8. RZA – Samurai Theme (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999)
Jarmusch created his most effective cultural mashup when he was able to combine hip hop beats, Japanese philosophy and French noir cinema.
In the sequence in which Ghost Dog practices with his sword, RZA (a member of the Wu Tang Clan, who wrote the score for the film) creates a compact, floating beat with an equal amount of physical intensity and levity, a mixture between the pounding, pulsating heart of the American urban metropolis and the aerial elegance of Japanese samurai culture.
The scene is a visual ballet about self-determination, self-improvement, and the merging of two cultures. RZA’s beat, the editing transitions, and the hypnotic movement of the kata wielded by Ghost Dog are meant to create an ecstatic sensation of getting lost in the training, into the philosophy of the Hagakure.
9. Jerry Byrd – Serenade to Nalani (Coffee and Cigarettes, 2003)
The Hawaiian style steel guitar of Jerry Byrd plays over the scene of Tom Waits and Iggy Pop talking in a bar. The prevailing topic of the conversation is smoking, but it’s meant to highlight all minor human weaknesses, our habits, our self-irony and our mistakes.
The music creates a sense of pleasant reminiscence that suits the relaxed tone of the film, which is arguably Jarmusch’s most casual film along with “Night on Earth”.
Remembering is also part of a meta-cinematic reflection by Jarmusch about the pop music scene of his younger years, the wrinkles on the faces of Waits and Pop, the lunar guitar tones of Byrd saluting the twilight of a bygone era of music that Jarmusch remembers with fondness and nostalgia.
The fact that a jukebox plays an active role in the scene only amplifies the sense of aching nostalgia, along with a sense of tranquility and pleasure, a hedonistic love for life lived and life that is to be lived.
10. Marvin Gaye – I Want You (Broken Flowers, 2005)
In “Broken Flowers”, an aging Bill Murray tries to recapture his younger years and the time he is lost when faced with the possibility that he might have a child from an old relationship.
Don, Murray’s character, spends his days on the sofa in his house, watching television and surrendering to the monotone lifestyle of his remaining years.
All of a sudden, this possibility brings excitement back into his life, even if he initially does not want to get involved. The soothing, sensual, powerful voice of Marvin Gaye echoes in his living room, while he impassibly stares into the void. Mr. Gaye is calling, he wants him, he wants him to recapture his lost life, to feel young again, to aspire to something better, to feel himself alive again, and the infectious rhythm is fighting to move him from his statuary immobility, both a physical and emotional stasis.
The scene feeds off the tension between Murray’s immobility and Gaye’s all-conquering energy.
11. Boris – Farewell (The Limits of Control, 2009)
At one point in “The Limits of Control”, Tilda Swinton’s character says, “The best films are like dreams you’re not quite sure you had.” The use of music from drone psych metal band Boris, hailing from Japan, is a medium to create a dreamlike experience, a cinematic place where the melody is drowned under reverb and noise.
The song plays at multiple times during the film, but the most notable sequence is when the lady in white played by Swinton walks through the wind, and Jarmusch’s sense of pace and editing comes in through the use of slow motion, so that film reconditions itself around the rhythm of Boris’s song.
The sense of longing that is present in many Jarmusch films is more subtle in “The Limits of Control”: the music of Boris can be more confusing than saddening, but the combination of metal and shoegaze in the end creates the melancholic atmosphere that Jarmusch wants, coupled with a previously underdeveloped dreaminess that makes “The Limits of Control” a stoner rock Lynchian cinematic object of difficult interpretation, just like the tangled, dense, deep sounds of Boris.
12. Carmen Linares – El que se tenga por grande (The Limits of Control, 2009)
He who thinks he is bigger than the rest, should go to the cemetery. There he will see what life really is, it’s a handful of dirt. The words of the flamenco song that is at the heart of “The Limits of Control” is the philosophical key to understanding the philosophy of the piece that mixes existentialism, Sufi mysticism, and surrealism.
The scene is powerful and the voice of the singer is extremely intense, almost a desperate cry to the heavens, or to the rest of humanity. The futility of power, of money, of life in general, and therefore the role of art as the supreme element of existence and the artist as the ultimate Prometheus, the ultimate rebel, the ultimate man, awakened to the true face of existence.
The flamenco scene, as De Bankolè’s character watches the dance performed, is the revelatory moment, the epiphany where the nature of the world is finally shown, the veil is lifted and truth becomes self-evident.
The song plays over two scenes in the film; one is the flamenco scene, but the second one is much more cryptic. It is a shot of a road illuminated by the light of a car driving at night; it is a mysterious shot that could about death, since the previous scene saw a murder.
Is it a metaphorical representation of a soul heading into the darkness of undetermined inexistence? Is the feeble light a symbol for our feeble life, surrounded by inescapable and monolithic darkness? Jarmusch conjures a sequence that is as haunting as anything he’s ever filmed, all through the power of music and imagery and deep philosophical allusions that spring from both.
13. SQURL – Funnel of Love (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)
“Funnel of Love” is a declaration of Jarmusch’s love for music, cinema, and love. A vinyl spins, the camera spins while Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton motionlessly stare into the void.
The spinning of the camera is meant to imitate the sense of feeling lost, of falling in love, of falling more and more, but also the pure tactile pleasure of a record spinning, the pleasure of moving the camera, the pleasures of Jarmusch’s life.
Jarmusch himself plays the song, a re-working of Wanda Jackson’s classic, a slow, dense piece of psychedelic country music about the pleasure, the confusion and the weakness that love generates in all people.
Again, Jarmusch finds a way to establish synchronicity between the pace of the shot, the editing transition, and the rhythm of the music. The result is highly hypnotic and an instantaneous tone-setter for the film.
14. Denise LaSalle – Trapped By A Thing Called Love (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)
Dancing to music played by a vinyl record is the most romantic sequences, according to the sensibility of Jarmusch. Tilda Swinton starts dancing to an uplifting, upbeat soul track characterized by punchy drumming and bright saxophone sounds; she is at the same time sensual and playful as she warmly tries to cheer up Tom Hiddleston’s character.
Jarmusch’s camera starts dancing along, the editing follows the steps of the dancers, the camera looks at them from behind, then from above, then another smooth editing transition merges the bodies of the dancers with the vinyl record, creating a mythical half-human, half-musical creature.
The elegiac tone of the sequence is a clear shift in tone from the lunar atmosphere of the film, a ray of light that shows how love and affection, and also music, can create a way through the darkness, and the existential darkness of Hiddleston’s character’s life, driven down by boredom and depression.
15. Yasmine Hamdan – Hal (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)
In Tangier, in the final sequences of the film, a desperate, tired, bloodthirsty, moribund Tom Hiddleston watches Yasmine Hamdan perform a spellbinding version of her song “Hal” in a bar, while the crowd silently watches.
The performance is very minimal; Hamdan creates the atmosphere through the poetry of her voice, the languid tones of a guitar played by a supporting musician, and her sinuous body. Jarmusch’s camera stands there, indulging on the details of the guitar, on Hamdan’s fingers, with the revering eye of somebody who feels like he just stumbled upon a hidden treasure.
The whole scene has the feeling of stepping into a secret vault of lost, dark and timeless music. The moment in which the sequence is placed is also very important; as the desperation of the protagonists and their longing for death is at its highest, when faced with the vacuity of life and the struggle for new blood, the effort to keep moving forward is apparently too much for them.
Once again, music provides the escape, a miraculous explosion of vitality, beauty and emotion that makes life worth living again. Jarmusch is also keen on highlighting the elitist nature of great art; when Tilda Swinton’s character suggests that Hamdan should be better known, Hiddleston’s character says she shouldn’t, because “she’s too good.”
Author Bio: Gabriele is an Italian film student studying in Scotland. He is an experimental and arthouse cinema enthusiasta and a believer in the crucial importance of freedom of artistic expression.