Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Youki Kudoh, Mastoshi
Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco,
Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Tom Noonan, Rufus Thomas, Tom Waits
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: June 15, 2010
“This is America.”
Memphis, Tennessee...a city many consider to be the birthplace of rock and roll. It was the city that introduced the world to Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and oh yes, a little trucker from Tupelo named Elvis who would really electrify the art form forever.
It's the backdrop of Jim Jarmusch's charming Mystery Train. It's also a look at America from the point of view of the outsider...neither the picture postcard chamber of commerce image nor the sordid moral wasteland so many artists depict it as. No, this America both romanticized and scrutinized, in three stories peopled by memorable characters.
In the first one, a teenage Japanese couple (Kudoh and Nagase) come to Memphis with their visions of rock and roll history. She wants to see Graceland and loves Elvis. He likes Carl Perkins more. The boy seems sad, though he claims to be perfectly happy. In the second story, an Italian widow (Braschi), possibly in danger, spends the night with an American stranger (Bracco) with troubles of her own. In the finale, two recently laid off workers (Strummer and Aviles) drink, drive, and go a bit too far with their barber friend (Buscemi).
All end up at the same seedy motel and encounter the desk clerk (Hawkins) and bell boy (Lee). Each spends the night. Each hears Elvis singing “Blue Moon” on the radio, although only one actually gets to see the King. There is an unexplained gunshot...one causes it, but everyone else hears it.
The pleasure of a Jim Jarmusch film is in how rich and fascinating his characters are, as simple as they may be. Sometimes describing the plot of one of his movies is a thankless exercise, because it's the characters that drive the movie, rather than conventional storylines. In a sense, his movies are like modal compositions; there's a mood and an outline, but the details can be filled in multiple ways. Displace any of these characters, and you have a different movie...maybe equally as good, but different.
His style is so minimalist yet so brilliant...sometimes it occurs to you as you watch a scene unfold that a VERY long time has gone by without a cut. Jarmusch's films, especially in the 80s, really stand out against a decade where MTV-style montage cutting was the norm. Here, the pace is relaxed, and the actors carry the load. All pieces work together to create a relaxed harmony that lets the words and details shine.
This was only his third movie, and though Jarmusch always seemed just a step outside of the mainstream, his films have been studied, analyzed and loved by legions of fans. I'm certainly one of them. Mystery Train is a delightful example of what he does, and why he does it so well.
This is one of the best looking 80s transfers I've ever seen, and those of you who have read my reviews over the last decade knows that's a VERY short list. From the opening, Jarmusch's look at Memphis is vivid, colorful, and filled with wonderful detail and clarity. You'd think he shelled out money for a leading European cinematographer, but whatever he did, he achieved with brilliance, and this Blu-ray captures that essence in every frame, be it light or dark setting. An absolute joy to behold.
The dialogue drives the movie, and spoken words are always cleanly delivered. There's some good music to accompany the proceedings, and those tunes open up the experience a little more and give it a sense of some dynamic range.
Jim Jarmusch, like Woody Allen, doesn't view his films again after they've been released, but again, in lieu of a commentary, there is a fan-based Q&A session with Jim, which are always delightful to listen to as he reads and answers questions submitted by Criterion fans all over the world. There are a couple of nice photo galleries, excerpts from a 2001 documentary on Screamin' Jay Hawkins, an original documentary on the film's Memphis locations, and a booklet with some new essays.
It's hard to describe a Jim Jarmusch film sometimes, but those who are fans don't need a description; they get it without a word. Mystery Train is a wonderful, character driven look at a small American town that gave birth to a new kind of music. This Blu-ray from Criterion is everything a Jarmusch fan could hope for, and even more.