This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
In the previous article in this miniseries, I covered (through the medium of a Germany-exclusive blu-ray boxed set) Jarmusch’s early career up to Dead Man. That movie benefitted in part from an excellent country-industrial soundtrack by Neil Young, so it’s only fitting that Jarmusch would return the favour with a project focused on Young himself…
Year of the Horse
This is a documentary about Neil Young and Crazy Horse which isn’t entirely of Jarmusch’s own making; specifically, it mixes footage shot by Jarmusch on Crazy Horse’s 1996 tour with backstage footage from Neil Young’s archives from 1986 and 1976, to offer a glimpse of the musicians in three different decades. In principle, this should be an exciting prospect, because that happens to catch three very important but distinct periods in the group’s career. (It’s important to remember that Crazy Horse isn’t so much Neil Young’s backing band as it is an independent entity that Neil Young happens to play with regularly – they have made Neil-less releases, and on the documentary Neil introduces himself as the “guitarist with Crazy Horse” rather than the band leader or a solo artist or anything like that.)
To be specific, 1976 saw Neil at the height of his creative powers (and his closest physical resemblance to Neil from The Young Ones); the previous year had seen him release the epochal albums Zuma and Tonight’s the Night, the latter of which was recorded in 1973 as a response to the death by heroin overdose of Crazy Horse lead guitarist Danny Whitten and and Bruce Berry, one of Neil’s roadies. The two albums couldn’t be more different – Tonight’s the Night is the saddest entry in Neil’s sorrowful “Ditch Trilogy” along with Time Fades Away and On the Beach – whilst Zuma found him moving beyond the trilogy with a more tonally varied release and a new lease of energy.
Crazy Horse provided essential contributions to both albums, acting as Neil’s backing group for most of the songs on Zuma, being central to the events inspiring Tonight’s the Night, backing Neil on the studio numbers from that album, and appearing in Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, a live performance of a Danny Whitten number included to ensure that Danny would have a presence on the album. (There’s a segment here where Neil and the band share reminiscences of Danny, along with another segment later on commemorating David Briggs, their longstanding studio producer who died in 1995.)
On top of that, it would be during the 1976 tour that Like a Hurricane (originally premiered in 1975, eventually released on the American Stars ‘n’ Bars album in 1977) would become a centerpiece of Crazy Horse’s live set, a position it would retain ever after. Indeed, Like a Hurricane provides the climax to the movie, with Jarmusch skilfully mashing up footage from a 1996 performance with material from a 1976 performance.
1986 found Neil in a period of creative flux, putting out a string of albums with troubled commercial and critical receptions. This was when Neil was signed to the Geffen label, and saw him put out oddities like the synthpop pastiche Trans and the 1950s-flavoured rock ‘n’ roll album Everybody’s Rockin’. The latter of which was delivered effectively as a joke – Neil had wanted to do a country album, which given the country influences on his sound over the course of his career would have made perfect sense, but David Geffen asked for rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t like the result. Geffen would infamously sue Neil for producing uncommercial albums not characteristic of his sound.
More specifically, 1986 saw the tour for Landing On Water, an album which included some 1984 attempts by Neil and Crazy Horse to turn out some New Wave-influenced material. It was released after David Geffen and Neil Young had patched things up and settled out of court (for his part, David Geffen says he regrets the lawsuit and wishes he’d just left Neil to do his own thing), but in the eyes of many critics and fans (including me) Neil wouldn’t get his creative train back on track until 1989’s Freedom, a withering attack on the uncaring and violent America that the Reagan and Bush I administrations presided over.
After Freedom, the creative, critical, and commercial stars would align again for Neil for much of the 1990s. Crazy Horse would again be a very prominent feature of his music, in part because he was turning out material aligned with their skills and in part because the work he did with them in the 1960s and 1970s was extremely influential on the grunge movement, which Neil and Crazy Horse ended up in an interesting symbiotic relationship with – Neil would collaborate with Pearl Jam to make the Mirror Ball album, for instance. In a darker parallel, Kurt Cobain’s suicide note would quote lyrics from Rust Never Sleeps – the one album Neil and Crazy Horse put out in the 1970s which came closest to inventing grunge a decade early – and Neil was sufficiently rattled by this that it inspired the title track from Sleeps With Angels.
What is notable is the consistency of the Crazy Horse lineup – bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina have been with the band since its inception in 1968 as The Rockets, whilst guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro has been a member since 1975, save for a brief break from 1988 to 1990. The upshot of that is that in each of the eras documented here, we’re dealing with the same core lineup, which helps the viewer to compare and contrast how they are in each decade.
The documentary isn’t some sort of dishonest hagiography – an uglier side of the parties involved is shown too. Home movie footage from 1986 captures Neil Young viciously berating the group over a live performance he considered subpar and getting into a shouting match with Billy Talbot. In fact, so far as I can tell all the archival material consists of home movies, and much of the 1996 material either consists of further home movies or is deliberately shot in a way which evokes that style (even the sit-down interview segments look like they’ve been recorded by an amateur on a cheap camcorder).
On the one hand, catching the band in such an unguarded way gives the better stretches of the documentary a very intimate, close feel that makes you feel like you are really seeing something private. On the other hand, it does make the movie feel rather cheap, with the only components that are really nicely shot being the 1996 concert footage the film is interspersed with, along with the occasional bit of landscape footage, animation, and other odd bits and pieces slipped in there to add some visual variety. Even then, much of the concert footage looks visibly clumsy, the exceptionally clear sound quality saving it from seeming like an outright bootleg – and of course, the sound quality on the home movies varies a little, with some conversations being hard to follow as a result.
The movie got panned when it came out precisely because of how cheap a lot of it looks, but this kind of makes sense; the grunge is intrinsically being kind of sloppy, and even back in his early career Neil has always applied this “Shakey” aesthetic to his material which fits in with that. In addition, I think Jarmusch was concerned that if he used top-notch visuals for the new footage he shot for the release, the archival footage would look even worse next to it, whilst filming the new footage this way means that there is less of an aesthetic and stylistic break between eras, and that in turn helps create the impression of a group whose sound and personal relationships are continuously evolving rather than happening in discrete chunks.
This, incidentally, may explain why the movie has not been updated to blu-ray for this release, but has simply been put out on a standard DVD (with non-anamorphic widescreen – so you end up with black bars on all four sides of the screen and the picture in a little letterbox): making it look nice would defeat the purpose. On the other hand, perhaps this comes down to the film not being especially well-liked. Though Jarmusch himself pops up a few times chatting to Neil and the gang, it doesn’t really feel like a Jarmusch movie because he isn’t really exercising much overt creative vision here so much he is putting together a jigsaw puzzle by taking pieces provided to him by someone else and filming extra bits to form the connecting pieces. On top of that, it doesn’t quite tell a coherent enough story to be satisfying for someone who wants a definitive documentary about the band, but has too many talky bits for someone who’d rather watch a concert video. I like it, but I think it’s only possible to like if you just sit back and just accept what you’re being presented with as a scrapbook of interesting curios rather than as a cohesive work.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, an eccentric hit man working for Mafia boss Louie (John Tormey). Years ago, Louie saved a young Ghost Dog from a vicious street assault; later, all grown up and passionately dedicated to the code of bushido as recorded in the Hagakure, Ghost Dog seeks out Louie and offers his services as a sort of modern-day samurai. (For those not familiar with it, quotes from the Hagakure pop up narrated by Whitaker over the course of the movie.)
Living on a rooftop shed where he tends to his carrier pigeons – his primary means of communication with Louie – Ghost Dog lives a simple life which seems satisfying to him. But this is all disrupted on one bad hit, when he’s sent to take out a gangster who’s made the mistake of sleeping with Louise (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of Louie’s boss Ray Vargo (Henry Silva). The assassination itself goes smoothly; the problem is that Louise wasn’t supposed to be there when the killing happened and she was. Whilst she is physically unharmed, Ray is furious that Louise saw the killing happen, and insists that Ghost Dog must be killed. The rest of the film consists of Ghost Dog’s efforts to balance adherence to his code with the fact that his own master is no longer loyal to him.
Whitaker is obviously the heart of the film, and gives a fantastic performance, to the point where it’s almost impossible to reconcile the actor we see here with the guy we see chewing scenery with John Travolta just a year later in Battlefield Earth unless we assume that Whitaker was phoning it in for the lols and a fat cheque from Scientology.
Then again, he has more interesting interactions with other characters this time around than being Travolta’s right-hand Psychlo. For instance, much weight is given to the friendship Ghost Dog strikes up with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a precocious young girl he bonds with over shared literary tastes. Another distinctive friendship is the one he has with Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), a French ice cream vendor, with whom he plays chess regularly; Ghost speaks little French, and Raymond barely speaks English, but they have this rapport anyway. (A joke that subtitle-reliant viewers will miss – but I can follow on my copy due to residual secondary school French – is that quite often the two will express exactly the same sentiment in their respective languages, each not realising that the other has just made exactly the same point.)
(In terms of other Jarmusch regulars, Gary Farmer shows up playing essentially a modern-day riff on his “Nobody” character from Dead Man, right down to his “stupid fucking white man!” catchphrase.)
The other half of the picture, of course, comes own to Ghost Dog’s masters in organised crime. The actual Mafiosi are typically at the least at the older end of middle age, if not actually elderly, their faded glory and shabby surroundings very reminiscent of the sort of take on the declining Mafia that The Sopranos would follow. Even the most well-preserved of them gets undermined, having to dig out some reading glasses to read a message from Ghost Dog at one point; Ghost Dog kills one of his enemies simply by storming into the room suddenly, prompting a heart attack.
The parallels between the depiction of an aging, greying subculture of organised crime that’s failed to cultivate new blood here and the midlife Mafia crisis of The Sopranos seems to be a case of parallel inspiration as opposed to active borrowing of ideas, since both premiered in 1999; another connection is that the film was primarily shot in New Jersey – sorry, I mean Noo Joisey (though the locale is rendered unclear by the use of generic number plates using fictional State nicknames, so it could be anywhere in the urban Northeast), which is where The Sopranos is set, though this linkage may simply come down to the fact that Joisey was notorious at the time for Mafia activity.
Jarmusch takes the humiliation of the Mafia further, though; there’s all sorts of background details suggesting that their coffers are increasingly bare and their days of lording it over all they come into contact with are over. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when the landlord of their clubhouse stops by to yell at them for being months late on the rent and they just take it, evidently in no position to put him in his place or intimidate him into submission.
There’s also a certain immaturity to many of the gangsters which feels especially remniscent of the Sopranos, like when they’re discussing the necessity of killing Ghost Dog and suddenly one of them starts doing a Flava Flav impression and another one makes animal noises, or the fact that they spend a lot of time watching old-timey cartoons on TV. The greying of the Mafia and their decline into petty squabbles rather than doing any serious money-making business seems to be a sign of a changing of the guard – an old order, on the verge of total irrelevance, playing the same silly games it always has for lack of anything better to do. At one point one of the Mafiosi mutters, even as he’s bleeding out from a gunshot wound inflicted by Ghost Dog, that he’s glad that Ghost is taking them out the old-fashioned way – the unspoken alternative being that they’d fade into such irrelevance that nobody would even bother to kill them.
The decline of the Mafia here also seems to be tied in with a more general sense of a decline of entrenched masculinity and the attainment of places of authority by women. Louise seems like she’s going to be the new director of organised crime in the city with the elder mafiosi exterminated; Pearline may have the opportunity to take up Ghost Dog’s path if she wishes; even a policewoman on traffic duty ends up having more impact on the plot than the entire rest of the NYPD put together.
Out of all of Jarmusch’s material, this is far and away the most violent piece; for an arthouse director, Jarmusch reveals a real knack for action at points, with Ghost Dog’s frontal assault on Vargo’s sumptuous mansion being a particular highlight. The movie benefits from an excellent soundtrack overseen by the RZA, whose involvement of course means that a decent cross-section of the Wu-Tang Clan and other quality East Coast artists are represented.
Coffee and Cigarettes
This is a collection of 11 short films in which characters have conversations over coffee and cigarettes – it’s that simple. Jarmusch had started filming these little snippets in 1986 with a short film also entitled Coffee and Cigarettes, which appears here as the introductory segment Strange to Meet You and is followed by the subsequent short films in the sequence – 1989’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Memphis Version (appearing here as Twins) and 1993’s Coffee and Cigarettes – Somewhere In California (appearing here as just Somewhere In California). The remaining 8 vignettes were lashed together with the original shorts to bring the concept out to feature length in 2003.
The chronological presentation in rough order of production is a slight burden on the film, since Strange to Meet You, the earliest, is also one of the less successful ones – it’s Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni being twitchy and weird at each other. Things perk up with Twins, in which Steve Buscemi appears as a waiter who Steve Buscemis at Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee to their general irritation, and Somewhere In California is where the compilation really hits its stride, with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop both playing into and playing against their legendary personas in certain respects.
From there on in, however, the collection remains highly variable and at points the sequence lapses into self-parody. There’s a segment with Meg and Jack White from the White Stripes who seem to have been cast on the strength of Jarmusch’s fondness for their work (they also get namedropped in Only Lovers Let Alive), but they don’t really have the acting chops of Iggy or Tom. (Or, for that matter, the GZA and RZA, who appear in a segment in which their waiter is an undercover Bill Murray – that episode is a pretty good one, largely on the strength of the chemistry between the three, which is presumably the inspiration for that apocryphal Once Upon a Time In Shaolin contract clause.)
The obsession with coffee and cigarettes and tendency to have the performers play either themselves or imaginative variations on themselves continues throughout the collection, but expecting a cohesive overall arc to these things is a mistake. (A few phrases from earlier segments are woven into later segments, but it feels rather forced.) The movie essentially runs into a problem of format: it is genuinely an anthology of short films, like the cinematic equivalent of an anthology of short stories, but presenting it as a continuous movie rather than a pick-and-mix you can select individual stories from feels like a mistake. In fact, it feels like a piece which would have been better off not aiming for a traditional theatrical release – it came out in 2003 and really, DVD technology at that point made this sort of collection of independent, unconnected little stories much more viable to digest as a set of short films piece by piece rather than digesting them in a single sitting.