Undertones: Volume 4
Jim Jarmusch’s transcendental western, Dead Man (1995), is the tale of a spiritual and physical journey taken by an ordinary man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) sometime in the later part of the 19th century. Travelling to a frontier town called Machine, Blake hopes to be given a job as an accountant in a factory but upon arrival finds the position has already been filled. Jobless and stranded in the bestial town, things soon go awry for the meek Blake as he is confronted with circumstances and folk that are extreme and completely alien to him.
Accompanying Jarmusch’s surrealistic narrative is a trance-like score written and performed by legendary guitar-wailer and “Godfather of Grunge”, Neil Young. Young approached the scoring of the film as if it were an old silent film with a live score, improvising in real time over images projected on televisions in a variety of sizes that were set up around him. Depending on the tone and narrative of the scene, Young would also switch between electric guitar, pump organ and detuned piano. The crux of the score is two simple themes that, as Young stated in a radio interview with Terry Gross (Fresh Air, 25 March 2004), had already been conceived prior to the scoring of Dead Man. Having some idea of the film’s narrative due to already having seen an unedited version of the film, Young explained of the themes, “One of them had to do with violence because there was a string of violence…there was one theme that went with that and there was another type of subtheme that went with some of the other feelings in the film.”
Dead Man opens with Blake’s journey by steam train to Machine. Here, the score hints at the two themes and primarily imitates the motion of the train’s wheels and passing of the vast Americana outside Blake’s window. This is followed by the opening credits, accompanied by a track that features the two themes on acoustic and electric guitar. The track, which strangely does not appear on the soundtrack CD of the film issued by Vapor Records, ties together all of the key musical material and much like the “Prelude” cues found in the opening credits of classic cinema, makes a statement as to the whole of the narrative that is to follow.
When Blake exits the train at Machine (the “end of the line”), Young’s solo guitar seems to herald his arrival in a style reminiscent of the work of composers such as Ennio Morricone of the American western genre. Giving a voice to this stranger in a cruel town, Young’s guitar weaves and drones as Blake looks upon Machine for the first time and, in using the two aforementioned themes, intones Blake’s sense of fear (the “violence” theme) and uncertainty (the “subtheme”).
Throughout the film, Young’s score comments on objects and words giving them extra weight; a single chord or note often appears in isolation to denote something of significance. Apart from what is obvious onscreen, Young’s score helps shape the overall mood of Dead Man imbuing it with a sense of purpose and journey via the use of the themes in repetition and development. In an interview with nytrash.com, Jarmusch acknowledged the strength of Young’s score to the film’s overall functioning stating, “What he brought to the film lifts it to another level, intertwining the soul of the story with Neil’s musically emotional reaction to it – the guy reached down to some deep place inside himself to create such strong music for our film.” The orchestration of the score also helps Dead Man in establishing a connection to the western genre through its use of American folk instruments such as guitar, honky-tonk piano and pump organ.
Like the film itself, the score met with mixed reactions. Highly regarded film critic Roger Ebert disliked the film immensely and was particularly scathing towards Young’s score for the final portion of Dead Man stating, “A mood might have developed here, had it not been for the unfortunate score by Neil Young, which for the film’s final 30 minutes sounds like nothing so much as a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” It seemed someone may have missed the point. Young’s score is meant to intimate one man’s meditation on his own mortality – the realization that he is on a premature journey to death and his eventual acceptance of this truth. The score conveys this by employing repetition to suggest that Blake’s thoughts are preoccupied with the same concerns, as well as through the predominance of electric guitar with delay and distortion to suggest sonically the spiritual weight of these all-consuming thoughts. As a whole, Young’s score contributes much to the overall atmosphere of Dead Man; encapsulating its rawness, anger, loneliness and tranquil spirituality.
Clare Nina Norelli