Tom Tapes: The Cinematic Appearances of Tom Waits and His Music

18. Mystery Men (Kinka Usher, 1999). Actor.


This undeservedly snubbed satire mixes Tom with an incredibly zany and interesting cast-Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Lena Olin. Superhero movies are all the rage these days, with one coming out about every quarter.

As far back as the late 90’s, they were big blockbuster events. Kinka Usher, a cameraman-turned-commercial director and one of Roger Corman’s latest alumni, makes this his (so far) sole foray into features, and comes up with a quirky and funny spoof on caped crusaders.

The squared-jaw seriousness of the likes of Superman and Captain America are countered here by the motley assembly of likeable freaks. Including but not limited to-Stiller’s Mr. Furious (who gets mad easily), Garofalo’s The Bowler (she bowls well and has a bowling ball with her father’s skull encapsulated inside), Macy’s The Shoveler (who can shovel really fast)-take a pick. Waits’s Dr. Heller fits well into this array as a loony inventor who makes non-lethal weapons for the team.

In his spare time, the good doctor, being a bit of gerontophile, trolls the retirement communities for dates. Being a rookie, Usher sometimes loses control on pacing, which resulted in the movie clocking in at slightly overlong 2 hours. Yet he didn’t deserve the critical swipes and apathy. The esteemed critics should have relaxed and enjoyed it for what it was-a zany satire.

Tom gem: “Goin’ Out West”. Appears in-“Fight Club”. David Fincher figured out what Gilliam did earlier-that many song from “Bone Machine” album go well with anything dark, apocalyptic, or industrial.


19. Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003 [1993]). Actor.


A uniquely Jarmuschian experience. Since 1986 Jim Jarmusch has been sporadically making black-and-white shorts featuring interactions of various characters over, well, coffee and cigarettes.

The characters may vary, but the overall theme and atmosphere remains the same. Here the devil’s in the details, and nuances and what the characters don’t say matter, perhaps, more than dialogue. And Jarmusch makes sure to make his characters interesting. The first short was made in 1986 and features the ever-mercurial Roberto Benigni converse with perennially lethargic Steven Wright.

Others followed-Spike Lee’s siblings receiving a historical lesson from a hysterical Steve Buscemi, a mob-themed chat in Brooklyn, Cate Blanchett playing two roles (of a rich woman meeting up with her punkish cousin), Jack White showing Meg White the Tesla coil, Alfred Molina trying to convince Steve Coogan that they’re distant cousins, Wu Tang’s RZA and GZA chatting with Bill-freakin’Murray-in short, a rich palette.

One of the best is the episode “Somewhere in California”, featuring a meeting between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. In a dimly lit roadside coffee joint, Tom joins Iggy at the table, drinks coffee with him, and banters away with usual Tom tales. The boys proceed to celebrate their quitting of smoking by lighting up. Iggy is nervously friendly, Tom-politely distant.

Things change when Iggy starts needling Tom, eliciting an immediate comeback (“I didn’t see anything of yours on the jukebox.”-“Well, if you don’t like it here, we can go down to Taco Bell or something, maybe it’s more of your style.”) The manners and mannerisms are inimitable. Soon into this ten minute segment, the viewer can’t help but to pay attention to the tiniest detail or facial expression. Jarmusch succeeded in creating something simple yet highly stylistic.

Tom gem: “Little Drop of Poison”. Appears in-“Shrek 2”. A bit of a scenery change for Tom. This dark and zany tango is heard being played by Cpt. Hook in the seedy bar where the villains hang out. A great song on its own (available, like many other of Tom’s non-album songs, on the “Orphans” compilation).


20. Domino (Tony Scott, 2005). Actor, soundtrack.


Based on true events. Sort of. The late Tony Scott took a story of Domino Harvey, a model-turned-bounty hunter, and made an uneven, and, at times, annoying movie. The inclusions of the talking-head of the real Domino exasperates rather than adding to the story. The action part works rather well, even if the jittery camerawork and the yellow hues get old after a while.

The slow-mo coin toss also only works for so long, and the repetition gets repetitive (not to mention, obviously derived from John Woo’s famed pigeons). But there are rewards. Keira Knightley tries valiantly, but only succeeds intermittently, brought down by jagged pacing and a murky script. The many great supporting players are a delight, though. Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez make a dynamic duo, and Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken.

Tom Waits is heard before he is seen, as his songs “Cold Cold Ground” and “Jesus Gonna Be Here” add to the excellent soundtrack. “Jesus Gonna Be Here” heralds the arrival of Tom himself, as a wandering preacher who arrives, deus ex machina-style, to rescue the heroes when their car overturns in the desert. Although his screen time is brief, it’s memorable, reminding of his song “Way Down in the Hole”. In Tom we trust.

Tom gem: “Way Down in the Hole”. Appears in-“The Wire”. This gritty crime drama is one of the best television series of all time, set in the dark underbelly of Baltimore, and Tom’s ironic-preaching number from “Franks Wild Years” greatly contributed by setting the mood over the opening sequence and credits.

The version Tom performs was only used in the second season-the other seasons featured unique covers by The Blind Boys of Alabama (a gospel group), The Neville Brothers (a famed New Orleans funk collective), hip-hop/R&B version sung by several Baltimore teenagers, and folk/Americana legend Steve Earle.


21. The Tiger and Snow (Roberto Benigni, 2005). Cameo, soundtrack.

THE TIGER AND THE SNOW, (aka LA TIGRE E LA NEVE), Tom Waits, 2005, (c) Focus Features

Another blink-and-you-miss turn for Tom, although he did provide an original song to the soundtrack. His Down by Law co-star Roberto Benigni made this as an attempt to bounce back after his monstrously expensive (by European standards) and reviled by all English-speaking audiences (the horrendous dubbing job may have played a part here) Pinocchio.

With this wartime romantic comedy, Benigni clearly tries to return to Life is Beautiful territory. In addition to male and female leads again being himself and his wife Nicoletta Braschi, the story lines are again a search for love and an attempt to maintain humor and humanity in the chaos and destruction of war (this time, the setting is Baghdad).

Tom here appears as himself, a bandleader at the Piazza, and he is performing his very optimistic number “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”. While the film is not really original, it does have a positive atmosphere, and several incredibly lyrical scenes.


22. Wristcutters: A Love Story (Goran Dukic, 2006). Actor, soundtrack.


If you happen to end up in a sort of drab hell for those who killed themselves, who better to guide you through it and explain life after death than Tom Waits? “Call me Kneller”. The first-time feature director Goran Dukic takes on an ambitious undertaking-making a suicide-themed comedy. With mostly rewarding results. This hell is not a sea of burning flames, but rather a dreary life that may just resemble your earthly one.

A pointless job, a maze of dilapidated buildings, life-sucking “neighborhood bars” with ugly carpeting and malfunctioning jukeboxes. With the help of his sardonic Russian friend and a girl they pick up on the way, he travels to find his lost love, who, as he learned, also ended her own life. Dukic cleverly masters the indie film limitations by placing the action in drab everyday surroundings, thus keeping the budget low.

The story drags at places, and Patrick Fugit, of Almost Famous fame, is not particularly likeable or engaging as the lead. But Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham easily steals the show as the Eugene-Hutz-like, over-the-top Russian, and the beautiful Shannyn Sossamon (who for some reason is criminally underused by the film industry) excels. Tom Waits does as well in a small but memorable role as is expected of him, and also adds to the excellent soundtrack with a very appropriate “Dead and Lovely”.

Speaking of soundtrack-it’s an eclectic delight, featuring the gypsy punk fest of Gogol Bordello, Artie Shaw’s jazz, country twangs of Gram Parsons. And try not to chuckle when Joy Division comes up on the jukebox-very darkly appropriate. A film about death that turns out to be life-affirming.

Tom gem: “Green Grass” and “All the World is Green”. Appear in-“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. From “Real Gone” and “Blood Money”, respectively-both these haunting songs add to the nostalgic atmosphere of Julian Schnabel’s beautiful film.


23. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009). Actor.


Tom and Terry are reunited, and it looks so good. Tom’s singularity vibes very well with Gilliam’s typically unique vision. After the mess that was The Brothers Grimm, where Gilliam too often found himself excessively controlled by Harry Weinstein, he started to eschew large budgets for more personal projects.

Having made a wonderfully demented Tideland (2006), a live-action film made like a stop-motion Svankmajer nightmare, here he raises the stakes and delivers a phantasmagorical scary tale. Unfortunately, a large and dark shadow ended up looming over the project. Heath Ledger was cast as a main protagonist, a man who goes through transformative experiences after passing through the sideshow stage mirror.

Well into filming, he tragically died. Initially, it spelled the end of the film. But Gilliam had a brilliant idea to use several actors in the role, stemming from material itself. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law, all friends of Ledger, agreed to step in and portray his character as he goes through the transformations (and also donated their salaries to Ledger’s family).

In the context of this surreal tale, it worked, although somewhat distracted from the rest of the quality performances. Although one will be scratching head long and hard after seeing this, in an attempt to discern a plot or at least to find some rhyme or reason, the elements are top-notch here. Christopher Plummer is excellent as a Faust-like figure, with claims to divinity.

Both Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer do great as his sideshow assistants, especially Garfield. But there are two performers who stand out above the rest. Model and novice actress Lily Cole is a beautiful sight to behold as Valentina, the daughter of Dr. Parnassus and a stake in his bet with the devil. Playing a girl transitioning into young woman, with all the playful precociousness and subtle sensuality, she is the kind of sapphire-eyed red head that will steal your heart with you looking.

And then there is Tom. Sporting a bowler hat that his concert audiences have come to appreciate so much, dark Victorian-era suits, a thin cigarette mouthpiece and an even thinner moustache, he makes a compelling and sometimes even sympathetic Mephistopheles, a devil-trickster driven to possess souls, but not without a snake-oiler charm, or sense of humor.

This cinematic devil role surpasses even the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Walter Huston, and Max Von Sydow in insidious charm. Gilliam makes a perfect Gilliam film.


24. The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010). Actor.


This Hughes Brothers effort is not bad, definitely worth watching. Unfortunately, it asks the viewer to suspend too much disbelief. But there are rewards. Who better to tyrannically run the post-apocalyptic town than Gary Oldman, and who is more qualified to run a dusty, dusky, trade shop in such a town than Tom Waits?

The two Bram Stoker’s Dracula actors are reunited here, and provide some of the best scenes in this movie, countering the sculpted gravitas of Denzel Washington’s main hero (aided by an impressive turn by Ray Stevenson as Oldman’s henchman).

Visually, this post-apocalyptic Western is impressive-arid landscapes, photography bordering on monochromatic. Gary Oldman again excels as a sociopathic villain, and Waits provides a memorable episode as his Engineer, the keeper of the shop, negotiates and haggles with the titular hero.

Yet another memorable cameo appearance for Tom. Throw in Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, and Malcolm McDowell, not to forget Jennifer Beals in a good supporting turn-and we have a zany and eclectic cast, which, together with the visuals and Denzel’s strong lead turn, almost combine to save the film from the numerous plot holes and uneven acting (Mila Kunis disappoints here). Almost.


25. The Monster of Nix (Rosto, 2011). Voice.


Considering that Waits has one of the most distinct-sounding voices out there, it’s mysterious that he doesn’t do more voice-over work. Jim Jarmusch was the first to recognize Tom’s unique voice, using him as off-screen DJ in 1989 Mystery Train. Tom’s next chance came much later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s visually impressive but opaque and uneven Twixt (2011).

As far as animation is concerned, Tom’s only contributions are the voice of Tommy the Cat in the music video for the eponymous Primus song, and a voice cameo in the 2013 episode of The Simpsons. But there is also this little-seen but worth to seek out animated curio. Made by a well-known Dutch artist and animator Rosto (Robert Stoces), it’s a 30-min. long animated musical that’s both scary and mesmerizing.

Although the imagery is CGI, it definitely recalls the puppet works of Jiri Trnka, Bretislav Pojar, and the Quay Brothers, as well as phantasmagorical universes of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. Gilliam, in fact, is also present as the voice of one of the characters. Tom’s raspy and growly voicing of Virgil the giant crow fits in perfectly in this cacophony of mesmerizing nightmarish imagery and weird sounds.

The story of Wily, the little boy who must save his town from being eventually devoured by a monster, may have ran away from Rosto at times, but the visual elements remain impressive from beginning to the end. Not a fairy tale-rather, a scary tale, and worth seeing and experiencing.


26. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012). Actor.


Another small part, although, perhaps, most memorable of all. Ireland’s Martin McDonagh is one of the best playwrights of today, and the lines he writes are often outrageous, eerie, and hilarious at the same time. And who better to deliver them than the likes of Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and, of course, Tom.

In this meta-film, a struggling screenwriter posts an ad for a psychopath to come and tell him a story, so that he can use it in the script. One responder is Zachariah, played by Waits, a taciturn man with a white bunny, who recounts a story how he and his sweetheart “went around the country killing people who go around killing people. Serial killer killers.”

It takes Waits’s unique talent for a drawling, deadpan delivery to give the material justice. Overall, the film can be described as Charlie Kaufman meets Quentin Tarantino, with stylistics spiced by outrageousness. To date, it’s a last notable film Waits has taken a part in, so here’s hoping for more screen time for Tom, and soon.

Tom gem: “Clap Hands”. Appears on-Peaky Blinders. An ominous dirge from “Rain Dogs”, it perfectly fits the period atmosphere of the great British TV crime drama.

Author Bio: Leo Poroshin is a Russian-born aspiring writer/director (film and theatre), residing in Michigan. He enjoys life, and, naturally, the arts, as they are one of life’s best manifestations. When not writing or directing, he is busy fronting his band Leo & The Komrads.