Judge Mike Rubino. Carl Perkins. Judge Mike Rubino. Carl Perkins.
"At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed 648 pounds."—Bellboy
Memphis is the fertile crescent of American blues and rock n' roll, giving the world folks like Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Mystery Train is Jim Jarmusch's 1989 love letter to that forgotten holy land of music.
Facts of the Case
The film features a triptych of stories, all of which take place simultaneously:
"Far from Yokohama" opens with two Japanese tourists, the quietly cool Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and his affable girlfriend Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh), arriving in Memphis via train. They're on a pilgrimage to Graceland, Sun Studios, and anywhere else they can drag their tightly packed suitcase.
"A Ghost" features an Italian widow, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi, Life is Beautiful), stranded after her flight gets cancelled. She's forced to spend another night in Memphis and her wandering leads to some dangerous con artists; a transient hotel roommate, Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco, The Sopranos); and The King himself.
"Lost in Space" focuses on a down-and-out British immigrant, Johnny (Joe Strummer from The Clash), whose recent breakup with his girlfriend leads him on a night of drunken violence with his friends Will and Charlie (played by Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi).
The three tales all involve, in some capacity, the Arcade Hotel, a flea bag joint run by a conspicuously formal pair of attendees played by Cinqué Lee and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
In Mystery Train, Jarmusch approaches the subject of rock n' roll with the reverence of a great religion: musicians are immortalized with iconic imagery and spoken of in communal groups; recording studio shrines stand as timeless dioramas in a changing landscape; and Elvis adorns every room, every inch of Memphis, like a savior with swivel hips and sideburns. For worshippers of early American rock, this is a very religious film.
Its reverence for American music is a subtle thing, brilliantly seen from a foreign perspective by various pilgrims. The audience, along with the pilgrims, is experiencing the strange backstage of a distinctly American city. While only the first duo, Jun and Mitsuko, are knowingly there to pay homage, no major character escapes the town's musical history or disarming underbelly. Throughout, Jarmusch's triptych storytelling is calm and organized; he's not rushing a thing, and chooses to tell each segment from start to finish instead of simultaneously. This allows the film to build on itself, repeating scenes, sounds, and images as the mysterious events unfold. In the end, everything comes together simply; though it can be a little predictable, the ride is worth the price of the ticket.
A clever story structure wouldn't be much help without interesting characters. Luckily, Jarmusch packed his movie with them. Jun is a cryptic, emotionless hypocrite who is perfectly juxtaposed with the quirky Mitsuko, whose friendliness baffles just about everyone. Luisa is an intelligent, strong woman who, mirroring the first couple, is stuck in a room with her complete opposite: Dee Dee, a boarder who doesn't know when to shut up. Then there's Johnny, who's played with convincing sloppiness by Joe Strummer: he's an absolute mess, a drunken killer who's totally distraught over his girlfriend leaving him. His only choice is to turn to his friend Will Robinson (Aviles) and Charlie the barber (Buscemi). Their chemistry is volatile, and their crazed adventure through the night eventually touches upon the other two segments.
All three stories center around the Arcade Hotel, and it's the two attendants, Hawkins and Lee, who steal every scene. With Screamin' Jay in his bright red suit and Cinqué Lee in his tiny bellboy hat, you'd think they were working the five star hotel in Home Alone 2. Instead, they're stuck working the graveyard shift at the dirtiest, and busiest, hotel in Memphis. Their dialogue and chemistry is hysterical, and every scene they're in (even the ones that repeat) is perfect.
The film's comic elements are balanced nicely with the bleak tone of the city, which is on display with some artful directing on Jarmusch's part—it's his first big project to be filmed in color. The cinematography by Robby Müller (To Live and Die in L.A.) is of the highest order, with a cool color palette occasionally broken up by the bright bold red of Mitsuko's lipstick or a neon sign. Jarmusch is meticulous in his editing and framing, and it amounts to a great looking movie.
Criterion deserves credit as well for the film's transfer. The disc features a brand new, high definition transfer approved by Jarmusch, along with the standard Dolby Digital mono audio track. Despite the monaural audio, the film sounds great, with a well-balanced dialogue track and some great tunes (many introduced by the film's radio DJ, played by Tom Waits).
The single disc is also accompanied by some predictably solid special features. In lieu of a commentary track, Jim Jarmusch instead spends over an hour answering fan-submitted questions. While it's a bummer than you can't listen to him do this and watch the movie (you instead just have to stare at the menu and listen), Jarmusch is both insightful and open in his answers. He's an entertaining guy to listen to, and the Q&A is easily the best supplement here. Also included is an excerpt from the documentary Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me, a new doc about the Memphis locations, and a couple of photo galleries. Lastly, there's a well-designed booklet featuring essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick.
Jim Jarmusch outdoes himself with Mystery Train. It's a classic independent film whose storytelling convention and atmosphere are only outdone by the bizarre characters filling the screen. It's an ode to the early apostles in the religion of rock, a pilgrimage to a forgotten American landmark, and just a fun movie worth checking out.
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