In the Key of Jarmusch: Postpunk Chamber Music

Share This:
Stranger Than Paradise John Lurie, Eszter Balint and Richard Edson in Stranger Than Paradise

Perhaps no director has more fully mapped out the landscape of contemporary music in his movies as Jim Jarmusch. While he’s pulled together traditions and genres from around the globe––using Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke, for example, in Broken Flowers––he continually returns to rock, tracing out its regional roots and new transformations. He also often casts rock musicians. Performers like Tom Waits, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop, The RZA, and Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes have popped up in his films as well as on their soundtracks. In Mystery Train, Jarmusch makes Elvis Presley and Sun Studios key plot points. In Year of the Horse, he makes rock the movie’s subject. We asked music writer Simon Reynolds to guide us through several of Jarmusch’s films to see how carefully the music and movie are matched, as well as how the director’s choices evolved and played off each other.  Stranger Than Paradise is the first of five films by Jarmusch that Reynolds covers. In the coming days, he addresses the music of Down By Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai and The Limits of Control.

Stranger Than Paradise (1984): Postpunk Chamber Music

During the late Seventies and early Eighties, New York City was a cauldron of experimentation and hybrid creativity. Artists moved back and forth across the suddenly porous boundaries between postpunk rock, the visual arts, the worlds of underground cinema and theater, and the emerging hip hop scene. If anything was central, though, it was rock, which became the cultural hot spot with the arrival of punk and flourished further with the confrontational No Wave movement and then the more colorful, playful genre known as mutant disco.

There was a time when almost every artist was also in a band: painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and future actor/director Vincent Gallo, for instance, were both in the weird noise outfit Gray, while Jim Jarmusch sang and played keyboards in The Del-Byzanteens.  "At that time everyone in New York had a band," Jarmusch recalled in 1984. "The idea was that you didn't have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise."

John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise

John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise

It was while he was moving through the incestuous downtown Manhattan scene that Jarmusch became friends with John Lurie, who would not only star in Stranger Than Paradise but score the film and help the director come up with the idea for the story's first part. Lurie fronted The Lounge Lizards, whose scrawny mutant take on bebop he described as "fake jazz" in an unguarded interview moment. The quip became a millstone but actually fits the Lounge Lizards musically and sartorially: their retro-tinged sound and suave suits harked back to some bygone pre-rock era but subtly warped it. 

Much the same could be said for Stranger Than Paradise, which seems to be set in some indefinable era that's neither present, nor past. Being shot in black-and-white contributes to this effect, as do the old-fashioned clothes worn by Lurie's character Willy and his buddy Eddie (pork pie hats, suspenders and jackets that seem to come straight out of The Hustler), the quaint household appliances, the vintage TV and movies on the portable B/W television, and the one non-Lurie composition on the soundtrack, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' ghoulish R&B classic "I Put A Spell On You". 

The movie is suffused in Americana (at one point Willy tries to explain a football game on TV to Eva, his visiting Hungarian cousin, only to give up) and in some sense is about America as a mythic wonderland that somehow eludes the grasp even of those born in the USA. Lurie's score, though, avoids jazz or R&B for a faux-European vibe: a neurotic chamber music of cello and violins that sometimes sounds agitated and highly-strung, sometimes subdued and achingly melodic. It's perfect for the uncanny way Jarmusch's movie makes Middle America (a snow-covered and shadowy Cleveland, a blizzard-shrouded Lake Erie) look like Mittel Europa. Even Florida, which Willy, Eddy and Eva visit on a disastrous vacation, is made to feel chilly, bleached of color and cheer by cinematographer Tom DiCillo.

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/.