While he's hardly the true "King" of rock and roll (Little Richard, Fats Domino, and dozens of much more influential and important African American musicians would argue with his sole claim to the throne), it's impossible to deny Elvis Presley's cultural impact on a post-War American society. From his amazing voice to his scandalous sexual swagger, he was the antithesis of the clean cut white flight phenoms clogging up the pop charts. Five decades later, his image may be tarnished by pills and a constant desire to redefine and revise, but Elvis is still Elvis, no matter how you envision him. For Jim Jarmusch, indie icon and fascinating maker of films like Night on Earth, Stranger than Paradise, and Broken Flowers, the boy from Tupelo will always be attached to Memphis, the town that took all the fledgling forms of music coming out of the South and fused them into a raucous combination of rockabilly and R&B, with labels like Stax and Sun showing the way. His paean to said past, Mystery Train (new to Blu-ray from Criterion), may only reference these facets as glimmering ghosts, but their lingering impact on the trio of stories told is almost impossible to shake.
During a particularly nondescript summer in Memphis, Tennessee, three intertwining stories are told. The first features a pair of Japanese tourists who have pooled their meager monies to travel across America visiting the famous places in US music history. This time around, it's the home of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and the studios that sealed their legacy. They end up at the funky fleabag Arcade Hotel after an exhaustive day of walking. Next, a newly widowed Italian citizen is stuck in the town after her flight to Rome is postponed. After being victimized by several local hustlers, she winds up sharing a room at the Arcade with a flighty young woman who is leaving her brutish British boyfriend for someone - or something - a little more secure. During the night, they are visited by a familiar apparition. Finally, the spurned Englishman, who also just laid off from his job, goes on a drunken bender with a couple of less than enthusiastic buddies. They wind up in a desolate liquor store, gun in hand, trying to hold on to the last vestiges of their dignity. They hole up in the Arcade when things don't go quite as planned.
For Jim Jarmusch, film is about people. It doesn't center on high concept storylines or sequences laced with outrageous special effects. For him, it's all about character - and the actors imagined to bring these fictional people to life. During the engaging Q&A attached to this latest release of the music history homage Mystery Train, the director explains that plots don't generate from pre-planned narrative aims. Instead, he imagines individuals he'd like to see onscreen, envisions the person (both famous and unfamiliar)he'd like to see take on the personality, and then manufactures a story to make them shine. As with many movies in his oeuvre, there is no overriding message, no symbolic gamesmanship or visual gimmickry. Instead, Jarmusch wants to explore the human condition, and by doing so, entertaining anyone who happens to cross his motion picture path. Mystery Train is a brilliant distillation and endearing example of this idea. It's not so much about Elvis as the idea of Elvis, what said concept has done to his longtime homestead, and how the lingering legacy of such a massive cultural influence can bring even the most diverse and dissimilar persons together.
This is best illustrated by the first two vignettes in the triptych. The visiting Asians want to connect to Memphis as much as possible, from their retro dress to their wide-eyed worship. They even argue about how close the then rundown city was to their hometown of Yokohama. Like true bohemian vagabonds, they wander the streets, soaking in as much of the area as they can before settling into the Arcade. There, they continue their ongoing debate (Perkins vs. Presley) as well as celebrate their stay with some wonderfully passionate sex. Similarly, the woman from Rome never allows her devastation to sway her resolve. Even when a couple of cocky street hustlers more or less rob her blind (one even offers a fateful ghost story as a means of maneuvering $20 out of her purse), she continues pressing forward, knowing that in less than 24 hours she can take her husband's coffin back to Italy. Throughout, her good natured tolerance of the tacky and intrusive Americans (including the abrupt jabberbox roomie with no intention of paying for her stay) eventually warrants a blessing from His Majesty himself. Only the last story, featuring the late great Clash frontman Joe Strummer as a Brit locked in Southern US Hell, argues against this process. For his character, Memphis is the reason for his rotten life, even as he proves that it's his own unnecessary actions that dig his own premature grave. He even hates his nickname - "Elvis" -further sealing his fate.
The performances here are all perfect, with the excellence of a sullen Strummer matched expertly by Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles as his "Lost in Space" segment partners. As the odd couple hotel roommates of "A Ghost", Mrs. Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, is nicely balanced against the nonstop patter of Lorraine Bracco's sister Elizabeth. Finally, Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase are wonderful, avoiding stereotyping while easily embracing the eccentric nature of their obvious cultural inspired conflicts. For his part, Jarmusch plays passive observer, wandering the byways and back alleys with his characters, painting the city in stripes of natural color, neon, and ugly urban decay. He also adds a bit of absurdism by having legendary howler Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee's sibling Cinqué play a pair of deadpan desk clerks who give off a wonderful "seen it all, don't give a sh*t" vibe. Mixing in as little music as possible (though what is there is more than choice), Jarmusch gets to the heart of Memphis' meaning. Instead of messing with its mythos, he hopes to tap into it and let its roots rock vibe rub off on everything else. In one of the rare instances where such a sparse approach delivers much more than you'd expect, it works effortlessly. Mystery Train may not seem to mean much, at least at first, but once you get on board, the trip is truly memorable.
Working from a brand new print specifically overseen by and remastered with Jarmusch's approval, the 1.77:1 MPEG-4 AVC 1080p image is spectacular. This is without a doubt the best Mystery Train has ever looked. The opening shot of a locomotive cutting through a coarse crop of verdant weeds is astonishing, the greens of the field literally leaping off the flat screen. Elsewhere, colors continue to pop as blacks are strong and contrasts are crisp. There is an amazing level of detail present, from the pearly white lip gloss worn by Ms. Kudoh to the endless waves in the hilarious hairstyle worn by the sensational Screamin' Jay. The night scenes are also spectacular, locked in without substantial grain or background noise. All in all, this is a brilliant blu-ray transfer.
Purists will probably pass out, but Mystery Train does not make the transition to a tougher, more modern 5.1 or other lossless digital update. Instead, it goes with a clean, clear English LPCM 1.0 track. Since most of the movie is talking, there is no real problem with such a set-up. Even the occasional song on the soundtrack is usually heard through an AM radio, rendering any multichannel speaker experience moot. While a few will argue over the lack of a true high definition experience, the aural aspects of this release are more or less flawless.
As stated before, Jarmusch does not like to do commentaries. As a matter of fact, he states emphatically that it's "painful" for him to go back and re-watch his films. So in place of such an alternate narrative track, Criterion opts for a 69 minutes audio only Q&A, and it's terrific. The director is open and honest about his designs, mocks the occasionally goofy question, and goes into substantive detail about his method, his inspirations, and his disappointments. It lieu of the typical scene specific discussion, it's outstanding. So is a snippet from a documentary on Screamin' Jay Hawkins called I Put a Spell on Me. Focusing on the musician's work with Jarmusch, it's a lot of fun if far too brief (a mere 19 minutes). There is also a locational tour of Memphis then and now, a collection of photos taken by Masayoshi Sukita, and another compilation of Polaroids. Finally, there is a 26 page booklet filled with facts and essays about the film. All in all, the added content here is stellar.
Of all his films, Mystery Train may be Jim Jarmusch's most personable. It's not overloaded with monotone meaning or determined to force its fancy flatness on you. Instead, like the equally engaging Night on Earth, it takes us to a place where we'd probably never get to visit ourselves and interacts with individuals who might not ever enter our sphere of influence otherwise. Sort of being a purebred classic, it remains a masterwork of substance and the slightest stylistic support. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it is scant steps away from walking off with a DVD Talk Collector's Series score. For a movie not necessarily created to celebrate the man often referred to as "The Pelvis", Mystery Train is still a work of reverential quality. It may not literally channel the man or his muse, but its gets to the heart of his myth better than any other attempt at cinematic adoration out there.