In the Key of Jarmusch: A New Orleans Musical Gumbo

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Down By Law Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni in Down By Law

In part two of his five-part exploration of Jarmusch’s use of music, Simon Reynolds looks at how the director follows the trail of local southern music to come up with a melodic mix in Down By Law.

Down by Law (1986): A New Orleans Musical Gumbo

Jarmusch's second movie to feature Lurie's on-screen charisma and atmospheric score, Down by Law was actually born of the director's musical obsession with New Orleans, the city in and around which the film is set. Jarmusch had never been there, but felt that he had gleaned "a very strong sense––maybe abstract, maybe inaccurate––of New Orleans from its music culture." By this he didn't mean jazz so much as the city's 1950s and '60s rhythm-and-blues and early funk, figures like Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Ernie K. Doe, and Irma Thomas (whose "It's Raining" appears as a jukebox tune at one point). This music, along with the Louisiana port city's historical associations with voodoo and pirates, and its unique architecture and food, gave New Orleans a pungent mystique for Jarmusch.

Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law has a curious time-out-of-joint, twilight zone atmosphere, the sense of a present almost oppressively haunted by the past's ghosts. Lurie plays Jack, a pimp who ends up sharing a jail cell with a deejay called Zack and Bob, a mysterious Italian buffoon. Zack was played by Lurie and Jarmusch's friend Tom Waits, recently relocated to New York after a long period in Los Angeles where he'd become a cult singer-songwriter with his beatnik-barfly image and huskily drawled vignettes.

The Irma Thomas Collection

Probably influenced by the New York postpunk scene that the Lounge Lizards belonged to, Waits’ music shifted in an experimental direction with the albums Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. The latter album contributed two tunes to Down by Law's soundtrack, the blues-tinged but dissonant "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore." Lurie's own compositions come from a similar place––a mongrel sound midway between the art house and the burlesque hall––and use some of the same musicians who played on Rain Dogs.

The style is a gumbo of American bohemian and lowlife musics, all clanking percussion, low blares of lugubriously sleazy trumpet, cold-turkey scrapes of guitar, and plinky sounds that recall the invented instruments of hobo composer Harry Partch. Defective yet affecting, moodily atmospheric yet somehow audibly in quotation marks, it's the perfect soundtrack for a movie that deliberately skips the narrative's most dramatic moment (the escape from prison) and cuts to the Louisiana swampland, where Bob announces "we have escaped, like in the American movies".

Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds is a New York-based journalist and author. He has contributed to The New York Times, Sight and Sound, and Spin, among other places, and his books include Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 and Bring the Noise: 20 Years Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop.  His blog can be found at http://blissout.blogspot.com/.