How long till we reach Memphis, Tennessee? That's the question on the mind of Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) as she travels there by train with her boyfriend Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), attracted by the lure of the place where Elvis Presley lived, though Jun prefers Carl Perkins, as he is often reminding Mitsuko. They spend the journey listening to vintage rockabilly tunes on their cassettes, but on arrival they have a big decision to make: do they visit Graceland first or plump for Sun Studios as their initial port of call? Jun wants the former, but is persuaded otherwise, oh, and they need somewhere to stay as well.
Writer and director Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train was a portmanteau movie consisting of three tales, all connected in various ways though their overriding influence was the cult of Elvis. The Japanese couple are big fans of his music, well the female half is, the Italian woman Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) in the second has an unexpected encounter with a Presley apparition, and for the final segment one of the characters is sort of a British Elvis, and acts out much in the rebellious ways that the star would have in his earlier movies, only if anything far more abrasive. That he was played by frontman of The Clash Joe Strummer added further rock 'n' roll heritage to the piece.
Even more than it had in its first two parts, as Jarmusch divined the way that certain music can bring the world together if it appeals enough, and if it has no mass attraction you will still find followings for minority sounds in the most unexpected places. You got the impression Jarmusch felt that way about certain films as well, perhaps including his own, as if Mystery Train was designed to tap into some hard to grasp magic that art or pop culture contained. Luisa may not have counted herself as a major fan of The King, yet he touches her life at a moment when she's a stranger abroad, again finding a familiarity where otherwise there was none.
The first section is the funniest, because the film tries for cute laughs in plonking the fish out of water Japanese down into the wilds of Memphis - which may have plenty of character and personality, but frankly looks a bit of a dump in the parts we see. Such instances as Mitsuko leafing through her scrapbook to show Jun pictures of where Elvis looks identical to Buddha and Madonna (according to the girl, anyway) are thoroughly charming, as is her way with lighting a cigarette using her feet, plus this is the part where we are introduced to the night clerk and the bellboy, played by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee's brother, renaissance man Cinqué Lee, another thread running through each yarn.
Not that the second and third are unfunny, but they are low key so if you're not attuned to the rhythms of the characters you might be feeling adrift in scenes where they simply sit around and talk (sixties TV show Lost in Space gets a thorough examination from Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles). Nevertheless, for a movie that didn't so much build to a crescendo as it ground to a halt, there was an attraction in finding out how it all fit together, that fundamental interconnectedness of all things that included Tom Waits introducing Presley's eerie version of Blue Moon on the radio to a gunshot that's heard in the opening two parts, then is revealed for the last. Hawkins and Lee made for a great double act with their easy banter, so welcome for being not quite what you were expecting from a tribute to Elvis, but you could remark that about most of this as it was all wrapped up by the end credits, yet captivated through sheer oddity, in its deadpan, deceptively commonplace fashion. Music by John Lurie.