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Movie Review: Mystery Train Calling Elvis

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Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train consists of three parts. It takes place in a curiously de-populated Memphis where the ghost of Elvis Presley is ever-present. The segments are ”Far from Yokohama”, ”A Ghost” and ”Lost in Space”.

In ”Far from Yokohama” two Japanese tourists Jun (Masaoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) come to Memphis to see Graceland and Sun Studio. They are there to pay homage to Elvis and Carl Perkins. Through a series of circumstance they wind up at a run down hotel.

The hotel is the common denominator of all three stories, by the way. The Night Clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and the Bellboy (Cinqué Lee) feature in all three stories. The same scene replays three times from three different perspectives. The same song plays on the radio, the same DJ (Tom Waits) gives the same patter and the same gun shot is heard three times.

The second instalment ”The Ghost” follows the Italian widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) who gets held over in Memphis with the casket containing her dead husband. She gets accosted in a diner by a man (Tom Noonan) who tells her a story about how he picked up a hitchhiker outside of Memphis who turns out to be the ghost of Elvis. Luisa also winds up at the hotel, sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) who has jus left her boyfriend, Johnny, ironically nicknamed Elvis (Joe Strummer).

The third instalment ”Lost in Space” has three friends, Johnny ”Elvis” (Joe Strummer), Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and Charlie the Barber (Steve Buscemi). Johnny has just lost his job and his girlfriend, Dee Dee from the previous segment. He is getting drunk in a bar with Will waving a gun around. As we all know alcohol and firearms are a really bad combination and Johnny winds up shooting a clerk at a liquor store. The three guys wind up at the hotel where Will knows the Night Clerk. They hide out in a completely wrecked room at the hotel.

Of course the ghost of Elvis actually makes an appearance in one of the stories, appropriately the instalment called “The ghost”, but even with that he is still all over the story, in his music and in the discussions between the characters. There are portraits of the singer in the hotel rooms, there are references to his music in the dialogue. You can’t help thinking that the various musicians in the cast feel the same way. Even if they don’t like Elvis they still have to find a way to relate to his music and his iconic status.

The funny thing about Jarmusch-movies is that you watch and enjoy and laugh and wince and then afterwards you try to reconstruct what they are actually about, and that’s when you realize how unusual his style really is. There is more interest in the characters moods and the atmosphere of the narrative than any hard core plot driven piece – and I like that. I like the way you tend to amble along with the characters and make small and big observations and then part company, not necessarily resolving anything, but just taking part in a piece of their story.

The movie is off-beat, atmospheric, random and has a lot of downtrodden charm. A lot of the almost animistic atmosphere is due to the lovely photography by Robby Müller, who also shot Wim Wenders’ Kings Of The Road, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly as well as other Jarmusch movies.

You have to be in the mood for this kind of thing, the odd and different pacing and the loosely held together narrative. If you are, this works really well.

Mystery Train (1989), written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Masatoshi Nagase (Jun), Youki Kudoh (Mitsuko), Scremin’ Kay Hawkins (Night Clerk), Cinqué Lee (Bellboy), Nicoletta Braschi (Luisa), Elizabeth Bracco (Dee Dee), Tom Noonan (Man in Arcade Diner), Joe Strummer(Johnny ”Elvis”), Rick Aviles (Will Robinsson), Steve Buscemi (Charlie the Barber), Tom Waits (Radio D.J.).

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