There’s something about Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train that perfectly captures the feeling of dislocation fractious travellers can get when visiting even their favourite places. My wife thinks we saw this in our first holiday as a couple - Barcelona (surely that was Sullivan’s Travels, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Lawrence of Arabia?) or possibly our second, in Italy, but I’m thinking it was on home turf: yet it’s the feeling of “the holiday”, of late night rambling in search of a hotel, down darkly-shaded unknown streets… that’s what we remember in this film, not specifically the where.
In the first part of this inter-connected triptych a young Japanese couple, Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) try to align their feelings on their first big holiday abroad. Mitsuko is openly excited about the prospect of seeing Graceland whilst Jun is cool, claiming to prefer Carl Perkins in the time-honoured way of all 18-year old hipsters the world over: pick your own smaller niche and avoid the obvious… bit of a mistake to head for The Kingdom of Memphis then.
|Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase|
Far From Yokohama features the couple arriving in Memphis and their disparate attempts to experience the place and themselves….on a blues pilgrimage will they establish enough common ground set alone, apart from family, friends and location in Yokohama. That’s what our holiday’s as young couples all reveal.
Mitsuko and Jun chance upon the Arcade Hotel - a run-down establishment off the beaten track as they head from Sun Studios through avenues of rust and distressed plastic fascia’s that once trumpeted the best new music and the biggest movies… all gone now, but providing atmospheric reminders of the transience of architectural ambition.
They are greeted by the concierge, a rather splendidly attired Screaming Jay Hawkins and his bell boy (Cinqué Lee – brother of Spike) who rent them a double for $22. There’s no TV just a portrait of Elvis and an ancient radio.
The couple make young love and then fall apart and into a deep sleep… They are wakened in the early hours by the sound of Roy Orbison. The DJ (Tom Waits with the gravel turned on full…) who announces Elvis’ supernatural cover of Blue Moon from his early Sun sessions… strange things can happen around music like this….
A gun shot is heard and they quickly make their exit…
She gets hassled by some of the locals who feed her a line about seeing the ghost of Elvis and then circle around with evil on their minds. She keeps calm and finds her way to the Atlantic Hotel where, she meets Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) – a woman seemingly capable of talking without either breathing or thinking. The kindly concierge puts them together in a $22 room possibly seeing a way of helping them both.
|Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco|
In the night the Italian woman awakes to find the ghostly figure of Elvis in their room… he’s confused but polite and disappears somewhere else before Dee Dee can awake to witness him.
Then the radio shifts from Orbison to Elvis, Scotty and Bill and as Blue Moon fades a gunshot rips through the early morning: we better get out of here panics Dee Dee, “sounds like a 38…” ponders her new friend who may well know more about such things than she has shown…
|Elvis haunts the wrong location...|
His friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) is called to help haul him out of trouble and he in turn contacts Johnny’s brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) – Dee Dee’s brother and a moderately respectable hairdresser.
|Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles and Joe Strummer: white riot|
The three share a dingy room and drink themselves through to morning… the outlook looks just as bleak to Johnny day or night and, as he moves to end it all, Charlie jumps in to prevent him… Blue Moon comes on the radio, a train passes by and a gunshot is heard…
No spoilers: I’m not giving the ending away but even if I did this film is worth watching for the excellence of its atmospheres and the brilliance of the performers. Even Joe Strummer does well and is possibly the best punk rocker-turned-actor I’ve seen… Jarmusch was keen to use him not just because of his fondness for The Clash but also because of his persona and when his scenes work well it’s because it’s Joe Strummer not Johnny.
Mind you he is ably supported by Rick Aviles and of course by Steve Buscemi who can have few rivals in modern televisual acting. My daughter spotted him as Nucky Thompson within seconds in spite of the 20-odd years between Mystery Train and Boardwalk Empire: he’s only got better as an actor over that time.
|Cinqué Lee and Screaming Jay Hawkins|
No matter how you play it, Mystery Train still retains its mystery and that nostalgic pull of being a little lost and enjoying it… that’s something we should try not to lose, no matter how organised life gets!