In the Key of Jim Jarmusch: the movies and the soundtracks
Film Focus, May 2009
director's cut version (snigger)
by Simon Reynolds
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, New York City was a cauldron of experimentation and hybrid creativity. Artists moved back and forth across the suddenly porous boundaries between postpunk rock, the visual arts, the worlds of underground cinema and theater, and the emerging hip hop scene. If anything was central, though, it was rock, which became the cultural hot spot with the arrival of punk and flourished further with the confrontational No Wave movement and then the more colorful, playful genre known as mutant disco. There was a time when almost every artist was also in a band: painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and future actor/director Vincent Gallo, for instance, were both in the weird noise outfit Gray, while Jim Jarmusch sang and played keyboards in The Del-Byzanteens. "At that time everyone in New York had a band," Jarmusch recalled in 1984. "The idea was that you didn't have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise."
It was while he was moving through the incestuous downtown Manhattan scene that Jarmusch became friends with John Lurie, who would not only star in Stranger Than Paradise but score the film and help the director come up with the idea for the story's first part. Lurie fronted The Lounge Lizards, whose scrawny mutant take on bebop he described as "fake jazz" in an unguarded interview moment. The quip became a millstone but actually fits the Lounge Lizards musically and sartorially: their retro-tinged sound and suave suits harked back to some bygone pre-rock era but subtly warped it.
Much the same could be said for Stranger Than Paradise, which seems to be set in some indefinable era that's neither present nor past. Being shot in black-and-white contributes to this effect, as do the old-fashioned clothes worn by Lurie's character Willy and his buddy Eddie (pork pie hats, suspenders and jackets that seem to come straight out of The Hustler), the quaint household appliances , the vintage TV and movies on the portable black-and-white television, and the one non-Lurie composition on the soundtrack, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's ghoulish R&B classic "I Put A Spell On You".
The movie is suffused in Americana (at one point Willy tries to explain the football on TV to Eva, his visiting Hungarian cousin, only to give up) and in some sense is about America as a mythic wonderland that somehow eludes the grasp even of those born in the USA. Lurie's score, though, avoids jazz or R&B for a faux-European vibe: a neurotic chamber music of cello and violins that sometimes sounds agitated and highly-strung, sometimes subdued and achingly melodic. It's perfect for the uncanny way Jarmusch's movie makes middle America (a snow-covered and shadowy Cleveland, a blizzard-shrouded Lake Erie) look like Mittel Europa. Even Florida, which Willy, Eddy and Eva visit on a disastrous vacation, is made to feel chilly, bleached of color and cheer by cinematographer Tom DiCillo.
DOWN BY LAW (1986)
Jarmusch's second movie to feature Lurie's on-screen charisma and atmospheric score, Down by Law was actually born of the director's musical obsession with New Orleans, the city in and around which the film is set. Jarmusch had never been there, but felt that he had gleaned "a very strong sense---maybe abstract, maybe inaccurate--of New Orleans from its music culture." By this he didn't mean jazz so much as the city's 1950s and '60s rhythm-and-blues and early funk, figures like Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Ernie K. Doe, and Irma Thomas (whose "It's Raining" appears as a jukebox tune at one point). This music, along with the Louisiana port city's historical associations with voodoo and pirates, and its unique architecture and food, gave New Orleans a pungent mystique for Jarmusch.
Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law has a curious time-out-of-joint, twilight zone atmosphere, the sense of a present almost oppressively haunted by the past's ghosts. Lurie plays Jack, a pimp who ends up sharing a jail cell with a deejay called Zack and Bob, a mysterious Italian buffoon. Zack was played by Lurie and Jarmusch's friend Tom Waits, recently relocated to New York after a long period in Los Angeles where he'd become a cult singer-songwriter with his beatnik -barfly image and huskily drawled vignettes. Probably influenced by the New York postpunk scene that the Lounge Lizards belonged to, Waits music shifted in an experimental direction with the albums Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. The latter album contributed two tunes to Down by Law's soundtrack, the blues-tinged but dissonant "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore."
Lurie's own compositions come from a similar place-- a mongrel sound midway between the art house and the burlesque hall--and use some of the same musicians who played on Rain Dogs. The style is a gumbo of American bohemian and lowlife musics, all clanking percussion, low blares of lugubriously sleazy trumpet, cold-turkey scrapes of guitar, and plinky sounds that recall the invented instruments of hobo composer Harry Partch. Defective yet affecting, moodily atmospheric yet somehow audibly in quotation marks, it's the perfect soundtrack for a movie that deliberately skips the narrative's most dramatic moment (the escape from prison) and cuts to the Louisiana swampland, where Bob announces "we have escaped, like in the American movies".
DEAD MAN (1995)
Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse are the Wild Bunch of rock, haggard but heroic survivors of a grander, free-spirited musical era. One of Neil Young's most famous albums, After the Goldrush, echoes that elegiac sense of the frontier having closed a long time ago, the ache left by the loss of American wilderness and wildness. The name Crazy Horse itself comes from the Lakota warrior chief who rebelled against the Federal government in the hopes of preserving traditional Native American folkways.
All these associations made Young the ideal candidate to score Dead Man, a sort of postmodern Western that in typical Jarmusch style manages to be poignant and playful at the same time. The story concerns a city slicker by name of William Blake (Johnny Depp) who migrates from Cleveland to the very end of the railroad line in pursuit of a promised job only to find himself stranded out West, an incongruously clean-shaven and smart suit-wearing figure in a land of rugged, hairy trappers and prospectors. Yet the Industrial Revolution has already reached this wilderness: the town is called Machine and Blake's job was supposed to be working at a metal-works firm.
For the score, rather than write fully-fledged songs, Young improvised in a recording studio while watching the film. Minimally titled on the soundtrack CD as "Guitar Solo, No. 1", "Guitar Solo, No. 2" and so forth, the result was a sequence of guitar miniatures: flickering micro-riffs full of tension and strangeness, glistening golden trails of melody that cut abruptly to a single crunching powerchord like the report of a rifle. The music gestures towards the epic grandeur of Young in his full-bore, Crazy Horse-assisted mode but its fragmentary form withholds the full ragged glory the listener craves, just as Jarmusch's movie alludes to the Hollywood Wild West but slyly frustrates one's expectations with absurdist twists.
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999)
Yet another Jarmusch movie that involved the creative input of a musician from an early stage, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is described by the director as a three-way collaboration between himself, lead actor Forest Whitaker and legendary hip hop producer The RZA. All are fans of martial arts culture. As soon as they arrived in American theaters in the early Seventies, martial arts movies struck a chord with inner-city audiences: the notion of violence contained by discipline and given spiritual meaning by a code of honor resonated with youth from the ghetto, where gangs functioned as surrogate clans and often thought of themselves as a kind of nobility of the streets. The RZA's rap ensemble the Wu Tang Clan named itself after a renegade sect of Shaolin monks in China and titled their 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang in homage to the Bruce Lee classic.
By the late Nineties the RZA was exploring modern polished production styles but Jarmusch was keen to get the "poetically beautiful, slightly damaged sound of early Wu Tang". Right from the start the RZA's style was praised by critics for its "cinematic" qualities, while the producer himself argues that "all my music is pitched to the pictorial." Weaving mood-manipulative snippets of orchestration over looped breakbeats , the RZA has often been playing games with ideas of "the soundtrack" in the same way that Jarmusch's movies have fun with movie genre by--in Ghost Dog's case--mixing up elements from the mob movie, blacksploitation films, and the samurai epic.
Like a worn-out through over-playing bootleg video of a kung-fu film, the RZA's samples have a corroded, wavering out-of-focus quality, while the rhythms manage to be both disjointed and funky. It's very much a digital-era update of the archetypal Black American interest in the blue note and the off beat. One of the main Ghost Dog themes is a faltering loop of a faded-sounded electric piano lick that almost focuses you to sharpen your perceptions, placing you in the mindset of Whitaker's character, a professional assassin. Another theme made out of flutters of vaguely Oriental orchestration and pugnacious breakbeats perfectly choregraphs the great swordfight practice scene on the rooftop. There's also some nice hip hop savvy uses of music within the film's action. A gang of B-boys rapping the tune "Ice Cream" by Wu Tang clansman Raekwon sets up the first appearance of Ghost Dog's only friend, a Haitian man who sells cones from a truck called Ice Cream Palace. And in a cute scene the evil Mafia boss is seen grooving, absurdly, to Public Enemy's Flavor Flav in his deluxe bathroom suite, dressed in a Hugh Hefner-style dressing gown.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)
Like Ghost Dog, the protagonist of Jarmusch's latest movie is a black killer-for-hire. Played by Isaach De Bankole, the Lone Man (as he's identified in the credits) is an inscrutable, immaculately dressed, hyper-alert (he seems to hardly ever blink) perfectionist who is excessively, almost ludicrously fastidious in all his actions. When he eats a pear he cuts it up so exquisitely it looks like a still life; when he visits a café he insists on getting two single espressos in separate cups rather than a double espresso.
In one of his most interesting deployments of music yet, Jarmusch calls on the Japanese heavy rock band Boris for sounds that contradict the film's repressed emotional atmosphere and crisp camerawork. Inspired by acid rock and doom-laden metal of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Boris's blissfully amorphous waves of guitar distortion seem to spill across the screen, evoking all the limitlessness and uncontrol that the Lone Man has banished from his existence. (When a gorgeous secret agent with an unexplained penchant for wearing no clothes tries to seduce him, Lone Man explains he never has sex while on a mission). The tingling ambient horizons of Boris's "Farewell", which recurs at several key points in the movie, initially conjure a mood of swoony reverie, before the tune erupts into pummeling bombast, as if to promise the violence to come later in the movie-- an orgiastic spilling of blood to release the tension built up by Lone Man's self-discipline.
Intriguingly, Boris's sound is the polar opposite of the music listened to for pleasure within the movie's action by Lone Man: refined and courtly classical by Schubert. Somewhere between the two extremes lies the flamenco performed in another scene, which fuses the catharsis of extreme emotion with the poise of the staccato dance style. In a black-humorous joke, the flamenco performance prefigures the assassin's use of a guitar string as a lethal weapon. It's yet another example of the centrality of music to Jim Jarmusch's warped and witty imagination.