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From Tom Waits to Neil Young: The 10 best musical moments from Jim Jarmusch films


Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker completely unafraid of displaying his musical influences. “Nothing is original,” the director once told MovieMaker Magazine. “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”

For Jarmusch, it would seem that often the spark for his creative flame is some fantastic music that he is more than happy to share with us. “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul,” his famous quote continues, “If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.” He concluded his eulogy of plagiarism transfigured into creative homage, by quoting the legendry French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

Every single one of Jim Jarmusch‘s creative endeavours have been embellished by his love of the arts and his unashamedly bashful way of celebrating them. When it comes to his movies, music has provided a backbone, a lifeblood, a juxtaposition, comfort, contrast, energy and so on… If music can be deployed in a myriad of ways, then Jarmusch has embodied those multitudes. 

“Music, to me, is the most beautiful form,” he once said, “And I love film because film is very related to music. It moves by you in its own rhythm. It’s not like reading a book or looking at a painting. It gives you its own time frame, like music, so they are very connected for me. But music to me is the biggest inspiration.”

The rarefied esteem that he bestows upon the power of music has led to simply wonderful deployments of it in his movies.

Below, we’re looking at ten of the very best.

The best music moments in Jim Jarmusch movies:

‘Up There in the Orbit’ by Earl Bostic (Permanent Vacation, 1980)

In Jim Jarmusch’s directorial debut he already had a beautiful handle on how to use music. In truth, nothing about the scene seems quite right either for cinema or reality. The whole thing is fractured. By being avoiding cinematic tropes, but also resisting the full mire of realism, the resultant scene is a vignette of life for many in New York in the fall of the 1970s. 

Allie (Chris Parker) spasmodically dances around a room that seems both spiritually and literally desolate. The accompanying music is the intense and frantic jazz piece that matches up to its racing melody that heads towards a false crescendo with Allie’s futile philosophical searching. 

‘I Put A Spell On You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984)

Jim Jarmusch once said, “life has no plot, why must films or fiction?” Regardless of whether you agree with that, if you were to distil a chapter of life down to 89-minutes the resultant tableau would no doubt be difficult to fathom.

It is this notion that lends manic music of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins perfectly to the nomadic whirlwind in miniature of the film. If the Hungarian protagonists view of America is embodied by the soulful madness and also monolithic power of Screamin’ Jay’s take on the blues, then the comatose upheaval that unspools around her is very much a muted version of the that very same vision. 

‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ by Tom Waits (Down by Law, 1986)

On top of everything else, the world can certainly be thankful to Jim Jarmusch for promoting the acting talents of singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Of course, Waits had already featured in movies, but there is no doubt that Jarmusch affirmed his acting legacy. 

In Down by Law his staggering ‘the piano has been drinking, not me’ melodies embalm the film low-down energy that the story mimics. There is a sweltering gothic overtone to this song that just seems quintessentially New Orleans. The pairing of the decrepit streets and the most curmudgeonly man in rock makes for an enthralling marriage made in matrimony hell. 

‘Mystery Train’ by Elvis Presley (Mystery Train, 1989)

There are few things more American than Elvis Presley and long cross-country journeys. Throughout the film, Jarmusch deploys this song to serve as an allegorical mirror to the circular story and the constantly moving nature of America. 

The track is one of Presley’s first and it heralded in a new age for popular culture. Once more, Jarmusch seems to lean on this as an analogy for the journey of the characters, albeit Elvis’s journey moved on quite quickly from his early country stylings, yet this song bookends both the start and end of the movies ultimately stationery journey. 

‘Dead Man’ by Neil Young (Dead Man, 1995)

After seeing a silent cut of Dead Man, a sort of acid western if such a genre exists, Neil Young just picked up his guitar and started shredding. As William Blake (Johnny Depp) journeys into the spiritual ether, a realm of the unknown and the accompanying music is equally unknown; can it even be considered music in the traditional sense?

Ultimately a mad film would pair foolishly with a conventional soundtrack, thus Young’s impressionist innovation fits like a weird glove on a six-fingered hand. The fever journey of Johnny Depp is just as mad as the one Young seems to be having in the studio. The main title theme embodies the surreal swathe of cascading score as well as anything can. 

‘Samurai Theme’ by RZA (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999)

A Kung-Fu film with a hip-hop soundtrack and noir stylings sounds a disparate triumvirate to pull together and its desperate attempts to do so is just about as ‘nearly there’ as Ghost Dogs attempts to be a Samurai. Both are striving for something ambitious and utterly commendable. 

On a surface level RZA’s ‘Samurai Theme’ works as a great piece of gym music, but it is the repetition of melody that implies endless practice that adds subtle depth to the scene. 

‘Down on the Street’ by The Stooges (Coffee and Cigarettes, 2003)

The joke is that earlier in the movie Iggy Pop sits down with Tom Waits in a diner for a scene that was originally filmed back in 1993, called Somewhere in California. During the scene, Iggy needles the seemingly perfect Waits about none of his music being included on the jukebox. Later, when Iggy leaves, Waits bolts up from casually sipping his coffee and comforts himself with the reality that at least Iggy or Jim or Pop, as he calls him intermittently throughout, is also not on the jukebox. 

Cut to another diner scene about half an hour later and ten years on and what should be playing but ‘Down on the Street’, thus concludes the gag, and also shoehorns in The Stooges at their scintillating best. 

‘I Want You’ by Marvin Gaye (Broken Flowers, 2005)

Aside from the multitude of musical techniques that Jarmusch has used throughout his movies, he is not above the simple cinematic boon of embellishing visuals with a great song. ‘I Want You’ is simply a marvellous song. Something as inherently magic as Marvin Gaye’s classic doesn’t need too much else other than show up; it could score the world Connect Four championship and make it watchable.

As it stands Marvin Gaye’s powerful rhythmic tones interrupt both the moving and the aimlessly meandering life of Don (Bill Murray), in a way that shows the life-affirming catalytic power of music to make a change. 

‘Funnel of Love’ by SQURL (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)

The Wanda Jackson original version of this track has always cried out to be used in a movie, everything about it yearns to be paired with an American diner and red leatherette. However, Jarmusch’s utter refusal to be on the nose with his score once again stays true to form as he punts instead for a sort of Valium-laden remixed version by SQÜRL.

Quite frankly the original still yearns for a cinematic soulmate and as a standalone track, SQÜRL’s version is an unnecessary experimental butchering of a classic. But as a trippy little void inducer, the track entwines like a weave of vines with the spaced-out visuals. 

‘Walk Through This World With Me’ by Tammy Wynette (Paterson, 2016)

Paterson was Jim Jarmusch’s take on a working artist that brought to mind the Kurt Vonnegut quote: “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” The film is quietly philosophical as it documents the highs and lows of the bus driver and poet, Paterson (Adam Driver). 

The soundtrack is potent than usual for Jarmusch, but the mellowed unspooling ambience adds a poignant undertone to the trials and tribulations of actually trying to give a shit. The film and its philosophy were ultimately very refreshing and Jarmusch allows the thinking to take centre stage rather than have it bleached out by sound. This viewpoint makes the gentle sliding guitar melody of this old country classic a tranquil boon in the touching movie.