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Mystery Train
Savant Blu-ray Review

Mystery Train
Criterion 521
1989 / Color / 1:77 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date June 15, 2010 / 39.95
Starring Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Tom Noonan, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi.
Robby Müller
Film Editor Melody London
Original Music John Lurie
Produced by Jim Stark
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train is an easy-going ramble of a film graced by an amusing and likeable ensemble of players. The director doesn't take his static long-take style to the extreme of the minimalist Stranger than Paradise, a film that can resemble a collection of moving, talking figures trespassing in a series of still images.

Mystery Train takes as its theme the mystique of Memphis and the Elvis Presley cult. Its three overlapping stories all take place on one lazy night, and involve foreigners experiencing America as a strange land. "Far From Yokohama" follows young rock 'n' roll tourists Mitsuko and Jun (Youki Kudoh & Masatoshi Nagase) as they cross the country on an Amtrak train and then drag their luggage through a depressed section of town in search of Graceland. Mitsuko worships Elvis while Jun favors Carl Perkins. They come by accident upon the former home of Sun Records, the storefront recording studio in which their favorites were recorded. It doesn't matter that they can't follow a word of the chirpy tour guide's rushed spiel, because they're looking only to celebrate their preconceived notion of an America dedicated to rock 'n' roll. They end up in a creaky hotel, where the Night Clerk and Bellboy (Screamin' Jay Hawkins & Cinqué Lee) provide a sort of deadpan comedy relief.

"A Ghost" introduces us to Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi of Life is Beautiful), a widow stuck in Memphis overnight awaiting a flight back to Italy. She must deal with various minor predators, including a creep in a diner (Tom Noonan) who tells her an "Elvis sighting" story and then expects to be paid. Luisa gravitates to the same hotel. To avoid more problems she shares a room with the upset, penniless Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) -- and in the middle of the night experiences her own ghostly encounter.

"Lost in Space" gives us Johnny (Joe Strummer of the punk band The Clash), an Englishman who has just broken up with Dee Dee. Johnny has also just been laid off from his job, and is getting drunk and dangerous in a local bar when his best friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles), and Dee Dee's brother, Charlie the Barber (Steve Buscemi) arrive to take him home. The trio instead cruise the dark streets until a run-in with a racist liquor store clerk turns violent.

Knowing fans will immediately respond to the notable music talent in the film's cast, a habit Jim Jarmusch's films share with Jonathan Demme's around this time. Mystery Train takes its relaxed tempo from songs by the likes of Presley, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker and Roy Orbison. Some viewers will find the pace too slow but the luminous images of cinematographer Robby Müller are rewarding in themselves. Only after the start of the film's second story do we realize that the tales are happening on the same Tuesday night. Luisa walks the same streets as do Jun and Mitsuko, only an hour or so later. The Japanese tourists pass characters from the later stories, and everybody hears the same gunshot in the hotel. Although the three stories occupy the same space, the characters mostly remain oblivious to each other. They also share 'legendary space" with the film's other "character", the ghost of Elvis Presley. Mitsuko and Jun have come from the other side of the world just to pick up his vibrations, while Englishman Johnny resents being given the nickname "Elvis" by his friends. The sensible Luisa seemingly has no connection to the Elvis mystique, yet receives a visitation as if she were a candidate for rock 'n' roll sainthood, a Bernadette of Memphis.

The film's loose structure offers plenty of opportunities for Jim Jarmusch's characters to "behave". The optimistic Mitsuko brightens when a Tennessean addresses her with a Japanese word. She playfully tries to get the outwardly emotionless Jun to break a smile. One familiar still shows both of their faces smeared with lipstick. The other characters have more conventional interplay, with Dee Dee spilling her heartaches to Luisa and Johnny's two drunken friends trying to cheer him up. Connecting all three stories are the discreet Night Clerk and the insecure bellboy. The two employees regard the variety of hotel guests without judging them.

Because of the shared characters and hotel setting, we keep expecting Mystery Train's stories to eventually dovetail and bring its characters together. That construction has become its own convention and cliché, particularly after the scattershot omnibus format employed by Quentin Tarantino later in the 1990s. But Jim Jarmusch makes no move in that direction, preferring to link his characters with miracles of a more everyday kind. In the middle of the night, everyone turns on his or her radio at the same time, experiencing the Elvis song "Blue Moon" as yet another mysterious shared experience.

Criterion's Blu-ray of Mystery Train gives us Robby Müller's expressive images in a glowing HD transfer. The movie is a musical showcase, a fact stressed in the disc extras produced by Susan Arosteguy. The best item on board is a featurette about the depressed area of Memphis chosen as the film's locations, and the legacy of the music that was made there. Several witnesses to the music heyday of the neighborhood share memories of the times, including one man who remembers how Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips dropped all of his black artists as soon as Elvis and other white performers came on the scene.

A gallery of on-set photos is included as well. In lieu of a conventional commentary, director Jarmusch answers reader questions in an audio extra. His answers are polite, thorough, and very slow. The late Screamin' Jay Hawkins appears in an excerpt from a docu-bio, talking about his filmmaking experience. Hawkin's dynamic song I Put a Spell on You has seen soundtrack use in many movies. As Jarmusch explains in his Q&A session, when he licensed the recording for Stranger in Paradise he discovered that Hawkins had no rights to his own work and would not see any of the money. The director saw to it that the musician was paid a separate fee.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Mystery Train Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Exceprts from docu on Screamin' Jay Hawkins, featurette on Memphis as a film location and cultural focus point, on-set photos, Q&A audio with Jarmusch
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2010

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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