Reviews of a Neil Young Soundtrack Film
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Neil Young News
Young's moody guitar improvisations enhance film.
Set in a version of the Wild West that you never saw on "Gunsmoke" or "Wagon Train," this film is awesome in it's look (black & white art film meets '50s genre Western at Ingmar Bergman's house), shows Johnny Depp to be a true star and features a haunting soundtrack by Neil Young.
Without giving it all away, the film tells the story of a Cleveland boy who heads West to the very bowels of the primitive universe where boorish cowboys hold loaded pistols to the heads of women while being serviced orally, where hired killers are the kind of guys who fucked (literally), killed and bar-b-qued their parents up for dinner, where job rejection is delivered along with a rifle aimed at the face. To do the plot an injustice, let's just say it's about William Blake's (Johnny Depp) spiritual quest. Already a hit in England, this film is way too good (and entertaining) to be seen just by the art house crowd that has dug Jarmusch's previous work.
Oh yeah, Young's soundtrack finds him improvising the film's musical theme on electric guitar. He delivers some of his most inspired and impressionistic playing--which is saying something. The 64 minute soundtrack album mixes spoken word bits from the movie (including one partially delivered by Iggy Pop) with Young's instrumentals. This film will blow you away. The stark imagery will stick in your mind, as will Young's melodies.
"Dead Man" is the new movie from writer/director Jim Jarmusch, the avant garde filmmaker known for projects like "Mystery Train" and "Night On Earth." For some background on the project, we contacted Adam Somers, the General Manager of Vapor Records, the new label formed by Young and his long-time manager, Elliot Roberts.
"Johnny Depp plays this character who gets caught up in the machinations of, like, a late 1880's western town," Somers tells ICE. "He meets up with this Indian who's familiar with the poet William Blake. Coincidentally, Depp plays a character named William Blake, and the Indian thinks he's the reincarnation of the poet. Depp's character is dying, and the Indian wants to reunite him with the spirit. That's the basic thread.
"Jarmusch shot the film in black and white. Then Neil went into a room, surrounded with monitors, and they played the movie back for him. He just basically played solo electric guitar, and went with what the screen was making him feel. Then they scored that music into the film. It's not like "Mirror Ball" [Young's most recent album] or anything like that; he went to a whole other place. Some of the stuff is *amazing*."
That's only half the story, however. Rather than simply culling a soundtrack album from the movie score, Young saw the album as an extension of the film that needed its own voice. Without the moving pictures to punctuate his music, Somers relates, Young felt that some of it might not make sense. "Neil took the score and went for a ride, in an old car, with Johnny Depp, who recited a couple of Blake's poems which had appeared as little snippets in the film. These were a more full recitation of the poems, and Neil recorded it. Then he took some dialogue from the movie, some of the themes or lead motifs, and wove them in. So it has elements from the film, but then it has stuff that's not in the film at all. He finishes up with a 13- or 14-minute, non-stop, Neil Young guitar solo freakout that's just too cool for words.
"So Neil has made, as only he can do, this 64-minute seamless thing that's like...amazing. Even if you don't see the film, I think people will get off on it, because it's got a lot of atmospheric stuff from the movie. But if you see the movie, and then you have the soundtrack, it's really something special."
In addition to the regular CD, Vapor also plans to release a limited-edition, $29.95 special-packaging version of "Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture 'Dead Man'" -- not bad for a label's first-ever release. The special package resembles a small, bound book, and contains things like extra photographs, a little folded-up poster, and some Johnny Depp artwork. The majority of these will be sent overseas, where Jarmusch is better-known; the film has already opened in Japan, Germany and France to enthusiastic reception. (Besides Depp, the movie features Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover and a cameo by Iggy Pop, but it won't open in America until at least April.)
Vapor, distributed by the Warner Bros. family, is not standing still with Young's release; March is scheduled for the first album by alternative rockers The Customers, and cult favorite Jonathan Richman is working on his next album -- and Vapor debut -- for possible June release.
Three headhunters, led by the sadistic Cole Wilson, are hired by Dickinson to hunt the fugitive down. But soon the trio finds themselves in company, because the old man trusts not only their instinct, but openly puts out money on Blakes head. The hunted heads for the snowy mountains, with a bullet in his body that will slowly kill him. For him now starts a long journey into the realm of shadows, to the last borders of mysticism and spirituality. His companion and guide on this trip is an unique Indian called Nobody, who speaks perfect English, takes mind altering drugs and is well acquainted with the works of the deceased poet William Blake, who he thinks to have found again in the person of his new friend. On his first long movie after four years Jim Jarmush again works together with Robbie Mueller at the (Black & White-)Camera, like "Down By Law" and "Mystery Train". For the soundtrack he engaged Neil Young. What "Die Zeit" (German weekly newspaper) wrote about his concert with Pearl Jam in Berlin sound like a recommendation for Dead Man, explains why Jarmush chose this musician before all others. "Youngs about 25 albums are a "education seminale" about one theme: We are wandering towards our death and have plenty of time. The pilgrims of this journey find in Young a well skilled scout, who can read trails and ..."Oh forget it. The author now rambles on for a few lines about nature-mysticism, the stars above and ghost riders in the sky.
Now way I'm gonna translate that. Not without a dictionary. Sorry for the shaky translation, it was all that I could manage at this hour. I saw another Jarmush movie today: "Night On Earth". A good one. I like that guy. He makes cool movies.
Good night folks, Frank
Cult director of photography Jim Jarmusch ("Down By Law") releases his mystical western "Dead Man". The music was contributed in a strange/weird manner by rock legend Neil Young
Once upon a time in the preceeding century: the equally young and worthy accountant William Blake (accordingly inexpressive acted by Johnny Depp) gets on the road to the far West of America to start a new job. It s going to be a journey into the beyond [underworld, the world beyond, etc...].
First he arrives in a sinister hole named Machine, where already the short walk from the station to his future office is a nightmare: One of Blakes first sightings is a rape on the streets and a view into the workshop of the conspiciously fast working coffin carpenter. Welcome to hell!
Of course the job is already occupied, and Blake is exposed to a hostile surrounding without means. Killing the son of the factory owner in self- defense in a shooting - nobody is interested in peanuts like that in such a god-forsaken region. Blake, heavily wounded, with a bullet stuck next to his heart, has to flee. He s becoming the "Dead Man"- and director Jarmusch a mysticist.
[photo, entitled: "Dream trio: Neil Young, Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp. Neil to the left, straw hat, black denims, some unidentified open jacket, white T-Shirt with a big print on it, sun glasses, holding a magazine, big fat long sideburns, looking straight into the camera. Middle: Jim Jarmusch, hair white blonde, holding a ziggy-butt, looking aside, up. Right: Johnny Depp, blue denims, O-shaped legs, brown jacket, T-Shirt, in the corner, standing a little bit James-Dean-like, looking aside, down to earth.]
The first oddnesses of the movie are hard on the edge of plausibility in, aside from that, a realistic plot. But the oddnesses accumulate: the times of the year change randomly, and the laws of probability and logic seem to be broken. [Those last two sentences don t make sense in German either. "realistic plot with accumulating oddnesses"? "broken laws of probability"?]
On the flight from sheriffs and head hunters he encounters a lonely Indian named Nobody. The Indian believes to recognize the refugee as the long dead English poet William Blake und quotes permanently his lyrics - during his acompanying of the Dead Man on his journey to the kingdom/empire [?] of the dead. Is Blake dreaming of all of this or is it "real"? No matter what: This question is as obsolete as about every dream. Franz Kafka in the Wild West. [Ed.: Franz Kafka: famous Czech/German author, beginning of this century; famous for his stories that talk about that you cannot escape your evil fate - literature weenies please fill us in]
Entangled with this movie is the music of Neil Young - he, who is one of the most willful [positive meaning; eigenwillig?] rock hereos of the last two centuries with one of the greatest abilities to change, contributed not only the soundtrack, but he was also the determing source of inspiration for Jim Jarmusch.
"Already during writing of the script I listened all the time to Neil Young songs", he says, and this explains a lot: In the songs of the Canadian you find all sorts of dream sequences with lone riders, Indians, outlaws - and encounters with death. Jarmusch: "I wanted absolutely that Neil wrote the music for the movie."
[photo, entitled: "Melancholic on his way beyond: Johnny Depp as "Dead Man". JD lying exhausted in a canoe, fur coat, Indian hat, Indian drawings in his face, looking rather out-spaced into nowhere.]
And indeed, the 50 year old joined in, after he had seen a raw version of the movie. The music was written and recorded basically live, Neil saw the movie four times and played his guitar to it. Out of those four runs the final version was cut. "The soundtrack is Neil s immediate reaction to the movie", says Jarmusch. The wizzard of sound [Neil, to speak!] reacted mainly with bluesy melodies - raw, rough, archaic, minimalistic.
He didn t need to add much more than some of these inimitable guitar sounds to the journey of the "Dead Man" anyway - because in principle the whole movie is a single tribute to Neil Young.
From NME review DEAD MAN
But while sepia tinted tears are pouring into the purist's popcorn, Neil Young is plugging in his guitar. Before his 80's reincarnation, the grandfather of that "G" word was sculpting desert landscapes with Crazy hourse and handpicked by Jim Jarmusch to score his nouveau western DEAD MAN, it's to these parched dustbowls that he has returned.
A hundred years ago, Americans wore plaid shirts for slightly different reasons than today. The Wild West was a vast, unwritten book, waiting to be scribbled on by any Wyatt, Doc or Johnson; and for the most part, Young is quite content to let them get on with it - waiting in the wings, guitar gently crackling like a campfire primed with gelignite. Ocasionally, the urge to explode and explore is too great and pump organ at ready, Young tramples all in his path with amps on overload, strings stretched and scaped - a fistful, if you must. And to be honest, not a lot else.
However, when Neil returns to his rocking chair, it's the ominous figure of one Johnny Depp who takes the mic. Somehow mistaken for the English poet William Blake in the film (they share a name - well,duh), Depp oh-so solemnly recites the work of the real Blake at every opportunity throughout both film and soundtrack - and it's honestly not half bad.
Encouraged by Young's increasingly solemn scratchings, Blake's apocalyptic visions set up home in Jarmusch's weirdsville west, taking cowboys and indians onto somewhat loftier and potentially more pretentious climes - Morricone's screeches and howls turned Sergios Leone's DOLLARS trilogy into an amoral opera, and Young attempts to turn the western on to it's stetson-ed head, scoring a surrealist stage play, maybe.
Of course, it's also bloody pompous(Johnny Depp!William Blake) but mercifully, Jarmusch bursts his own bubble - the inclusion of Iggy Pop's garlic-basted Christian monologue prior to the gunfight over who gets to fondle Depp's girlish locks is both farcical and chilling. Add to this Young's now completely barren guitar work and DEAD MAN has touched all emotional bases. It's not spaghetti by any means, this is a NOODLE western."
Young is at it again, solo this time. For six months we've heard rumors that film director Jim Jarmusch ('Stranger Than Paradise,' 'Night on Earth') locked Young into a screening room with just a guitar and told him to wail away to Jarmusch's upcoming movie, 'Dead Man'. This sounded too good to be true! Finally, the electric essence of Neil Young, both before and after feedback!
And the soundtrack, 'Dead Man' (Vapor, 2/27), is good, but not too good to be true. Young becomes a Bernard Herrmann with a Telecaster. That means, Young services the movie, never transcends it. Each cut consists of Young noodling his guitar over a chuggy amp rhythm and/or the sound of car tires on a wet freeway (Route 66 at 3 a.m.?). The music is interspersed with sound clips from the film itself. From what one "hears," this flick is about a kid who believes he's the famous British visionary poet William Blake. He is being driven (or driving?) through the southwest by an eternal American Indian. They have an encounter with a trio of desert white trash who want to rape William Blake. People get shot. William Blake sails away in his canoe.
Program the CD for just the music and 'Dead Man' is revealed to be another new age record, Neil Young style. This means it's perfect music to unwind to after you've just taken your Land Rover out on a spin to hit-and-run a few 20something hitchhikers. Young tactfully stretches his guitar notes until he threatens to break into Sonic Youth-style screeching. But he is just toying with us. There is no guitar apocalypse just around the corner. 'Dead Man' will certainly leave necrophiliacs hot and bothered.
Not that any of us should skip getting 'Dead Man'--just know, you'll spin 'Arc' more often while you wait for someone to lock Neil Young into a room and force him to wail his guitar to the movies going on in *his* head.
And that will be an album to kill for.
As the liner notes to the DM soundtrack reveal nothing about the specific contents of each track, I found it helpful to jot down some notes as I listened to it. I know some of you may think this takes the mystery or mystique out of it, but I found that once I understood how each element fit into the whole, I was better able to appreciate what each track had to offer. If you don't agree, please feel free to skip to the next message, but if you do agree, you might find it helpful to refer to the track breakdown below. It's not complete, in that I haven't made note of every little sound, but it does offer a general overview of each track. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I hope what I've written makes sense. The more I hear this thing, the more I love it!
First, here's a a listing of the most prominent feature(s) of each track:
1 (5:17) - electric guitar
2 (3:32) - dialogue
3 (2:03) - electric guitar
4 (2:25) - poetry, dialogue
5 (1:33) - pump organ
6 (4:25) - dialogue, poetry, electric guitar
7 (4:31) - electric guitar
8 (6:35) - poetry, dialogue, electric guitar, more poetry
9 (4:23) - electric guitar
10 (8:45) - dialogue
11 (14:41) - electric guitar
12 (0:51) - dialogue
13 (3:22) - electric guitar
Here's a more descriptive breakdown of the contents of each track:
1 - begins with the sound of waves (or rain, I can't tell for sure) - then light, incessant picking of electric guitar, interrupted occasionally by more frenzied playing - the main melodic theme is introduced near the end of this track
2 - after a bit of electric guitar, we hear dialogue between Nobody and William Blake, with the sound of electric guitar in the background - Blake introduces himself to Nobody
3 - slow and fuzzy electric guitar playing
4 - begins with the sound of waves, followed by the poem whose first line is "Why art thou silent and invisible" - with the sound of electric guitar in the background, we hear dialogue between Nobody and Blake - Nobody warns Blake of impending danger from the white men
5 - pump organ solo, with a different melody than we heard on guitar
6 - the first half of this track has dialogue between Nobody and Blake, with the sound of pump organ in the background - Nobody introduces himself to Blake - in the second half of this track, we hear the poem whose first line is "The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire" - in the last part of the track, the main theme is played on electric guitar, accompanied by the sound of waves
7 - with the sound of waves in the background, we hear the incessant picking of electric guitar - the main melodic theme is developed, and then strayed from
8 - after a bit of light, electric guitar, we hear the poem whose first line is "Oh why was I born with a different face" - then we hear dialogue between Blake and Nobody, in which Nobody tells of his past, while in the background the main theme is played on electric guitar - we hear the poem whose first line is "Improvement makes straight roads" - we then hear the poem whose first line is "I went to the Garden of Love"
9 - with the sound of waves in the background, we hear slow electric guitar playing, but a different melody than the main one - the sound of the guitar gets fuzzy at times - in the last part of this track, we hear the incessant picking of electric guitar
10 - with the sound of crickets heard prominently, we hear dialogue between Nobody and Blake - Nobody urges Blake to go to the white men - we then hear dialogue between the white men - Blake meets with the white men, who threaten him, and he's then saved by Nobody (if I understand the story right) - toward the end of this track, we hear the main theme played on electric guitar in the background, and then for the last 25 seconds or so a constant picking of electric guitar
11 - for the first half of this track, the main them is repeated several times on electric guitar, with the sound of waves in the background - in the second half of this track, the main theme is stretched out and developed further
12 - we hear dialogue between Blake and Nobody, in which (if I understand the story correctly) Blake reluctantly accepts his imminent death - the sound of slow electric guitar playing can be heard in the background
13 - this track begins with a long, slow note on electric guitar, with the sound of waves in the background - at times, the guitar produces a "howling" sound - about half way through this track, we hear the incessant picking of electric guitar, with the sound of waves becoming prominent, and then gradually fading out
If anyone noticed any errors or omissions, please let me know. BTW, don't try this with "Dark Side Of The Moon," or you'll go bonkers.
After a defeating day learning his promised job was given to someone else, Blake gets tangled up in murder, and flees Machine with a bullet lodged next to his heart. An outcast Native American who calls himself Nobody takes pity on Blake, and the unlikely twosome wend their way through the wilderness, with a posse on their tail and a ransom on Blake's head. As the pair journeys far from civilization the film becomes positively surreal, as Nobody is convinced Blake is the reincarnation of the dead poet who shares his name, and Blake himself undergoes a series of metamorphoses, finally succumbing to what seems to be his destiny, and becoming a poet who, as Nobody says, "writes in the blood of white men."
Jarmusch intercuts Blake and Nobody's journey with scenes of the various hired killers tracking their bounty, a departure from his usual style of following one thread to its conclusion before taking up another theme. The killers are for the most part ineffectual, with the exception of Cole Wilson, a cold-blooded mercenary dressed all in black and plagued by a persistent toothache. The end of the film finds Cole, Blake, and Nobody in an oddly appropriate trinity, and the intertwining of their fates lends the film a subtly existential feel.
Like _Stranger Than Paradise_, _Dead Man_ was shot in black and white, and the effect, which was excellent for depicting urban desolation in _Stranger_, is equally impressive in _Dead Man_. The most stunning part of the film is the first fifteen minutes, as Blake's train journey West becomes increasingly threatening, and the tension presses down like thunder clouds gathering on screen. When he arrives in Machine, and walks down the foreboding main street, which is rotting as fast as it's being built, the screen almost crackles with electricity. All it takes is a few storefronts and a handful of unsavory characters for Jarmusch to engulf his audience in atmosphere; here the black and white is superb. At the end of the film, when Blake and Nobody visit an Indian village, the black and white again is perfect, lending the final scene a necessary sparse dignity and giving the film a documentary feel.
Jarmusch consciously goes against type in casting Gary Farmer (_Powwow Highway_) as Nobody--Farmer is fat and jovial, more a Father Christmas than noble brave. Johnny Depp perfects his Buster Keaton act as a wide-eyed, bumbling Blake who attains grace and dignity as he comes closer to death, and the rest of the cast is equally eclectic and rewarding--John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne and Iggy Pop all play the smallest of roles; their participation is testament to Jarmusch's reputation. Most intriguing is the soundtrack by Neil Young, who composed the music over a two day period of watching the movie continuously. Jarmusch, who has worked extensively with John Lurie and Tom Waits in the past, expressly wanted Young for the soundtrack, and had editor Jay Rabinowitz edit a few scenes from a rough cut of the film to Young's "Cortez the Killer" to get Young interested in the project. The resulting original composition is eerie and chilling, and provides the most eloquent voice to narrate Jarmusch's surreal western.
Uncompromising from the get-go, Jarmusch's first feature in the four years since his cosmic cab anthology _Night on Earth_, opens on the road with a 10-minute, pure-movie montage of 19th-century locomotion. A Cleveland accountant named, like the English poet, William Blake (Johnny Depp) is heading for a job at the Dickinson Metalworks in the frontier town of Machine. In a fragmentary sequence that incapsulates the movie to come, Blake--a dude with lank hair, spectacles, and a vaudevillian's checkerboard suit--rides along with a changing cast of grizzled cowpokes against a wildly shifting terrain. There's no dialogue until the first of the film's several prophets (Crispin Glover) babbles a warning that all Blake will find in Machine is his own grave. To reinforce the notion, the mountain men start shooting at the buffalo grazing alongside the speeding train.
Jarmusch's _Dead Man_ picks up where Kafka's _Amerika_ leaves off, with the innocent young hero hurtling into the mysterious, limitless West, but it soon returns to Kafka-esque semicivilization by depositing Blake in a realm of sinister absurdity. Machine proves to be a muddy hellhole whose crummy Main Street, the province of rooting pigs and wild-eyed drifters, is marked by mountain goat skulls, dotted with coffin shops, and dominated by the hideous Dickinson Metalworks. To the amusement of the office manager (John Hurt) and his servile clerks, Blake finds another accountant already in his place and only just survives a highly unpleasant run-in with the crazed factory owner (Robert Mitchum, crouching beneath his outsized portrait like a degenerate founding father).
Wandering through the forest of the night, Blake meets the lovely Thel (Mili Avital), named for the unborn heroine of a Blake song, who has been tossed out of the town saloon for peddling paper flowers. Thel brings Blake home, but the loaded gun she keeps beneath her pillow ("cause this is America") results in an absurd, midtryst shoot-out that leaves two people dead and the wounded Blake wanted for murder. Having fled into the wilderness, the hapless accountant is saved by a beefy, solemn Indian (Gary Farmer) who gives his name as "Nobody" and calls his charge "stupid fucking white man" until he discovers that his name is William Blake: "It's so strange that you don't remember anything of your poetry."
Farmer, who steals the movie from the game but necessarily blank Depp, appeared a half-dozen years ago as a similarly massive and placid mystical warrior in the underappreciated _Powwow Highway_--a western road movie that, like Jarmusch's, managed the interpenetration of two historical epochs. For, although set in the 1870s and filled with creepy period details, _Dead Man_ equally suggests an imaginary, post-apocalyptic 1970s, a wilderness populated by degenerate hippies and acid-ripped loners forever pulling guns on each other or else asking for tobacco. Although beautifully shot in sumptuous black and white by Robby Muller, _Dead Man_ resembles the grimmest of Nixon-era anti-Westerns--movies like _Bad Company_, _Kid Blue_, and _Dirty Little Billy_--with Neil Young's discordant electric-guitar vamp providing a further abstraction of their countercultural rock scores.
On the other hand, like _El Topo_, _Greasers Palace_, and the more Christ-conscious spaghetti westerns, _Dead Man_ is a metaphysical journey. Blake is pursued through the forest by three hired killers--the meanest, a cannibal demon, sleeps with a teddy bear. At one point Blake stumbles across a trio of troll-like animal skinners, one (Iggy Pop) in drag, telling the story of Goldilocks. At another, he is surrounded by masked raccoon spirits. There are ample clues to suggest that Blake has died and that Nobody is the spirit who guides his departing soul. Nobody (not to be confused with Blake's more punitive deity, Old Nobodaddy) takes peyote and hallucinates seeing the skull beneath Blake's skin.
Nobody encourages his charge to go even further beyond the law by killing as many whites as he can and thus continue writing his poetry in blood. (Blake's notoriety is clinched when a Christian gun salesman asks for his autograph on a wanted poster.) The landscape grows increasingly uncanny as the pair travels ever deeper into Indian country, eventually paddling by canoe toward the entry to the spirit world: Splayed out along a cold ocean beach, this terminal Indian settlement is as funky and unsettling a frontier necropolis as was Machine.
Trimmed by 14 minutes since its mixed reception last year at Cannes, _Dead Man_ drifts inexorably at its own pace on the River Lethe into the Twilight Zone. By the time Blake reaches his appointed destination, one's sense of Jarmusch has deepened considerably. (Rather than fey and stubborn, he now seems playful and primeval.) This is the western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make. Even the references to Blake are justified. It's a visionary film.
William Blake Artist/Poet - b. 11/28/1757, d.1827 in Soho district, London
Left ordinary school at 10 years to join drawing school, at 15 became an apprentice to a master engraver. Afterwards, in 1770 entered the Royal Academy, but was far ahead of his time. Made his living as a journeyman engraver.
The Voice of the Ancient Bard
Youth of delight come hither,
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.
Doubt is fled & clouds of reason,
Dark disputes and artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze.
Tangled roots perplex her ways,
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead:
And feel they know not what but care:
And wish to lead others when they should be led.
From Songs of Experience, 1794
More on Neil Young's soundtrack for Dead Man film.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse in "Year of The Horse". Also, for more on Jim Jarmusch's films, see interview on directing Neil Young and Crazy Horse in a concert film.
Also, for more see Jim Jarmusch page.
Neil Young FilmsThrasher's Wheat - A Neil Young Archives