Jim Jarmusch: The Art of the Music in His Films

In the ear­ly 1980s, aspir­ing film­mak­er Jim Jar­musch immersed him­self in New York’s under­ground music scene. He played keyboards–a “fair­ly prim­i­tive Moog synthesizer”–in places like CBGB and the Mudd Club with a No Wave band called The Del-Byzan­teens and was deeply influ­enced by the spir­it of punk rock. “The aes­thet­ics of that scene real­ly gave me the courage to make films,” Jar­musch lat­er recalled. “It was not about vir­tu­os­i­ty. It was about expres­sion.”

Over the years, Jar­musch cast musi­cians instead of actors in many of his films: Joe Strum­mer, Tom Waits, John Lurie, Iggy Pop–all had some­thing in com­mon. Each had stood up against com­mer­cial pres­sure from the main­stream pop­u­lar cul­ture. Jar­musch car­ried the same uncom­pro­mis­ing spir­it into the cre­ation of his films.

In the dis­cus­sion above, record­ed some­time after the release of 1999’s Ghost Dog, Jar­musch explains his approach to using music in film.

The open­ing sequence of Jar­musch’s 1986 film Down by Law (above) rolls to the groove of Tom Wait­s’s “Jock­ey Full of Bour­bon,” from the clas­sic Rain Dogs album. Waits him­self plays a lead­ing role in the film. His music fits per­fect­ly into the atmos­phere of the sto­ry, writes Juan A. Suárez in his crit­i­cal study, Jim Jar­musch: “Wait­s’s songs tell of frac­tured romances set in an under­world of drifters, pimps, and prostitutes–to a large extent the milieu of the film. And both Jar­musch’s film and Wait­s’s songs recy­cle retro idioms. The visu­al style of Down by Law draws from a num­ber of 1940s and 1950s stu­dio gen­res, while Wait­s’s songs are replete with pas­tich­es of pol­ka, waltz, clas­sic blues, and Caribbean rhythms.”

For the sur­re­al 1995 west­ern Dead Man (sam­pled in the mon­tage above) Jar­musch enlist­ed Neil Young to com­pose and per­form the sound­track. “To me,” Young is quot­ed as say­ing at the out­set of the project by Jonathan Rosen­baum in his BFI Mod­ern Clas­sics book on the film, “the movie is my rhythm sec­tion and I will add a melody to that.” Young record­ed his min­i­mal­ist score, much of it impro­vised, in a large ware­house in San Fran­cis­co while watch­ing a rough cut of the film. Young played all the instru­ments: elec­tric and acoustic gui­tars, pump organ and a detuned piano.

The oth­er-world­ly, some­times jar­ring music baf­fled a few of the crit­ics. “A mood might have devel­oped here,” wrote Roger Ebert in a scathing review, “had it not been for the unfor­tu­nate score by Neil Young, which for the film’s final 30 min­utes sounds like noth­ing so much as a man repeat­ed­ly drop­ping his gui­tar.” Oth­ers heard genius. Rock his­to­ri­an Greil Mar­cus, in his “Ten rea­sons why Neil Young’s “Dead Man” is the best music for the dog days of the 20th cen­tu­ry,” wrote: “The music, as you lis­ten, sep­a­rates from the movie even as it frames scenes, ban­ter, recitals. It gets big­ger and more abstract, and it becomes hard to under­stand how any film, show­ing peo­ple doing this or that in spe­cif­ic, non-abstract ways, could hold it.”

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Music in Quentin Tarantino’s Films: Hear a 5‑Hour, 100-Song Playlist

New Jim Jar­musch Doc­u­men­tary on Iggy Pop & The Stooges Now Stream­ing Free on Ama­zon Prime

Jim Jarmusch’s Anti-MTV Music Videos for Talk­ing Heads, Neil Young, Tom Waits & Big Audio Dyna­mite

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • wfan says:

    god i love dead man sound­track… and more impor­tant­ly it com­pli­ments the film, i read eberts rewiew but its not the first time he missed the point of a movie (blue vel­vet, and any­thing made by lynch, some oth­er jer­mush films: lim­its of con­trol for exm­ple, to name a few), and i stil say its a mas­ter­piece, espe­ciali for a west­ern fan its as far as west­ern came after clints unfor­giv­en. Grant­ed there is great west­erns after this one but in com­par­i­son, at least to me Dead Man pre­veiles

    eng­lish not first lan­guage :D :D

  • Coalandswitches says:

    Neil Young ruined Dead­man for me. It was the lazi­est sound track ever. It did­n’t fit the film and came across as some­thing that was added as an after­thought. That Mr. Young sim­ply sat in front of a screen and picked at his gui­tar. Dead­man had the poten­tial to be a great west­ern and the score, in my opin­ion, real­ly kept it from being that.

  • Christoph says:

    I give a kudos to night on earth, also by tom waits, as my favorite jar­musch sound­track.

  • Mathew Rosemier says:

    I per­son­al­ly did­n’t like Neil Young’s sound­track for Dead Man. It sound­ed to me like noth­ing more than Cheech Marin, noodling on his gui­tar for an hour and half.

  • vicscribe says:

    I love Jar­musch’s ear for music, cre­at­ing sin­gu­lar atmos­pheres.

    And the sound­track to “Dead Man”? One of my all-time favourite sound­tracks. It cre­ates an altered state, imo.

  • henry says:

    I watched this to hear about John Lurie’s music and there is noth­ing! Lurie did the first four scores for Jim Jar­mush’s movies and they were amaz­ing!!

  • Mrs John Peterson says:

    Want­ed to read about John Lurie’s con­tri­bu­tion. Bum­mer.

  • gaudamieux says:

    Can’t imag­ine a cri­tique of Dead Man in pieces. As a com­bine, it is the best west­ern and most real­is­tic west­ern ever made. F((k john ford, broth­ers, amoldin in his grave.
    So the music is a part there — and it’s sub­tle where the light is sub­tle. and it’s a burn­ing irri­ta­tion when it’s in your eyes. some are born to sweet delight — like this film in all peaces.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.