Jonathan Demme’s ’80s is one of the strongest of any director of that era. He made his name making Roger Corman films like Caged Heat in the ’70s. He did some big budget stuff like Last Embrace in 1979 but Melvin and Howard is really the first Jonathan Demme film as we know him to be in the ’80s. He would go onto make films like Something Wild, Married to the Mob. He also mde the concert film Stop Making Sense for Talking Heads which he got due to Byrne’s fondness of Melvin and Howard.
Melvin and Howard tells the strange but true story of a service station owner Melvin Dummar who according to him met the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes out in the desert. He only meets him the once and only at the end of his meeting does Hughes reveal his identity. Some times passes and Melvin receives a mysterious package which says it’s the “Last Will and Testament of Howard Hughes” naturally a media frenzy happens and he is in court trying to prove he actually met Hughes and he entitled to the millions in the will. One of the most interesting things about the film is despite a lot of real-life pushback against Dummar’s claims it just goes with the myth and doesn’t question Dummar’s story at all.
Demme’s best films which with the exception of the masterful Silence of the Lambs were all made in the ’80s. The reason these films are so great including Melvin and Howard is Demme has a knack for portraying believable quirky characters and stories drenched in the off kilter side of Americana. Even his performance films like Stop Making Sense and Swimming to Cambodia fit into this. They all with the possible exception of Swing Shift (which was recut by star/studio) have the feel of independent films even though they were all made by studios like Universal or Orion Pictures
Over the years Melvin and Howard has become a minor cult film even though critical it was successful and it even won a couple Oscars. Paul Thomas Anderson has constantly over the years cited it as personal favourite and the motorcycle scenes in the desert of The Master bears a striking resemblance to the similar scene in Melvin and Howard. It also is the beginning of the unfairly name genre of the “biopic of someone undeserving” which the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski made their careers on to great success.
Melvin and Howard remains one of the high watermarks of Demme’s career. Jason Robards commands the film as Howard Hughes even though he is in the film for maybe ten minutes at most, not dissimilar to Anthony Hopkins who did the same in Silence of the Lambs years later. Paul Le Mat is equally wonderful as Melvin shame he hasn’t got more meaty roles in films. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is also exceptional who has worked with Demme on most of his films. Melvin and Howard deserves to re-discovered again and again. It’s also shocking the first DVD release of Melvin and Howard in a long time after a long out of print Universal release.