Jim Jarmusch, an avid music listener, has always paid great attention to the soundtracks of his films.
Unlike most American directors, the musical genres he implemented the most were psychedelia and drone music, along with a great affection for American black music. His soundtracks create a dreamy and ethereal but also nostalgic atmosphere that haunts all of his works.
1. Earl Bostic – Up There in the Orbit (Permanent Vacation, 1980)
A decadent room, the raw, cloudy beauty of a semi-naked girl looking out the window, a frantic jazz song and a spasmodic, alienated dance by Chris Parker, full of abandon and desperation, vitality and uncontrolled physicality.
With this small vignette, Jarmusch creates a no-wave tableau vivant, the snapshot of a music-loving intellectual and broken generation lost in an inhabitable and collapsing society.
The spiraling hard bop sounds of Earl Bostic provide a moment of elevation, of futile but intense escape from the dreadful environment and the seemingly hopeless future.
2. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984)
Where is the soul of America? The young Hungarian protagonist of “Stranger than Paradise” believes that it’s all in the blues. When John Lurie’s character asks her about what she is listening, she proudly declares, “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and he is a wild man.”
The way she carries his music around, the way Hawkins’s demonic voice, his guttural breathing and his incendiary delivery, express a shamanic and primordial power that comes directly from the soul of an idealized America, and contrasts with the rather desolate scenery she encounters while wandering through the country.
Coming from Europe, she carries her idealized image of America with her in the form of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s music. The film as well, and Jarmusch himself, are desperately hanging onto this idea, and are hanging on against the memory of a land being eroded by a slow decline.
3. Tom Waits – Jockey Full Of Bourbon (Down by Law, 1986)
Tom Waits’s drunken melodies set the tone in the opening of “Down by Law”, as the camera pans through the streets of New Orleans, but Jarmusch, through the song and the desolate scenery, has already decided who the city belongs to: the drunken poets, the thieves, the lonely, the decrepit artists, the failed musicians, the resurrected voodoo priests, the scum.
Waits captures with his voice the universe of the entire American underground, the nocturnal people, the stray dogs, the lunatics who live on the edges of society. There is no better place than the Deep South of the United States to let all these people resurface.
4. Elvis Presley – Mystery Train (Mystery Train, 1989)
The train as the symbol of travel. Elvis Presley’s interpretation of the song written by Junior Parker and Sam Phillips creates the setting for Jarmusch’s classic 1989 film. The song plays during the opening credits, the beginning of the journey, and during the end credits, the end of the metaphorical cinematic journey and the possible beginning of a new journey.
The song was one of the first to establish Presley as a national sensation, and his music retained a number of country elements that were progressively lost as he went into his late crooner period.
5. Elvis Presley – Blue Moon (Mystery Train, 1989)
On warm Memphis nights, Elvis Presley’s ghost seems to linger in the dark air, or at least that’s what it feels like for the traveler. Tom Waits announces on the radio, with his mellifluous voice, that the next song will be “Blue Moon”, in Presley’s interpretation.
The song plays three times during the film; three are the stories that the film follows, stories that intertwine but also remain irreparably parallel and separated.
The song, each time it plays, brings a different feeling, whether it is nostalgia, a mystical and mysterious feel, or a sense of inconsolable sadness, but Jarmusch manages to make the song suit each scene with his unparalleled ability to understand pace and atmosphere.
In a hypothetical graphical representation of the plot of the film, “Blue Moon” would be the point where all the lines meet in a specific point. Music, to Jarmusch, is the place where all things flow.
6. Tom Waits – Helsinki Mood (Night on Earth, 1991)
Tom Waits composed the soundtrack for the film “Night on Earth”, and the instrumental piece “Helsinki Mood” reaches a peak in morose, late night, drunken sadness.
The music is syncopated, the conversations are melancholic and deadpan, the winter night in Helsinki creates the most depressing tone of the film that is steeped in blackly humorous, relaxed and pensive moods.
Waits creates a nearly passed out orchestra of trumpet, accordion, piano, organ and other instruments, the kind you would listen to in a smoky bar in the most desperate hours of the night.
At the end of the vignette, one of the characters is left in the freezing night, sitting in the snow. Waits and his music celebrate what Jarmusch celebrates as well; the sound of the heart of the defeated by life and society.
7. Neil Young – Dead Man (Dead Man, 1995)
After watching soundless footage of Jim Jarmusch’s postmodern acid western, Neil Young decided he wanted to write a score for the film, so he picked up his guitar and completely improvised a series of heavily distorted, psychedelic guitar solos with a rich spiritual feel to them.
The film’s soul is found in the hazy tones of Young’s music, as the main protagonist’s journey develops through a series of apparitions, visions, surreal interludes and ecstatic natural landscapes, all with a ritualistic feel that evokes symbolist, orphic and romantic poetry.
Along with psychedelia and stoner rock, Young’s sounds also retain influences from a style of music that Jarmusch would later completely embrace: the sound of drone music, with its heavy, stormy sound landscapes.
The fourth guitar solo is so rarefied that it borders on ambient music, while in other moments the guitar is played with a grunge-blues vigor, a contrast between heavenly desires and bodily raptures of sweat and blood.