Could any filmmaker be more associated with the New York punk scene than Jim Jarmusch? At the turn of the 1980s, he seemed ubiquitous on the Lower East Side—playing keyboards with the Del-Byzanteens; making the scene at Danceteria and the Mudd Club with fellow travelers like Basquiat and Keith Haring; and directing a pair of indelible features, PERMANENT VACATION and STRANGER THAN PARADISE. Jarmusch’s early work shares with its musical peers an off-kilter sense of timelessness and an honest depiction of New York City as a seedy enclave. You have to squint at the details that mark these films as contemporary with the early ‘80s, but the characters’ ennui and melancholy, their lived-in apartments and beat-up cars, and the apocalyptic milieu that enveloped them made these films seem as eternally stylish as your favorite Blondie deep cut.
While the soundtracks for his earlier films favored jazz and 1950s R&B over the sounds of the East Village, the punk sensibility informed his approach. The DIY approach that was a fact of life for indie musicians of the era made its mark on STRANGER THAN PARADISE, which Jarmusch made with film left over from his mentor Wim Wenders’ most recent feature. He shot the film in his Lower East Side apartment and cast John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards and original Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson as his male leads. Lurie also wrote the ethereal string quartets that scored the film; “I Put A Spell On You” punctuated its memorable opening scene and provided the film’s lone popular song.
After STRANGER THAN PARADISE’s premiere at Cannes in 1984, the thoroughly American Jarmusch became an international icon of independent cinema. His subsequent films gradually included higher budgets and wider distribution, but his innovative use of music and casting of musicians remained consistent throughout his filmography. Lurie shared the screen with gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits in DOWN BY LAW, Jarmusch’s 1986 follow-up to STRANGER THAN PARADISE; the film opened to the strains of Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and concluded with a slow dance to “It’s Raining” by Irma Thomas. Three years later, Waits reprised his role as a Southern DJ in MYSTERY TRAIN—alongside Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer—in which Jarmusch portrayed the intersecting paths of three groups of Elvis fans exploring the King’s hometown of Memphis.
By the time NIGHT ON EARTH went into production, Jarmusch had directed music videos for the Talking Heads, Big Audio Dynamite, and Tom Waits, as well as a “Coffee and Cigarettes” short about an urban legend involving Elvis Presley. NIGHT ON EARTH was Jarmusch’s most ambitious film to date, stringing together five vignettes that took place inside taxis in five different cities across the world. While Jarmusch eschewed casting rock stars in this film, he was able to collaborate once more with Waits, who wrote two songs and provided the film’s score. Waits himself was at a turning point in his career; after a series of records that blended his early troubadour stylings with a more experimental sensibility, he was preparing to record the abrasive, cacophonous Bone Machine.
Waits and Jarmusch have complementary styles, rooted in the 1950s Americana of their formative years, the ungainly, playful experimentation of art movements like Fluxus, and the squalor and apocalyptic paranoia of the Watergate era. In their bodies of work, the artists blend a midcentury modern aesthetic (as with the Chesterfield cigarettes, vintage cars, and run-down diners in Jarmusch’s movies and the pre-rock and roll balladry and analog production of Waits’ Asylum-era recordings) with a minimalist approach (black and white film and deliberate staging and camera placement; small-band arrangements and live-in-the-studio recordings) that contradicted the materialism and conformity of the mid-20th century. The un-kitschy retro style of Jarmusch’s and Waits’ work made their movies and records seem out of place in the new-wave 1980s, but added to the timeless quality of their output and endeared them to European audiences.
Waits’ out-of-time style set the stage for the film and put audiences in a timeless mood with his opening theme, “Good Old World”. The song’s minor key and Waits’ less assured-sounding head voice suggested the feeling of desperation that many of the characters in the film experience, and the violin and accordion accompaniment sound European enough to prepare the audience for a more global experience. Jarmusch reprises “Good Old World” as a waltz at the film’s close, emphasizing the film’s underlying sadness and sending off the sometimes-pathetic protagonists with a sense of dignity. In both the opening and closing iterations of “Good Old World”, Waits puts his melancholy tune into unexpected settings. The brass sounds tarnished and slightly off-pitch in both versions, and Waits’ coffee-and-cigarette-stained voice doesn’t fit the mold of a romantic male singer. These arrangement and production choices sound humorous, which can put viewers in mind of the occasional offhand comedy that is about to unspool. Throughout the film, Waits uses his junkyard band to record music cues that exaggerate the music or mood audiences associate with the different locales Jarmusch features in the film. For his part, Jarmusch frequently subverts the mood or characteristics American audiences associate with those milieu, and Waits’ music sends up these assumptions. (Look no further than “Paris Mood [Un De Fromage]” for an example of how Waits plays into these subversions.)
NIGHT ON EARTH didn’t connect with audiences or critics the way Jarmusch’s less ambitious earlier work had—it only made $2.15 million back on its $3 million budget, and the reviews for the film, while positive, didn’t quite match the universal acclaim and influence of his previous efforts. Looking at NIGHT ON EARTH now, the improvisatory style and sometimes garish color scheme doesn’t have the same impact that Jarmusch’s earlier, more controlled efforts did.
NIGHT ON EARTH marked an end point for Jarmusch’s episodic style, and his later films found him working with a single narrative throughout the length of the film. However, one thing remained constant in his later films: he continued working with rock stars, and music continued to help Jarmusch undermine and subvert his audience’s beliefs about American history and culture.