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.”

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Comments (8)
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  • 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.

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