Thanks to the Soda Pictures Blu-ray box set released this week of the seminal filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s first six films the chance has arisen to immerse oneself in his unique cinematic world and by consuming in a stream fully appreciate the value of music to his work. So, to celebrate the great man I’ve put together a list of my favourite examples of music Jarmusch’s movies – covering score, soundtrack and his effortlessly effective use of musicians as actors. In no real order:
Iggy Pop in a Bonnet
One of three Jarmusch masterpieces to my mind, and probably, objectively, his greatest film, Dead Man (1995) includes the rare and awesome sight of the legendary Iggy Pop in a dress and more disturbingly, a bonnet, discussing how to make good beans and feeling undervalued for his culinary skills by his fellow bandits played by Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris.
The Memphis Train by Rufus Thomas
Joe Strummer leans on a jukebox and puts on this song by Rufus Thomas, who has made a cameo earlier in the film. The sequence is the essence of cool, something that Jarmusch can conjure at will across his filmography. The Memphis Train, in Memphis, in Mystery Train (1989).
Don’s Travelling Music
Jeffrey Wright’s Winston excitedly curates the aural accompaniment – after securing all the addresses – for his neighbour Don’s (Bill Murray) quest to find the mother of his alleged son. The result is a clever use of one the best soundtracks of any film ever and the perfect accompaniment to Broken Flowers’ (2005) road trip across the States.
I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Jarmusch’s 2nd film Stranger Than Paradise (1984) contains a stunningly confident sequence near the beginning of the film where Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives in New York and strides down Manhattan streets to her cousin’s apartment. The camera tracks alongside her as Hawkins’ classic booms loudly over the images. It’s a confident and bravura opening and marks the arrival of Jarmusch as a filmmaker to pay attention to.
RZA & Ghost Dog
I love the story that Jarmusch turned down RZA’s first attempt at a Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai (1999) score because it wasn’t RZA enough. The second attempt is masterful and the moment where the Wu Tang leader passes fellow modern New York samurai/hitman Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) in the street and the two share a moment of respect is spine tingling. It’s a cheeky cameo but Jarmusch, through commitment to his own visual and aural universe pulls if off without it seeming overly pretentious or egotistical.
It’s a Sad and Beautiful World
Frequent JJ collaborator Tom Waits sits outside a bar, slumped and broken, singing this song acapella in his formidable way, leaning and brooding and drunk. It’s the dark of night somewhere in New Orleans and within moments the plot of Down by Law (1986) will take a turn for the dramatic and three very different men will be thrown together in a tiny cell.
The White Stripes
An excited Jack enthuses to a breathlessly nonchalant and super cool Meg over Coffee & Cigarettes (2003) about the importance of Nikola Tesla before embarking on an ill advised experiment. Perfection.
John, Tom, Neil, RZA and Jim
As important as the songs in Jarmusch’s cinematic universe are, the fabulously diverse and unique scores are just as vital. Jarmusch’s collaborations with musicians – as opposed to traditional film composers – start with the first few films and their jarring and sublime collaborations with Lounge Lizard John Lurie and move through Tom Waits’ score for Night on Earth (1991). However it’s the aforementioned RZA score for Ghost Dog and Neil Young’s brutal, improvised (over a weekend) sonic odyssey for Dead Man that mark the high points of Jarmusch’s collaborations with musicians scoring his films. Jarmusch, a brilliant musician himself has taken to doing a lot of the scoring on his latter films himself but arguably it’s the work of these musicians, most of which are collected in this set, that have helped elevate his movies to a further iconic level.
The Jim Jarmusch Collection is available to buy now.