“Perfect Imperfection”: Neil Young Improvises Dead Man

Inside Criterion / Sneak Peeks — Apr 20, 2018

Jim Jarmusch has always had an impeccable ear for music and a keen awareness of how sound can function within a narrative to create texture and evoke environment. This has perhaps never been more evident than in his atmospheric masterpiece Dead Man. While writing the script for this poetic reimagining of the nineteenth-century American West—which we’re releasing next week on Blu-ray and DVD—Jarmusch absorbed himself in the music of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, particularly songs like “Cortez the Killer,” from the 1975 album Zuma, with its visceral, soaring electric guitar. He even made a cassette tape of just the instrumental sections of certain songs to listen to for inspiration. So when it came time to bring Dead Man to life, Young’s sounds were already entwined with Jarmusch’s story. It was a natural step for the musician to come on board officially to create the score for the film. In a feature on our release, Jarmusch describes Young’s music as “masterfully, beautifully damaged rock-and-roll music—perfect imperfection,” adding that there’s “something very pure and emotional about it, but it’s not overly earnest. It’s often funny, and includes mundane details, as well as very profound things.” These qualities could easily describe Jarmusch’s own work, speaking to the simpatico nature of the two artists’ collaboration on the film.

Recorded over multiple sessions in a San Francisco warehouse, Young’s score for Dead Man was recorded entirely to picture. Equipped with an arsenal of instruments, he stood surrounded by screens of varying sizes as they played an early cut of the film from start to finish. The live-wire music that bellowed from his Gibson Les Paul “Old Black” was, for the most part, an extraordinary act of improvisation. And Jarmusch was there to capture the magic on Hi8, footage that he later used in a 1996 music video made for the Dead Man theme music. Earlier this year, we asked the director if he could dig up the original footage, which he kindly did, and from that we created a half-hour program for our release. You can get a taste of it here!