Aloof teenage Japanese tourists, a frazzled Italian widow, and a disgruntled British immigrant all converge in the city of dreams—which, in Mystery Train, from Jim Jarmusch, is Memphis. Made with its director’s customary precision and wit, this triptych of stories pays playful tribute to the home of Stax Records, Sun Studio, Graceland, Carl Perkins, and, of course, the King, who presides over the film like a spirit. Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s very best movies, a boozy and beautiful pilgrimage to an iconic American ghost town and a paean to the music it gave the world.
Mystery Train is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions on this dual-layer disc.
While clearly not up to the level of clarity as what we get on the companion Blu-ray edition from Criterion, this presents a sharp improvement over the MGM edition now unavailable. Colours receive a substantial improvement with better saturation, and though it still doesn’t handle it as well as the Blu-ray, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ red jacket is rendered rather well, as are many of the neon lights that appear here and there throughout the film. Detail is pretty good with a few sequences looking fuzzy, and artifacts are not noticeable. The print used is very clean with only a few sequences that present some minor, very small, black splotches appearing.
Similar to other releases from Criterion the DVD does hold its own against its high-def counterpart and for those that haven’t made the leap they’ll be thrilled with the transfer found here, and would certainly want to upgrade from their previous MGM edition if they have that one.
For a mono track it’s surprisingly robust, presenting crystal clear sound and some impressive range. Volume levels are excellent, music and dialogue are clear, with music coming off fairly loud but never distorting or drowning out anything else, and there is no damage or noise present. An excellent, strong Dolby Digital mono track.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions contain the same supplements, which are all rather strong, but at not even 2-hours they do feel slim, especially since this is an upper-tier title.
Repeating a similar feature found on Criterion’s DVD for Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, we yet again get a Q & A with Jim, where the director responds to a number of questions sent in. After an introduction that involves going over newspaper headlines for the day, mentioning the earthquake in Haiti and then jumping to an article on Avatar, he moves on to the questions. My intent was to actually list names and the questions being asked, but Jarmusch butchers so many of the names I just couldn’t do it (and this is no criticism against Jarmusch since I’d probably butcher them, too, one of the key reasons I’m not going to list them.) At any rate some of the questions asked involve casting, where he stands on “Perkins vs. Presley”, which Elvis (Army, fat, young, Vegas, etc.) is his favourite, the soundtrack, certain members of the cast, whether Tom Waits (whose voice appears as a DJ on the radio) is reprising his character from Down By Law, filming in Sun Studio, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and many other areas of the film. But he’s not just limited to this film, even taking questions for other films, or general questions like one about his film viewing habits (whether he researches them or not before viewing or whether he actually watches supplements on a DVD.) Some questions he answers briefly, and other he answers with great detail. He also takes on some humourous ones, like a question where he’s asked if he can introduce the writer to Winona Ryder, and he also takes a slight swipe at the MGM DVD’s subtitles. This is in place of a commentary track (which Jarmusch has no interest in doing) and it’s actually a great idea, and quite a bit of fun, more fun than a commentary at least. Though it might not cover Mystery Train in as great as depth as some may like, it’s still an informative and entertaining feature. In total it runs about 70-minutes and is divided into 35 chapters.
For the next feature we unfortunately only get an 18-minute excerpt from Scremin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me, a 2001 documentary about the performer. The excerpt included focuses on the relationship between Hawkins and Jarmusch, which began when he was working to get the rights for I Put a Spell on You, which he played in Stranger Than Paradise (repeating what he says in the Q&A section of the disc.) The two also talk a bit about his performance in Mystery Train, the red suit, and the number of plums Hawkins had to eat over multiple takes, plus a funny anecdote about Hawkins wondering if he should take Henry, a cigarette smoking toy skull he used when he performed, with him while shooting. There’s also some great footage of Hawkins performing mixed in here, and Hawkins also recalls meeting Elvis Presley very early in the singer’s career. It’s actually a fantastic segment and it’s quite unfortunate and disappointing Criterion couldn’t or wouldn’t include more of it here. Also worth noting is that a lot of this looks to be shot on video or DV, which looked rather terrible in 1080i on the Blu-ray edition. Surprisingly it actually looks a little better here with the player upscaling the image.
Memphis Tour is an exclusive 17-minute documentary made by Criterion that revisits the area of Memphis where the film was shot. The doc revisits some of the locations, including the diner and Sun Studio (the hotel was torn down, apparently uninhabitable and dangerous even during filming.) It even visits other areas of Memphis not used in the film. Various people involved in some way with the production give little history lessons about Memphis (about Memphis’ economic woes, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Sun Studio, and Stax Records) and even share some memories from the shoot (like hitting the prostitution business financially during the shoot.) Included as interviewees are production assistant Sherman Willmott, Novella Smith Arnold, who handled casting in Memphis, and then D’Army Bailey and Marvell Thomas, who both played pool players in the bar in the last part of the film (Marvell is also the son of Rufus Thomas, who has a cameo in the film.) It was interesting to see the locations from the film now, looking as though they’ve been cleaned up significantly, and I especially enjoyed the more historical aspects of the doc. It was also nice to have a documentary from Criterion that is more than a talking-heads piece.
The remaining supplements are photos, including a collection of Polaroids taken during the shoot, including some by Cinque Lee. The photo gallery then includes a number of photos taken during filming that were then used in a photo book that accompanies the film’s release, beginning with a text introduction by Jarmusch taken from the book. It’s a good sized gallery, which includes photos of a good chunk of the cast and crew posing. There’s even a photo answering the question whether Hawkins eventually did decide on taking Henry with him.
Dennis Lim has written an essay on the film, included in this releases booklet. Also in the booklet is a piece by Peter Guralnick, who talks a bit about the film, but more about the music presented in it. It’s a short booklet but an excellent read.
As I said with the Blu-ray edition all of the material is at least good, great in fact and it’s all worth going through, but value-wise it leaves a little to be desired. At the higher price point I guess I would have expected more.
Supplement wise I was expecting more, but maybe I’m being a little selfish. What we get here is great but I don’t know if it justifies the premium price entirely. Still, it’s a strong upgrade over the MGM edition, which had nothing (maybe a trailer but I can’t recall) and a far weaker transfer. I think fans of the film will have no issues in picking this one up, or upgrading from the MGM edition they might own.