Dead Man

WORKS: Dead Man
CATALOGUE NO: 9362-46171-2 S635


We see, in close-up, locomotive pistons in a swirl of steam; we hear the jagged clangour of an electric guitar. Johnny Depp is being borne off to the West – on a train, and on the wings of music. At the beginning of Dead Man the guitar is heard only in brief bursts – like a door being opened and closed – but by the end of this haunting new film by Jim Jarmusch, it seems to fill the screen.

Jarmusch’s work is always musical – Mystery Train was permeated by Elvis, and Night on Earth by Tom Waits – but this film is in a sense about its own soundtrack. It’s the surreal reverse-image of a Western, in which a Candide-like young man is transformed into an outlaw, and hunted into the welcoming arms of Native American Indians, dying in their sacramental embrace. It’s shot in black and white, and its dialogue – splicing William Blake with frontier talk – is mere shards of communication.

The music by Neil Young is fragmented too, but it exerts an extraordinary spell. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Jarmusch is a Neil Young fan, or that during the shooting he and his crew listened non-stop to Young’s music. ‘I was ecstatic,’ says Jarmusch, ‘when Neil saw an early cut and agreed to score it. What he brought to the film lifts it to another level.’ With a pump organ, a detuned piano and acoustic and electric guitars, Young’s music permeates everything animal, vegetable and mineral, much as Takashi Matsuyama’s did in that exquisite mystery, Kurosawa’s Rashomon.


The soundtrack itself is literally that: words, footfalls, guns going off, as well as the music. Shut your eyes, and you’re back in the film.