at the Venice Film Festival, the 68-year-old is wearing casual colourful clothes and seems to be more on holiday than promoting a film.

Yet here he is again with his latest documentary, Enzo Avitabile Music Life, about a musician from Naples, Italy who is part of a world music scene creating music on unusual and bizarre instruments. Last year Demme came with another documentary, I'm Carolyn Parker, the portrait of a New Orleans woman who has only been able to return to her Hurricane Katrina-ravaged home after five years, while in 2003 the festival screened The Agronomist, his movie about the Haitian human rights activist, Jean Dominique. In 2008, he had his dramatic feature Rachel Getting Married in the competition.

“I come to Venice when I am lucky enough to be invited with my film, whether it's a fiction or a documentary,” he admits.

He says one feeds on the other.

“When you are making a documentary you want it to be as entertaining as a fiction film. With Enzo Avitabile Music Life, I feel like an excellent balance has been struck. I feel like it's a very truthful portrait of this guy. On the other hand, the more I immerse myself in the world of documentaries the more I want the features to feel like documentaries. I can especially see that in Rachel Getting Married, where I immersed myself more in the world of the characters.”

That world of course was heavily integrated with music, which has long been one of the major preoccupations for The Silence of the Lambs director. His work was groundbreaking on the 1984 Talking Heads documentary, Stop Making Sense, and he has now made three documentaries about Neil Young: Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) where the singer's wistful 41st album, Prairie Wind, became the basis for the film; Neil Young Trunk Show (2009) where Young performed less known pieces that provided glimpses of his less public persona; and Neil Young Journeys (2011). The latter releases in Melbourne on September 13 and follows the singer returning to his old haunts in his native Ontario, Canada, and performing in Toronto.

“The fantasy of course would be to have a collaboration film between Enzo and Neil,” Demme says with a smile. “One of the things that links them is that they don't perform their songs, they immerse themselves. You can see when Enzo is singing he is immersed in his story. Neil is immersed in his story. It's not about entertaining; it's deeper than that. They are also kind of hippies. Neil is a little older than Enzo but they are very much from the hippie generation. Neil has been singing about peace for the last 50 years. Enzo is like the spiritual godchild of John Lennon, a tremendously gifted musician and songwriter and also infuses his songs with this idea of 'Give peace a chance'.”

The most recent music that Demme has filmed was for a live internet broadcast of a Lenny Chesney concert in June. “I wasn't in love with Lenny's music but I was very excited about editing something in the moment and it turned out really well,” he says. “That's a way of adapting to the changing delivery system. Maybe there will be more of that. I know that it got a huge amount of viewers. He has a lot of fans and it turns out he is as popular as Bruce Springsteen. But for me knowing that people are seeing what your choices are in the moment was crazy. Thankfully, when I look at it now, I am very happy with the choices we made. And while I respected Lenny's music before, now I kind of love it.”

Did Chesney's music seep into his pores while making the movie? “It was being there with him, seeing how great the music is. It's like the first time I heard Enzo on the radio. It can have a huge impact on you, but there is one more ingredient that can make it even richer, which is to see it happen before your very eyes.”

What is so special about Neil Young that has led to his making the three movies? “It's tough to sum that up. Neil's a magic man. He is living quicksilver. He doesn't have an uncreative bone in his body. That's what comes through the door when Neil shows up.”

Isn't Young an autocrat as his own 2008 documentary, CSNY/Déjà Vu shows? Demme pauses for another chuckle. “He demands the very best of the people that work with him because he says the only way he can do his best work is if everybody is doing that too. I respect that. I kind of feel the same way although I would never say it as boldly as Neil!”