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Mystery Train (Blu-ray Review)

21 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nicoletta Braschi, Steve Buscemi.

Though not a likely chamber of commerce pick by the Memphis white-guy power structure just seen in the recent “American Experience” DVD about Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray, writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s quirky 1989 three-parter does, say those in the know, capture the city’s low-rent-district ethos from the era in which it was filmed.

Given the title and setting, it’s not surprising that the ghost of Elvis looms, starting with nocturnal DJ broadcasts of “Blue Moon” — Sun Sessions “King” rendition — that’s decidedly more ethereal than the Marcels’ 1961 conversation-stopper. And then there’s the literally ghostly and apparently famous urban myth spun here by a local huckster played by Manhunter’s Tom Noonan — one that puts a supernatural Elvis twist on a yarn that sounds something like the opening episode of "Melvin and Howard."

The key visual, though, isn’t Graceland or Cadillacs of pink and powder blue pigments. It’s a fleabag hotel — and not just any fleabag but one where the guy working the graveyard desk shift is played by the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Yes, that Screamin’ Jay, of “I Put a Spell on You” and other recordings that could have even put hair on the chest of Princess Grace (though I am still waiting to experience such CD-available catalogue SJH titles as “Constipation Blues” and “Armpit No. 6”). As Hawkins’ character observes a lobby passing parade that both stumbles in and races in (as in trying to elude the police after a robbery), he shares several scenes with an unseasoned bellman played by Cinque Lee (Spike’s real-life brother). Hawkins’ red jacket/tie combo is so screamin’ itself — thank you, Criterion Blu-ray, for getting its decibel level right — that you can use it to calibrate the color on your Hi-Def TV.

Compared to his duds or any other standard you care to use, the joint is minimalist: cheap-looking radios in the rooms but no TVs, limited light source and Elvis wall portraits that must have been purchased at bulk rate. Even so, there are rooms, and there are rooms. When the lowlife robbers ask for one (the one innocent in the group, a barber, is played by a young Steve Buscemi), they are assigned one somehow more dilapidated than the rest. There aren’t any sheets on the beds, and no one knows the trouble these mattresses have seen.

In real life, Jarmusch loves Lee Marvin, loves Nicholas Ray and is a fellow Ohioan whose mother was once film critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal, which in my formative years was probably the best newspaper in the state. Due to these attributes, I wish I loved his movies more, but Jarmusch’s screen wit goes so far beyond dry that it too often enters the realm of parched. Train is one of his better attempts, though its overlong opening episode never gets beyond the barebones of what sounds like a can’t-miss setup dealing with Sun Records, an outgoing teen Japanese tourist (Youki Kudoh) and her dour boyfriend (Masatochi Nagase) who thinks Carl Perkins is rock ‘n’ roll’s real royalty.

The second episode is better, thanks to the charm of Nicoletta Braschi (previously utilized by Jarmusch in 1986’s Down by Law) as a young widow, and the capper is only a rung or two below that. The one entertainment constant is the frequent presence of Hawkins, who occasionally allows slight traces of bewilderment to penetrate his passivity — and to better effect than anything else in the picture. Casting him was a stroke of genius that probably did a lot to sustain the singer’s career. One of this release’s bonus highlights is a fairly long excerpt from a documentary about Hawkins that includes Jarmusch being interviewed in a hotel room (modest, but thankfully many steps up from his movie’s).

Though it’s probably just tricky memory, I’m tempted to say that the transfer even improves on the pre-release New York City Critics’ screening print from a little more than 20 years ago. There’s also a lovely featurette on the depressed sections of Memphis from the time of shooting, and a jacket art that halfway suggests the advertising poster from an old Alan Freed revue. In fact, the spirit of rock, pop and soul so pervades throughout that Stax Records titan Rufus Thomas even contributes an acting bit.

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