DIRECTOR: JIM JARMUSCH (1989)
I'm going to be writing about some movies with Memphis music in them for a freelance piece I'm preparing so these entries may read as a little notebook-y. Feel free to skip if you're so inclined.
Mystery Train is Jim Jarmusch's fourth feature film and, according to the critical consensus, one of his least successful. It's a favorite of mine, however, if only for the time at which I saw it and the fact that it contains too many Keith-pleasing elements—the South, rock and roll, the time-capsule presentation of a particular place at a particular time—not to be a favorite. Mystery Train was the first film I rented from Four Star Video Heaven—where I would later work—in Madison, Wisconsin after moving there to go to attend grad school in 1995. It was a time when I was falling hard for Jarmusch and, beneath that, an entire way to approaching film that I'd never experienced before. I first saw Jarmusch as part of a double feature on campus at Lancaster University in 1994 where the film society screened Stranger Than Paradise and Night On Earth (along with the Tom Waits/Iggy Pop segment of what would become Coffee And Cigarettes). I'd never seen a movie like Stranger before. The takes were long. The camera stationary. The dialogue circular. The story eventually went somewhere, but it didn't get there fast. The settings were an unglamorous corner of New York, the snowiest winter in Cleveland, and a mostly hotel-bound trip to Florida, all shot in the same grainy black and white. It was as much about how people behaved while attending to the mundane details of their lives and negotiating the minefields of friends and family relations as any grand dramatic incident. Wherever you go, the most important things tend to take place in small rooms filled with familiar faces. To me it was revolutionary. Now I know it was part of a different, minimal tradition. Heck, Jarmusch even namechecks Ozu in the dialogue.
It was another year before I'd see Jarmusch again. The video stores in Springfield, Ohio didn't stock his films, for some reason. It was a happy reunion and, revisiting Mystery Train I found it held up well, even if it's never better than its opening segment starring Masatoshi Nagase (Jun) and Youki Kudoh (Mitsuko) as Japanese rockabillies making a Memphis pilgrimage. They arrive, and leave, by train, to the tune of the title song. On their arrival its played by Elvis. On their departure by its originators, Little Junior's Blue Flames, who recorded in 1953, two years before Elvis. It was written by Junior Parker, the Blue Flames'. Upon arrival, they argue over where to go first, Sun Records or Graceland. She wants Graceland first. He wants Sun. She loves Elvis. He's partial to Carl Perkins, but this seems to be as much an issue of contrarionism as taste. He keeps a cigarette tucked behind his ear, just behind a careful pompadour. He wears a neat, green jacket.
It's a Japanese approximation of a tough, American rock and roll cat, but Jarmusch doesn't really play it for laughs. Like those two versions of "Mystery Train," it's all a matter of interpretation. Junior Parker wrote "Mystery Train." Elvis, or somebody, added to the lyric. But where does it really come from? You can chase that Mystery Train back further. Furry Lewis—a Beale Street fixture as both a performer and a street sweeper—cut a song called "Good Looking Blues" in 1927 that sings of a train "sixteen coaches long." Did he dream it up, or does the phrase go back further? Does it predate the trains themselves?
Sun or Graceland? Significantly, these seem to be the only points of interest for the tourists. Memphis has gotten flattened out between Tennessee and Yokohama but the real Memphis has other plans for them. That's none other than Memphis music godfather Rufus Thomas—he of Sun and Stax and WDIA and "Walking The Dog" and its countless sequels—who greets them at the train station (a spot as nearly deserted as the Amtrak train that brings them into town. Sun Records comes first by accident. They're ushered into the famous studio then assualted with a tour guide's spiel that segues from "race music" to endless chatter about Elvis at a rapid clip. Elvis cannot be escaped. Here is a room that's played host to the recording of "Rocket 88," the early work of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, virtually every blues and gospel artist in Memphis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and on and on. But he's bigger than it all. They'll later meet him as a statue and, in her scrapbook, see his image juxtaposed against the statue of a Middle Eastern King, Buddha, the Statue Of Liberty, and Madonna. Jun: "Elvis was even more influential than I thought." It's an understatement.
Elvis is everywhere but he's also elusive and unobtainable. Standing in his t-shirt, watching a train pass by, Jun's image falls apart. He's a skinny kid with a scowl chasing a sound of freedom first heard on a Walkman many miles away. In the love scene that follows, he proves himself no tiger. He's 18 and stiill growing into an image that may not work out for him in the end.
Elvis is just as elusive for Nicoletta Braschi in the film's second segment. An Italian woman returning to Rome with her husband's body, she becomes an accidental tourist in Memphis. She's also a dupe—sort of—for every hustler to pass her way. She's a knowing dupe, however, one who goes along with their schemes just because it's easier, and more polite, not to call bullshit. First she's talked into buying an armful of magazines. Later, in a diner, she's subjected by Tom Noonan to a long story about picking up the ghost of Elvis who told him to give her a comb... But there is a small delivery fee. Lonely, she agrees to share her room with Elizabeth Bracco, who's just left her husband and can't afford the $22 room in the rundown hotel presided over by manager Screamin' Jay Hawkins and bellboy Cinqué "brother of Spike" Lee. (It's the same place Jun and Mitsuko stay.) But then she has an authentic encounter with the ghost of Elvis himself. Has he come lookng for his comb after all? It's never quite clear. Before fading away he simply says, politely, "I musta got the wrong address or somethin’. I gotta go.” There's no escaping Elvis. But what Elvis means remains up for debte. (In a quirk of history, the actor who looks so eerily like the young Elvis is Stephen Jones, the husband of Paula Jones who was only a few years away from her own alleged hotel encounter with our most Elvis-ish president.)
"I can't get rid of that fucking guy," laments Joe Strummer playing a hard-luck character referred to by his almost exclusively black friends as "Elvis." (Funniest exchange in the whole movie: Strummer: "Don't call me Elvis! If you can't use my proper name, why don't you try "Carl Perkins, Jr." or something? I mean, I don't call them "Sam & Dave", do I?" Black guy: "Hey man, my name is Dave.") Soon he'll be on the run in all the most neglected parts of Memphis, the places where tourists in town for Sun and Graceland would never go, bad neighborhoods with openly racist liquor store clerks, the crumbling remains of a years-from-being-revived-Stax, the spots underneath the rail lines where nobody goes, beneath the place the trains run, keeping their secrets from those who they delivers and those they whisk away.
(Follow up: Greil Marcus' Mystery Train, Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, Peter Guralnick's Last Train To Memphis, look into Furry Lewis)