Memphis: Last Stop on the Mystery Train (1989)

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

To view Mystery Train click here.

Several years ago, I was visiting Memphis during Elvis Week, which is a week-long series of events in mid-August that commemorates the life and music of Elvis Presley. I made the travel arrangements for me and a companion, booking a motel near downtown. The famous Peabody Hotel was definitely out of our price range, but I wanted to be near the newly revitalized Beale Street area, so I selected something that did not seem too far from the city’s night life. When we arrived in Memphis, it was well after dark, but it was clear that I had selected a rat-trap on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. I walked up to the check-in window with the bullet-proof glass, while a party of mammoth proportions was underway in the parking lot. I remember hoping that the very loud party-goers were not guests of the motel.

As we walked toward our room on the second floor, we noticed most of the doors were missing the doorknobs. You could see into the rooms through the holes in the doors where the knobs used to be. Once inside our room, there was a couple of deadbolt locks and a door chain; fortunately, our door did not have a hole in it, though our outside knob was missing. Inside, the rug looked so greasy that we refused to take off our shoes, and some of the wallpaper was peeling off near the ceiling. And, gosh, was that a gunshot amidst the loud music, or a car backfiring? My companion suggested we stay the night, then look for another motel, though our options would be limited because, after all, it was Elvis Week. We searched for the phone book to start making the calls, but there was no phone book—until I noticed it was being used to prop up the broken leg of one of the beds.

Whenever I see Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989), currently streaming on FilmStruck, I am reminded of that trip to Memphis, because the Hotel Arcade in the film is not that different from the one I stayed in. (Fortunately, we did move to another motel the next day.) And, like the characters in the movie, I have had my own experiences with the vestiges or relics of Elvis. In the late 1980s, when Jarmusch shot Mystery Train, Elvis lingered over the city in the ether, so to speak. Locals told personal stories about Elvis to fans, who would quietly visit Presley’s old haunts without fanfare. Back in the day, it was a low-key, almost quaint experience to explore Memphis during Elvis Week. I remember eating at a local, family-style restaurant and running into Elvis’s cook, Mary Jenkins. We chatted for a few minutes, before I left to browse through Lansky’s on Beale Street, where Elvis had bought his crazy clothes decades earlier.

Now, Memphis is synonymous with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll; he is front and center in the city’s campaign for tourist dollars. Memphis’s bustling tourist industry owes much to the opening of Graceland and the evolution of Elvis Week into Tribute Week, a full-scale, high profile attraction with all the bells and whistles.

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

Mystery Train was shot after Graceland had opened to the public but before the Elvis juggernaut was fully launched. The part of Memphis that Jarmusch chose to shoot in was run-down, desolate and dangerous. The film is structured into three separate narratives, each involving characters from other countries who end up at the derelict Hotel Arcade. In the first story, a young, hip Japanese couple are on a sojourn to Memphis to experience Graceland and Sun Studio, where Elvis and the rockabilly legends recorded. They argue over who is the real King—Elvis or Carl Perkins. Next, an Italian widow spends the night in Memphis while waiting for her husband’s body to be shipped home. Finally, a pair of hapless Memphians try to control their hot-tempered English friend, a side-burned lout named Johnny whom everyone calls Elvis. Years before Quentin Tarantino popularized tricky nonlinear narratives, Jarmusch cleverly connects his three stories, though I won’t reveal how for those who have not yet seen the movie.

I have spent a fair amount of my career researching and writing about Presley, so my favorite part of Mystery Train is the Elvis ephemera. Aside from Sun Studio, Elvis-related sites are not shown. There are no shots of Graceland and its famous Music Gates, no souvenir shops, and no impersonators. Instead, tacky portraits of Elvis adorn the walls of the rooms at the Arcade, the bellhop tells the desk clerk how much Elvis would weigh on Mars and a scary stranger at the Arcade Restaurant relates a story to the Italian widow about the night he picked up Elvis’s ghost hitch-hiking. The Japanese girl carries a scrapbook with her that includes photos of works of art that look like Elvis, including the Statue of Liberty. These images, postcards and stories are familiar to Elvis fans as part of the lore and literature of the King. If you keep your sense of humor, this kind of Elvis ephemera is fun, but it has nothing to do with the music or the man.

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

I get the feeling that Jarmusch is not an Elvis fan, at least not a fan of that icon known as “The King.” For example, a drunken Johnny, played by Joe Strummer of the Clash, dismisses Elvis as inauthentic and demands that the tacky portrait in the hotel room be turned around so he doesn’t have to look at his face. Also, Jarmusch cast R&B legends Rufus Thomas and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the film. Thomas, who was dismissed from Sun Records after Sam Phillips began recording white rockabilly artists, is seen at the beginning of Mystery Train asking the Japanese couple for a light. Wearing a bright red suit, Hawkins plays the no-nonsense desk clerk at the Hotel Arcade. Hawkins was famous for his theatrical performances in which he incorporated macabre, voodoo-related props. Jarmusch had used Hawkins’ classic “I Put a Spell on You” in Stranger Than Paradise (1984). In the documentary I Put a Spell on Me (2001), Jarmusch notes that the singers on the margins of the music scene—like Hawkins—made more significant contributions to American culture than mainstream entertainers. (Part of I Put a Spell on Me is available as a special feature to stream with Mystery Train.)

The Memphis depicted in Mystery Train is no more. Given that it was rundown and seedy, that is probably a good thing. Still, Robby Muller’s cinematography painted it with atmosphere and color. I am sure the Hotel Arcade, which was torn down about a year after the film was released, never looked better. The Arcade Restaurant, which opened in 1919, is still serving 24 hours, but it is anchoring a cleaned-up neighborhood. Stop in some time, and if a local tells you he once picked up a ghostly Elvis hitch-hiking back to Graceland, you can probably believe him. I always do.

Susan Doll

6 Responses Memphis: Last Stop on the Mystery Train (1989)
Posted By Rodney Welch : May 1, 2017 11:30 am

I love this movie. It’s one of Jarmusch’s funky cool classics.

I’ve always wondered if “Mystery Train” didn’t have some influence on “Pulp Fiction,” which came out five years later. Jarmusch told three stories in sequence which, we discover, are all happening more or less simultaneously. Tarantino complicated (and jumbled) his story lines more, but there was a similar kind of payoff in seeing how certain reference points in one story would be refracted in another.

Together, they’d make a great double bill.

Posted By George : May 1, 2017 4:37 pm

Susan: I once spent a weekend in an Admiral Benbow in downtown Memphis, and while no Peabody, it wasn’t as scary as the place you described!

I’m sure the Memphis Chamber of Commerce wasn’t happy with the part of town shown in MYSTERY TRAIN. But the movie wasn’t made for them.

“And, gosh, was that a gunshot amidst the loud music, or a car backfiring?”

A friend who used to work at the Memphis newspaper (The Commercial Appeal) said he used to step outside the building for a smoke break, and listen to distant — and sometimes not so distant — machine gun fire.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 1, 2017 8:44 pm

The first time I saw Mystery Train was without subtitles (the original DVD release was defective). The only thing I could understand of the Japanese dialogue was the argument about Presley vs. Perkins and that Memphis was very different from Yokohama. I loved it. That segment was my favorite even then.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 2, 2017 9:34 pm

George: What year were you at the Admiral Benbow?

Posted By George : May 4, 2017 3:54 pm

Susan: Don’t remember the exact year, but it was in the early ’90s.

Posted By George : May 11, 2017 6:38 pm

Interesting article here, Susan: Value of Elvis records and memorabilia plummet as his fans die of old age, and their collections hit the second-hand/antique stores.

Wonder if the same thing will happen with the Beatles and Rolling Stones when their fans start dying off in large numbers?

https://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2017/may/07/elvis-presley-memorabilia-plummeting-in-price

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