By James Calemine
Jim Jarmusch’s 1996 film, Dead Man, ranks as one of his best. Johnny Depp plays an accountant named William Blake who departs from Cleveland to the nineteenth-century Wild West town of Machine for a job. This counts as Robert Mitchum’s final film. Mitchum plays a ruthless businessman (John Dickinson) in the town of Machine, and denies Blake a job. Blake meets a local lady-friend, and inadvertently kills Dickinson’s son. Blake becomes a Wanted Man…
Blake is saved by a Native American named “Nobody” played by Gary Farmer. Nobody actually believes this is the poet William Blake–begins reciting a Blake poem “Auguries of Innocence”–and says, “You really are a dead man.” Nobody begins to prepare Blake for his spiritual journey. “That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood,” he tells Blake.
The film’s impressive cast includes: Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, Mili Avital, Crispin Glover, Jared Harris, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, John Hurt, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton. Neil Young’s soundtrack maintains the mood of this black and white film. At the time, Young told his biographer Jimmy McDonough about the film: “It’s intriguing to me. Kind of a hippie-beatnik New Age Record.”
Young later wrote in his book Special Deluxe this about the film: “When I saw the film, it only had dialogue, and I told Jim it was a masterpiece. It was. It was a strange classic, in a world alone. It already looked like a silent-movie classic to me, the kind where someone would play live music in a theater on an organ or piano while the movie was projected, although it did have dialogue so it was not precisely a silent film. Jim really wanted to do the soundtrack and convinced me that it was needed.
“We recorded three passes through the whole movie without stopping. I chose to use the first half of the second pass and the second half of the first one. That project was a huge success for me personally. Some people think it’s Jim’s best film…”
Young only uses an acoustic Martin guitar, detuned piano, his trusty Gibson Les Paul (“Old Black”) and a pump organ for the film’s instrumentation which fits perfectly with the austere and unforgettable landscape shots and scenes in Dead Man. The soundtrack contains Depp reading William Blake’s poetry. In an interview, Jarmusch said this about Young’s participation: “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.”
Critic Greil Marcus wrote in Salon Magazine that Dead Man was “the best movie at the end of the 20th century.” It’s worth watching the film just to see if you agree with Marcus. You won’t forget it…
Read about Neil Young’s book Special Deluxe in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.