“You seem to find what’s appropriate for the worlds you create. A lot of your songs are like little films to me.”
—Jim Jarmusch to Tom Waits1
In late October of 2013 I arrived at the Orly airport in Paris via Rome and took a taxi to the apartment my friend and I had arranged to rent in the Bastille arrondissement of the city. My cab driver was a friendly middle-aged man of Algerian descent who immediately made me feel at ease, chatting cheerfully on the drive and offering me dates from a brown paper bag. He spoke little English and my French was woeful, a linguistic Frankenstein pieced together from the French songs and films I love, and my attempts at “French-ifying” my knowledge of basic conversational Italian. And yet, despite our language barrier, through humorous gesticulations and the odd familiar word I learnt that the dates were from his garden, as well as other details about his life, and he learnt a little about me. I was afterwards struck not only by the warmth of our interaction despite our limited conversation, but by the sad realization that I had bonded with this kind stranger and would probably never see him again.
For Jim Jarmusch, it was just this sort of reflection on the intimacy between a taxi driver and their passengers that provided the inspiration for his 1991 film Night on Earth.2 Consisting of five vignettes set in five different cities—Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Paris and Helsinki—over the course of one night, the film brings us inside cabs around the world to observe the interactions between a host of colorful cabbies and their customers. The images on screen are beautifully lit by cinematographer Frederick Elmes, capturing both the unique nocturnal color palettes and urban environments of each city. This evocative lighting and the use of language and geography brings us into the individual worlds of each city and its taxis, and so too does the film’s unique score.
For Night on Earth’s score Jarmusch enlisted his friend, the musician and songwriter Tom Waits, who had previously worked with the director as an actor in Down By Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989). Waits’ music for the film revolves around the harmony and melody established in the song used in Night on Earth’s opening credits, “Back in the Good Old World,” co-written with Waits’ wife and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. The song features Waits mournfully singing in his distinct gruff vocal intonations from the point of view of someone who has died and is reflecting on their time on earth, his circular vocal melody doubled on the harmonium and accompanied by a Kurt Weill-ian “oom-pah” accompaniment.
Before each vignette commences, we are shown five clocks which present to us the time in each of the five cities. The camera then zooms in on the clock which corresponds to the city we are about to visit, underscored by an ostinato3 motif on cello and guitar derived from “Back in the Good Old World” which acts as a musical rendering of the ticking of the clocks on screen. The ostinato propels us forward in our travels on screen, connoting the passing of time around the world, and its repetition and lack of harmonic resolution also helps in building atmosphere of tension between the taxi drivers and their passengers when we hear it repeated in different instances during each vignette.
From the ostinato motif evolves a number of individual themes and “mood” pieces that reflect the city the proceeding narrative takes place in. Just as Jarmusch plays with the stereotypes of the people who live in each of the cities, so too does Waits' orchestrations of his pieces. Los Angeles is given the gritty electric guitar treatment in homage to its rock ‘n’ roll dive bars; New York features a jazzy piano bar arrangement led by muted trumpet; Paris’ soundtrack is infused with the sound of its signature accordion; Rome brings on a cacophony of Fellini-esque carnivalia; Helsinki, a mournful harmonium, sparse bells, and the sound of breath passing through a reed instrument—the sum of which takes on an evocative musical rendering of Helsinki’s lonely, icy terrain in the early hours of the morning.
In addition to connoting the national identity or character of each of the cities through his orchestrations, Tom Waits’ use of melodic and harmonic material within each piece also acts as a unifying agent; a musical connective tissue that serves to bond these people and places all over the northern hemisphere despite their seemingly disparate narratives and personalities.
As I learnt on my own Parisian taxi ride, two strangers can become close very quickly by nature of their being stuck in the same confined space or situation. Tom Waits’ use of a small musical ensemble in Night on Earth that features a variety of timbre (the sort of experimental jazz/folk ensemble, in fact, that often features on his records) serves to highlight, and never overwhelm, the closeness the develops between cabbie and their fares. His music accentuates the tenderness of some of the cab rides’ as well as their humor, their desperation, and their very humanity. It is hard to imagine such scenes on screen being as effectively scored by full orchestra or, perhaps, by no music at all and just the hollow, tuneless mechanics of the taxi cab in which Jarmusch’s players travel through their cities.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.