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 Ã¨ 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.