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We did a lot of wandering back in the days before we had little computers in our pockets telling us where to go. We wandered through unending nights, through broken cities, through back catalogs of forgotten soul singers, unable to type their names into devices in an attempt to discover why exactly they were forgotten in the first place. “We can’t just keep riding around all night like this, can we?” inquires a fresh-faced Steve Buscemi in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, one the greatest American films to capture the essentiality of meandering. In a time before Google Maps, the answer was a resounding yes.
The wandering in Jarmusch’s valentine to American blues and pop culture takes place across three stories that each occur during a single night in Memphis, and are animated by the spirit of that city’s music. Mystery Train is the rare movie that captures that ineffable feeling we all had when we first discovered, and were later transfixed by, the songs from labels like Sun, Phillips, Stax, Ardent, Goldwax, Hi and beyond.
Music lives in the shadows of Mystery Train and runs through its veins
Those songs— by Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas (the ambassador of Memphis, who’s appearance in the movie wasn’t so much fitting as it was necessary) and others— live in the shadows of Mystery Train and run through it veins. They hint at the worn down, weathered world that comes vividly to life with Jarmusch’s camera.
The film tells three distinctive stories that are linked by a flop house motel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a flaming red Lansky Brothers suit, a gun shot, and Tom Waits’ radio DJ playing Blue Moon, Elvis’s most haunting recording.
The central character in each short film is a foreigner in a foreign land— not unlike us post-punk explorers who were just discovering American roots music.
First, there’s a Japanese couple who bicker through a rock & roll pilgrimage to Sun Studio and Graceland (even though one of them argues repeatedly that Carl Perkins is far superior to Elvis) only to finally reconnect with each as well as the music that brought them there. Then there’s an Italian widow stuck in a layover with the corpse of her husband who confronts the weirdos and ghosts of the city. And finally, a recently dumped, out-of-work Englishman, played with rockabilly sideburns and patented snarl by the late Joe Strummer, threatens to make his bad situation untenable by insisting on waving around a loaded gun.
With the likes of Strummer, Buscemi, Thomas, Waits, the ghost of Elvis, and if you listen closely, the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, Mystery Train is more than just a movie— it’s our answer to the question “Who would you most like to have a dinner party with?” It is also an intensely beautiful film, with every one of Jarmusch’s longtime cinematographer Robby Müller’s frames good enough to hang in a museum, and John Lurie’s score every bit as haunting and captivating as the film’s classic songs. It is a movie that calls to mind a period when the term “Indie Film” had nothing to do with budget or distribution but a higher artistic calling.
Jim Jarmusch has made a ton of really good movies in his legendary career. We like Down by Law, and think most folks missed the boat with Dead Man and Ghost Dog; we absolutely loved Only Lovers Left Alive, one of two vampire films of the last couple years that truly belongs in the pantheon (this is, of course, the other).
It captures the essentiality of the discovery of—and passion for—music
But Mystery Train is the one we keep wandering back too, the one that continues to gnaw on and inspire us. Maybe its because it’s has so much Memphis in it, or because it is so cleverly constructed but never in a way that calls attention to itself. Maybe it’s because it is a film that so captures better than any other the essentiality of the discovery of—and passion for—music that has so shaped our lives. What ever the reason, this is is a mystery worth unravelling. And returning to.
Any movie that gets the city of Memphis this right would, undoubtedly have a solid soundtrack and Mystery Train doesn’t disappoint. Elvis, Otis, Junior Parker, Bobby Bland’s latest hit single (at the time of filming), and Rufus Thomas’ greatest record, “Memphis Train,” which moves with all the power its name promises.