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Revisiting Neil Young’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch movie 'Dead Man'


The landscape of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography spans places, people and atmospheres that criss-cross a strange ethereal otherworld, possessing a space that either well-reflects reality or inhabits an undefined space of dreams. Such can be seen throughout his career, from his second feature film Stranger Than Paradise to the Winona Ryder comedy Night on Earth to his mystifying western Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp. 

Tracking the footsteps of an accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp), Jarmusch’s film details Blake’s journey through the American west as he encounters an aboriginal man named Nobody who leads the protagonist on a journey into the spirit realm. It’s a vibrant, eclectic work of art, starring the likes of Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Jared Harris and Billy Bob Thornton as well as Iggy Pop who has also worked with the director on Coffee and Cigarettes and the recent The Dead Don’t Die

Strange and fantastical, Dead Man mixes elements of comedy, adventure and surrealism as Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp’s Bill Blake float across the empty landscapes accompanied by an original soundtrack by none other than Neil Young. Having long admired the American artists’ music, Jarmusch had wanted Young to come onboard from the very beginning, stating in the book All by Myself: “I’ve been a fan of Neil Young for many years, and I was listening constantly to Neil and Crazy Horse while writing the script for Dead Man”. 

Recording the soundtrack mostly through improvisation on the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano and organ, Neil Young devised the music alone whilst watching an early edit of the film in a recording studio. Encouraged by Jarmusch to be spontaneous in his creativity as it would align with the erratic nature of the film itself, Neil Young created a haunting, jarring score that adds to Dead Man’s mystifying nature. 

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It is never Jarmusch’s intention to make the audience feel at home in the wild west, making the environment feel strange, unpredictable and inexplicable, making the music of the folk icon Neil Young the perfect choice, suffusing the film with a recognisable yet unnerving tone of uncertainty. Described by the director as “masterfully, beautifully damaged rock-and-roll music—perfect imperfection,” in a feature with Criterion, it also serves as an apt description for the film itself, a fractured revisionist western that lays its scars to bear. 

On Bill Blake’s journey across the American West, Neil Young’s score acts as a strange fuel, as if psychoactive ayahuasca which is leading Depp’s character by the hand through seemingly subconscious lands and situations. It’s a constant illusory score that seems to suffuse itself into the world through the monochrome waters and dry terrain of the west, of this world but also born in a separate spiritual realm. 

Dead Man remains one of Jim Jarmusch’s best ever films, and indeed Neil Young’s score has since become known as one of the greatest cult soundtracks of all time. It is in the synthesis of sound and image that the film works so well, symbiotically relying on each other to further the ethereal quest of Bill Blake and create a unique landscape of wonder, mystery and hallucination.