Take a musical trip through Jim Jarmusch’s best films

Sonic Youth’s drummer and Wu-Tang’s RZA have all lent their rhythmic talents to the auteur’s best flicks

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“One thing about commercial films,” indie legend Jim Jarmusch noted at a Q&A, “doesn’t the music almost always suck? Isn’t it always the same shit? I’ve seen good movies – or maybe they would be good – just destroyed by the same crap. Maybe that’s the commercial realm, and guys in suits tell them what kind of music to put on.”

Jarmusch isn’t commercial. He owns his negatives to ensure they aren’t dubbed for foreign audiences. He’s an auteur whose business model – 30 years of dealing with financiers who guarantee him final cut – is to prevent guys in suits from picking the tunes. But his nocturnal rhythms – closer to verse/chorus/verse than any three-act structure – are also driven by the musicians who appear in every film. He’ll ask Neil Young to compose a score, or maybe he’ll dish out a few juicy roles to Wu-Tang Clan. To celebrate Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise, a new book by Sara Piazza, we’ve revisited the director’s most beloved films through his musical collaborations. Unlike other directors celebrated for their soundtracks, Jarmusch creates albums, not mixtapes.

JOHN LURIE WISHES YOU’D FORGET HE WAS IN STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)

When casting Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch – then bashing keyboards for No Wave band The Del-Byzanteens – picked two friends from the music scene: John Lurie (The Lounge Lizards’ founder) and Richard Edson (Sonic Youth’s original drummer). They mumbled, left awkward pauses for Eszter Balint and her Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cassette, and everyone loved it – but Lurie, who composed the score, resented the film overshadowing his music. He complained, “I became this guy Jim discovered, this dumb Kiefer Sutherland guy, and that was the vessel people saw my music coming out of. I hated it.” However, Lurie should have kept schtum about symbolically burning his character’s fedora, because now we’ll never forget it.

LISTEN OUT FOR THE DRAINPIPE SOLO IN DOWN BY LAW (1986)

Entering Daniel Day-Lewis territory, Jarmusch organised for Tom Waits and John Lurie to share a New Orleans prison cell without the guards knowing who they were. “It scared them a little,” acknowledged Jarmusch, whose jailbreak comedy continued the Stranger formula of two musicians and a foreign actor (this time, Roberto Benigni). Jarmusch pitched the Down by Law score as “minimally and untraditionally constructed accordion and harmonica duets”, but eventually it came from its non-accordion, non-harmonica cast: Waits’ growl accompanies the opening and closing credits, while in between Lurie’s subtle jazz instrumentals at one point feature a drainpipe played like a didgeridoo. Advice for composers: needs more drainpipe.

SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS PUT A SPELL ON MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

“It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he’s a wild man, so bug off!” goes the immortal line in Stranger than Paradise. As a thank you, Jarmusch tracked down the wild man for Mystery Train. When Hawkins refused, Jarmusch maintained, “You’re going to be an actor whether you like it or not.” The trippy triptych is ostensibly connected by Elvis Presley’s ghost, but also Hawkins as an ever-present hotel clerk. Plus, he rescued the ultra-cool opening – expecting rain, the scene was to go unshot the night before the Japanese actors flew home. Hawkins laid out his voodoo bones and said, “Jim, shoot – it will not rain.” It didn’t rain. Hallelujah?

NEIL YOUNG WANTED TWO-THIRDS OF NIRVANA FOR DEAD MAN (1995)

Deadpan Dead Man (Johnny Depp’s last great film) is all about the strummed score, yet Neil Young only said yes during post-production. After suggesting Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl as his backing band, Young performed solo instrumentals during three full-length viewings of the Western. “The movie is my rhythm section,” he explained, “and I will add a melody to that.” Young’s request to hear the dialogue (which would seep into the recording and ruin the edit) led to bickering, until Jarmusch – who famously stood up to Harvey Weinstein – gave in by reasoning, “I thought Neil might burn psychic rays through my skull.” That makes Young scarier than Weinstein.

WU-TANG CLAN WERE JARMUSCH FANS BEFORE GHOST DOG (1999)

Wu-Tang vinyls inspired the writing of Ghost Dog, so naturally Jarmusch asked RZA to compose a score. Meeting in a studio at 3am, Jarmusch recited his favourite Wu-Tang B-sides, not anticipating the group to excitedly quote from his films. “Wait a minute,” Raekwon exclaimed, “is this the guy that made that film Dead Man?!” RZA’s first score – handed from a van at 2am on an unlabelled tape – was rejected. The second attempt’s sparse hip-hop beats shaped the film’s reflective, almost remixed tone. During editing, Jarmusch was visited by RZA and ODB, who turned up high. ODB’s constructive feedback: “Yo, yo! Stop the machine! Earth, Mars, Venus: pick one!”

BILL MURRAY SURPRISED RZA AND GZA ON COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (2003)

The White Stripes, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits – they’re all outdone on Coffee and Cigarettes by RZA and GZA, who kept in touch with Jarmusch after Ghost Dog. But the white-haired director didn’t inform the rappers beforehand who’d be serving them coffee throughout their scene: “Bill ‘Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin-ass’ Murray”. On the coolest film set possible, Murray turned out to be a fan whose Wu-Tang jokes were unscripted. The medical advice, however, came from RZA’s real hobby of studying African herbs. Jarmusch incorporated it into the script after finding himself on the phone asking, “RZA, I’m sick. What should I do?” Seriously, that’s some phonebook.

More info on Sara Piazza’s Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise can be found here

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