Light in the Attic

When Jonathan Demme Directed A Lost Punk Legend

Notes on the late director’s work with Suburban Lawns and Su Tissue

Jonathan Demme’s relationship with Los Angeles paranoia-punks Suburban Lawns began in 1980, when the late director — who’d released the acclaimed Melvin and Howard one month earlier — shot a video for their song “Gidget Goes to Hell.” The video aired on Saturday Night Live, in one of the most striking early examples of punk on late-night television (before Fear sort of ruined it for everybody).

From the video’s title card, rendered in a hand style that can only be described as proto-Rocko, to the gaggle of Normal Teens making gagging gestures over our sooty-bobbed ingenue’s beachwear, it’s clear that both “Gidget” (or “Gidgette,” as it’s spelled onscreen, presumably to skirt copyright laws) and lead singer Su Tissue cast a serious spell on Demme.

Six years later, after directing the Talking Heads’ epochal concert film Stop Making Sense, Demme tapped the now-disbanded Lawns’ singer — who looks, to 2017 eyes, like a resident of some uncanny valley at the intersection of Daria, Wednesday Addams, and Aubrey Plaza, deadpan to the point where you feel compelled to check her pulse — for a small but vital role in his surreal 1986 road comedy, Something Wild.

The plot goes like this: A rank-and-file vanilla office lemming named Charlie Driggs, played to the edges of naïveté and restraint by a young Jeff Daniels, is swept off his feet (all right, kidnapped) by a Lydia Lunch protégé with a shoe-polish-black Amélie bob, countless aliases, and a pile of culturally questionable Zulu Nation–style accessories. This is Audrey, played by Melanie Griffith, and the kidnapping turns out to be part of a bigger plan, in which she’ll make herself over, sundressed and blonde, and force poor Charlie into the role of her deeply normal husband at her 10th high-school reunion.

It’s an escape caper for all involved: Griffith as the aforementioned sentient haircut trying to outrun her abusive felon ex-husband (played by Ray Liotta); poor Charlie being dragged along at the end of her arm, himself trying to escape the boredom of his everyday; and Mr. Dillman, one of the coworkers Charlie’s calamitously ditched out on, who happens to be attending the reunion. What will Charlie’s straitlaced and utterly herbaceous officemate think about him, a supposedly married man, canoodling with a much younger, far stranger woman?

Thumbs-up, as it turns out, from the bland Dillman — but not from his wife, Peggy, played by Su Tissue, who stands pregnant and mumbling at his side, barely audible and entirely detached. We don’t find out until later in the film that Charlie’s wife had left him at least six months prior to his meeting Audrey; Dillman’s cheering is a playful go-get-’em-tiger for an acquaintance toeing back into the dating pool.

This knowledge places Su-as-Peggy’s preggers non-reaction in a much funnier context. Perhaps it’s not a look of disdain at cheatin’ Charlie, but a subtle, knowing glance at her former classmate Audrey, still living the life that poor Peggy had given up. When Audrey’s sociopath of an ex-husband makes his first appearance at the end of the reunion, he addresses Peggy first, outside of the whole group — “We remember ol’ Peggy, don’t we?” — to which she gives no immediate answer.

A 10-year high school reunion taking place in 1986 would place Audrey, Peggy, and Ray in the senior class of 1976, meaning everyone from Blondie and the Ramones to Pere Ubu, the Stranglers, and Zolar X (an easy precursor to Suburban Lawns) were already around and putting out records. It’s easy to imagine the trio as carjacking, beachgoing teens in the “Gidget Goes to Hell” video, especially given the two projects’ vehicular continuity. If you’re going to escape, Demme seems to be saying in both the Suburban Lawns video and Something Wild, you may as well do it in a smokin’ hot American convertible.

In the reunion scene, we see Audrey show up in character, as another version of Peggy, similarly grown-up and sold out. But Peggy's hundred-yard stare calls bullshit on Audrey's remarkable Stepfordization. Peggy can likely identify another rebellious spirit on contact, just as Audrey could with Charlie. She also knows what it looks and feels like for someone to give that up in favor of becoming another pregnant suburban cakeface.

In 1982, not long before Suburban Lawns ended, Su Tissue (real name Sue McLane) released a hypnotic solo record, Salon de Musique. And then she more or less disappeared from public view, leaving us to wonder. Could Demme have understood or perhaps somehow predicted this when he pulled her out of early retirement for what would be her last well-documented public appearance? By casting her in the role of what, with a little context (and a fair amount of imaginative reaching), sure looks like a mom who felt obligated to grow up and resentfully quit punk, did he close the loop that Gidget had opened, setting Su Tissue free on exit music scored by John Cale and Laurie Anderson? We can only guess.

And as Ray said — “Always keep ’em guessing, Charlie!”