March 15, 2007

Mystery Train, next stop Memphis

If you have the patience to watch and enjoy as a rich noir-influenced story unfolds with diverse characters, three loosely interrelated plots, and an absolutely top-notch soundtrack, then Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train is one you should definitely dig up at the rental place.

I never saw this when it came out in 1989 because although I have always liked this kind of music, I was preoccupied with NKOTB at the time and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see it anyways because there are boobies. I was more about the Hangin’ Tough Live Concert video than moody atmospheric musical travelogues through rock history’s footprints. But now that I have grown, man alive did I enjoy this one.

Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Coffee & Cigarettes, Year of the Horse) clearly loves music, and there is nary a city in America where music is more firmly enmeshed in the pulse of the community than Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a story that takes its sweet time unravelling, with long pauses to breathe. The cinematography is vignette driven, almost like a series of postcards with lingering shots of the city of Memphis — the dirty, gritty, ambling back alleys and monuments to Elvis and references to Graceland.

And Elvis is indeed everywhere (even if our young Japanese protagonist keeps insisting that Carl Perkins was better); inescapable and as much of a living character in the film as anyone else. The black velvet portrait over the bed of the skeevy motel even pictures the gentle doe-eyed Elvis who smiles down on the rapid-fire consummation (okay, it’s the 11th time) of young teenage love.

The film starts with that teenage Japanese couple pulling into the train station for a firsthand pilgrimage of American rock and roll history. He sports a pompadour and the ever-present cigarette behind the ear, while she rocks the combat boots, a leather jacket, and a bright enthusiasm for anything related to American rock and roll. They don’t really know where they’re going, on several levels, but that’s okay with them.

After their story is mostly told (but left unfinished), the night rewinds and we meet a young Italian widow also in town to bring home the body of her husband to Rome. Played by the lovely Nicoletta Braschi (La Vita è Bella), hers is a wide-eyed and gentle respite between the other two tales. It was during her story that I found myself unable to resist belting out a bit of Marc Cohn: “Saw the ghost of Elvis down on Union Avenue. . .” even though most days I could do without that song. Rare the film that melds American rock history with the sonorous sounds of the Italian language, and I loved that segment.

Finally the triple-action view of the evening is wrapped up with a glance into the activities of three wayward punks (one of which is, oh, Joe Strummer, another a very young Steve Buscemi) and their drunken crimes. Although concrete connections between the three parallel storylines become apparent throughout the course of the night, the tales never directly intersect. Characters who know each other find themselves down the hall from one another, hearing the same sound, but never knowing of the intersection. Ultimately, it’s just a glimpse, and the film feels unfinished — but agreeably so.

For the music nerd, the film does journey through several immortalized locations, including a fast-talking tour of Sun Studios and some of the last footage ever shot of the original legendary Stax Records (by the way, if you like that soul sound, check out the Stax 50th Anniversary box set just released this week).

The melancholy soundtrack throughout is of the finest quality and simply cannot be beat for the atmosphere it creates, reminding me of the David Lynch scoring in Blue Velvet. Most of the tunes used in the soundtrack were actually recorded at Sun Studios back in the heyday, and the film resurrects them in almost-eerie fashion.

PS — the richly honeyed voice on the radio with the 2am intro to ‘Blue Moon’ in each of the three vignettes is none other than Tom Waits. Come on.

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley
Mystery Train – Junior Parker
Blue Moon – Elvis Presley
Domino – Roy Orbison
Soul Finger – The Bar-Kays
Pain In My Heart – Otis Redding
The Memphis Train – Rufus Thomas
(I was so excited when Joe Strummer’s character selects this last tune on the bar jukebox — I just “found” it recently on the What It Is! compilation, and it has been an essential and beloved addition to my favorite new mix CD. Great song – and watch for the cameo in the Memphis train station by ole’ Rufus himself).

An absolute must-see, a very cool movie.


  • Sweet soul music! I cannot thank you people enough. I had been trying to track down all of these mp3s all over the ‘net and back again.

    Mystery Train is just the coolest indie film, ever. And Memphis is the coolest city in America. Because it doesn’t try.

    I used to have a cassette version of this soundtrack, which sadly disappeared. The first side had all of the tracks here and the second side had John Lurie’s instrumental score. Nice.

    I was aiming to make my dad a mix CD worthy of my musical pedigree, and these mp3s will do the trick. Fantastic, thanks friends.

    dayton, oh

    Anonymous — March 15, 2007 @ 7:32 pm

  • I recently added this to my Netflix list, and I think I’ll enjoy it.

    Mystery Train, for what it’s worth, is also the title of a poetry collection by David Wojahn. He writes a long sonnet series in the center of the collection about different events in rock and roll history. It’s really a nice collection if you’re at all interested in contemporary poetry.

    Maggie — March 15, 2007 @ 8:13 pm

  • Jiffy Squid. — March 15, 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  • Jiffy Squid! indeed.

    heather — March 15, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  • Will you marry me, Heather?

    Anonymous — March 15, 2007 @ 10:33 pm

  • Great post… I had not heard of this movie (wow), and I also have added it to my Netfluxcapacitor.


    wakeboarder69 — March 16, 2007 @ 8:39 am

  • One of my favorite movies. I have such the hots for Masatoshi Nagase. Mmmm…

    Baby Pop — March 16, 2007 @ 8:51 am

  • If you like MT, check out Down by Law by Jarmusch, starring Waits, Lurie & Begnini(SP)>Awesome

    Anonymous — March 16, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  • You might also like Chungking Express, from Wong Kar-wai. It is a 90′s Hong Kong film with a similar atmospheric mood, three stories interwoven and not together, beautiful cinematography, and memorable characters. It’s mainly a love story, and a why-are-we-here story.. it’s also a comedy/drama.

    Fallen Angels from the same director is similarly three parts that meet but don’t. This time about a hitman. Both of these films would complement the tone of Jarmusch.

    Tarantino is a big fan of this director.

    Of course Jarmusch always seems to get great fringe singers in his movies, and who can forget The Way of the Samurai… awesome,

    Yon — March 16, 2007 @ 12:15 pm

  • I have to say the performance by Strummer & friends in the pick-up truck and afterward in the motel room is some of the greatest drunk acting ever. Though something tells me they weren’t acting . . .

    Sal — March 16, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

  • you need a jerry version

    mystery train

    spencer — March 17, 2007 @ 5:37 pm

  • Heather,
    Thanks for your website. An interesting piece of trivia from the movie: in the movie, the ghost of Elvis was played by Steve Jones, whose wife Paula would later file a sexual harassment lawsuit against a U.S. President with his own connections to Elvis.

    Greil Marcus wrote about this coincidence in one of the best books on rock and roll music, also entitled “Mystery Train.”


    Jeff — March 17, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

  • hey thanks for *all* the good recommendations! I love that about this bloggie thing.

    spencer, you rock for the mp3 link, and Jeff — I hadn’t heard of that book or that author, but now in Googling (well, Amazoning) I see that he has several very interesting-looking books. I will add him to my (looong) list!

    heather — March 19, 2007 @ 6:31 am

  • Mystery Train my favourite film of all time. Jim Jarmush’s films are just so chilled. You’re spot on about JJ being so in tune with the music. The films themselves are like late night soothing soundtracks. You need to check out Night on Earth (2nd fav. film ever) with the Tom Waits soundtrack, Down By Law and also the great Ghost Dog film and soundtrack.

    Thanks for the music.

    m u n g e r — March 19, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  • Wow – never heard of the film, but it sounds like something I definitely need to see. Thanks for the rec!

    Myriem — March 23, 2007 @ 9:54 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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