by Lizzi Wolf
A young, hip Japanese couple arrives in Memphis on a pilgrimage to Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley recorded his first hit. An Italian woman, stranded in Memphis while her husband’s corpse is processed through customs, sees the ghost of Elvis from her hotel bed. A working-class English guy, nicknamed Elvis, holds up a liquor store after losing his job and his girlfriend.
The spirit of Elvis haunts—more accurately, graces—Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train, which will be screened in the Tap Room at Arbor Brewing Company on Wednesday, January 14, as part of radio station WCBN’s monthly series of music-themed movies.
As expressed through the soundtrack, a love of the blues and blues-influenced music is clearly an underlying impetus for Mystery Train. A cameo appearance by the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a red-suited hotel desk clerk and the voice of Tom Waits as a late-night radio disc jockey further augment the blues-inspired ethos of the film. And Elvis’s “Blue Moon” playing on the radio provides a temporal unity, orienting each of the episodes that make up the fractured storyline in time. But Mystery Train—the title borrowed from an Elvis tune—is less an homage to Elvis Presley himself or even to his music than to the enduring mystique of Elvis.
Vintage Jarmusch, this whimsical, episodic film is structured around theme, motif, and variation rather than strong plot or character development. The mystique of Elvis resonates with an episode in the lives of each of the characters, who all end up in the same run-down hotel for one night. To the Japanese tourists, Sun Studio is a mecca at which to worship an American pop-culture icon. To the Italian widow, the ghost of Elvis is an incarnation of her recently deceased husband, an external animus of her grieving process. To one African American character, the ubiquitous image of Elvis is just another annoying reminder of the dominance of white culture. To others, Elvis remains a source of endless fascination: the bellhop receives a nod of admiration from the front desk clerk when he calculates how much Elvis would have weighed on Jupiter at the time of his death (648 pounds).
Elvis was born January 8, 1935, and WCBN disk jockey Brian Tomsic says that the film series organizers have declared January to be Elvis Tribute Month.
[Originally published in January, 2009.]
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