Jim Jarmusch has been making strange, often slow-moving films for decades now. Scratch the surface of nearly any Jarmusch flick and you’ll enjoy character depths, judicious dialogue and hauntingly beautiful cinematography. However, what truly unites the director’s work is a love of music, with his soundtracks ranking among some of the best, and most considered, in modern movie history.
While the music and sound of Jim Jarmusch’s films are carefully crafted, they never get in the way or distract the audience from good dialogue or cinematography. Sara Piazza, who literally wrote the book on it, describes his use of music as “eclectic and measured-out where all sounds are considered equal to each other in a sound democracy”. Music is Jarmusch’s muse, so much so that musicians often turn up in the cast of his films, with their work just as often finding its way out of the soundtrack and directly into the narrative. Embracing everything from Schubert to Sleep, Jarmusch’s diverse and selective ear indicates how deep the love goes.
Jarmusch’s new film The Dead Don’t Die was scored by Sqürl, his band founded in 2009 with producer Carter Logan. Switching between 80s Carpenter-style synth and unsettling Americana, the music is exactly what you’d expect for a Jim Jarmusch zombie film. The film even stars musicians with Tom Waits, RZA, Iggy Pop and Selena Gomez all making an appearance. To celebrate the release we’ve put together a guide to Jarmusch’s musical universe.
Sturm, Drang und Sqürl
The psychedelic feedback and distorted drone instrumentals of Jarmusch’s band Sqürl evoke the very soul of his films; where words never give too much away or disturb the desolate, diffuse and melancholy mood. No surprises then that they went on to score the last four.
The Limits of Control draws from the dense drones of Boris, Earth, Sunn O))) and Bad Rabbit – who would later become Sqürl. Only Lovers Left Alive was also scored by Sqürl with the inclusion of Dutch lutist Jozef van Wissem, giving the soundtrack a unique and timeless character. Van Wissem has since become an unofficial member of Sqürl, collaborating in the studio and regularly touring with the band.
Young and Old Black
Neil Young wasn’t keen on the idea of scoring 1995’s Dead Man, but once he saw the rough cut, he changed his mind immediately. Young infamously improvised as he watched the film through, mostly on his customised guitar ‘Old Black’. Rippled and scratching waves of drone and reverb, the soundtrack consists of numbered tracks interspersed with sound bites from the film.
The Dead Man soundtrack proved to be a significant event in its own right; it was the first solo guitar record that Young had ever made and it provided a sonic starting point for Jarmusch’s own musical journey with Sqürl. It remains a classic.
On the Fringe
Returning to play Hermit Bob in The Dead Don’t Die, Tom Waits has been a frequent visitor in Jarmusch’s universe for over three decades. Having met at a party hosted by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the pair’s friendship apparently began when they bailed and went to a bar instead. While John Lurie scored 1986’s Down by Law, it’s Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon (which opens the film) that lingered. Waits scored 1992’s Night on Earth, starred in Down by Law and appeared in Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes. Waits embodies the heart and soul of Jarmusch’s aesthetic of solitary, edge-dwelling drifters. He even gets the last word on the The Dead Don’t Die soundtrack.
The Sound of America
Blues, jazz and hip-hop are celebrated throughout the Jarmusch filmography. The anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes sounds like an alternative version of the great American songbook with tracks from the likes of Jerry Byrd and Chuck Berry as well as Iggy Pop (who Jarmusch profiled in 2016’s Gimme Danger) and Funkadelic. Jazz musician John Lurie’s scored Jarmusch’s earliest films while Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You made the scene in Stranger than Paradise almost as iconic as the song itself. When hip-hop heavyweight Robert ‘RZA’ Diggs of Wu-Tang Clan scored Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai it was hard to imagine a better fit.
Whether it’s the lone assassin chilling to Schubert in his hotel room in The Limits of Control or the way hip hop weaves between the soundtrack and narrative in Ghost Dog, Jarmusch’s frequent use of diegetic music points to the status it holds in his creative life. Jarmusch has said that music is his biggest source of inspiration, and feels it’s the purest form of expression. Film, like music, Jarmusch says, ‘gives you its own time frame’ and this, he feels, connects them inextricably. In his films, there are people constantly listening to radios and stereos, playing, singing or recording music, dancing to music and talking about music; it’s the single biggest driver of his film-making career.
Jarmusch admits that while he could live without film, he couldn’t live without music. Having worked with luminaries like Tom Waits, Neil Young, John Lurie and RZA to score his films, he has also managed to get a number of iconic musicians to appear in them. Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, John Lurie, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop, RZA and GZA, Jack and Meg White have all appeared in Jarmusch films, with Selena Gomez joining Pop, RZA and Waits in The Dead Don’t Die.
Jim Jarmusch’s new film The Dead Don’t Die is in cinemas now.