How Tom Waits and John Lurie went “Down By Law.”

This article explores filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s origins and how he met John Lurie and Tom Waits, whom he cast for his 1986 movie, Down By Law.

Jarmusch has managed to remain visible and maintain a steady production rhythm, always focusing on the industry’s margins (Suarez. 2007). His generation’s significant artists include musician, and theorist Brian Eno, the prominent artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, conceptual artist and collagist Barbara Kruger, and Pictures Generation artist Cindy Sherman.

Jarmusch’s first significant film, Stranger Than Paradise, won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and earned Jarmusch international acclaim. Shot entirely in black-and-white, the film pointed the way ahead for US independent cinema, at a time when the high-concept, action-packed blockbuster was already the dominant Hollywood-made movie genre.

Jarmusch has set the path into independent cinema’s viability and has decisively contributed to shaping one of its powerful forms. Various film directors, including Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Gus Vas Sant, acknowledged the movie as a catalytic role in their careers. Simultaneously, Jarmusch’s humor, minimalism, and blank effect impacted Sofia Coppola, Hal Hartley, Aki Kaurismaki, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

His 1986 feature film Down By Law served its reputation for cinematic and music cool. The misadventures of a trio of escaped convicts in Louisiana, featuring Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, established Jarmusch as an influential independent filmmaker.

Jarmusch’s Origins

Jarmusch’s early cinematic influences are descendants of the French cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Pierre Melville. Jarmusch spent his early twenties in Paris at the Cinematheque Francaise, where he became fascinated by Ozu, Bresson, and Cocteau’s films. Following the narrative of the 1960s and 1970s art cinema, he aimed to create intimate, slow-moving films that focused on character development. Jarmusch reworked classical storylines that would later transform his films into their unique formula.

Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), was one of the more refined films of an exploding underground film scene in New York’s Soho and East Village. In this small Downtown New York area, practically every musician was also an artist, every artist a filmmaker, and every filmmaker was in a band.

Jarmusch played keyboards in the downtown Post-Punk band The Del-Byzanteens, before becoming an assistant to Wim Wenders. Wenders (who was working on the Nicholas Ray documentary Lightning Over Water during that time) donated black & white film stock leftovers to Jarmusch, which he later used to film his 1984 feature, Stranger Than Paradise.

“Goddard’s movie Breathless was inspiring to me. When I made Stranger Than Paradise, I did an inverse of that. I had so little film stock to shoot with, and I realized if I make each scene one single take, I can make a feature film with the amount of material I have. Part of that came from Godard’s inventiveness and letting the form get influenced by the limitations you have of shooting.”

The movie starred Jim’s downtown musician friends, Richard Edson (the original drummer for Sonic Youth), John Lurie, and Eszter Balint.

Tom Waits

Meanwhile, in a different part of the country, singer, songwriter, and actor Tom Waits has been toying with the idea of moving out of Los Angeles’s city for New York with his wife and long time artistic collaborator, Kathleen Brennan.

Waits held a shifting position between mainstream popularity and obscurity during that time. He had already composed a critical score from Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart, which got nominated for an Oscar, and he had acted in a few of Coppola’s films: The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and The Cotton Club.

Following the release of his masterful album Swordfishtrombones (1983), the Waitses weighted on three factors that made the idea of them moving to New York in early 1984 final:

“First, Tom was now signed to a label whose US offices are located on the East Coast. Second, Frank’s Wild Years musical stood a significantly greater chance of getting off the ground as an off-Broadway production than it did of seeing the light in Los Angeles. And third, Jersey girl Kathleen’s parents lived just half an hour outside Manhattan.” (Hoskyns, 2009)

New York wasn’t new to Waits as he had been performing there since 1973. Waits found the chaos of its street life as freeing as it was intimidating. So Waits and Brennan moved into a loft in Little Spain, just off West 14th Street near Union Square. The neighborhood was hip. Several lively establishments — Courmey’s, the Ricky Ricardo Lounge, the Salvation Army Diner, the Babalu Bar and Grill, and Waits certainly got around on, going to parties and networking.

When Waits first met John Lurie, they instantly hit it off. Waits found it challenging to work on music with a baby just months old at home, so Lurie suggested they share a room in the Westbeth artist-community building in Greenwich Village.

The Brilliance of John Lurie

Cultural icon John Lurie first came to fame as a co-founder of The Lounge Lizards, the eclectic, boho-punk jazz collective that sprang to life out on New York’s arch edge late-1970s no wave scene. Starring as the frontman, Lurie wore a Borsalino fedora and old suits, painted expressionist album covers, and played the saxophone before pursuing his acting career — starring in some of Jim Jarmusch’s best films, among others. From 1984 to 1989, he was a very influential figure in downtown New York.

“Lurie turned out to be Tom Waits’ passport to New York’s downtown art/music scene, where chic and bohemianism intersected and everyone was terminally cool’ (Hoskyns, 2009)

Lurie’s band, the Lounge Lizards, recorded nine albums and played in Europe and Japan to packed houses. Much later in 1991, he filmed the cable show Fishing with John, which is about his fishing trips with Jim Jarmusch, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper, and Tom Waits.

The Jarmusch, Lurie & Waits Connection

When Lurie’s friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, threw a pre-tour Lounge Lizards party and Waits for found himself at Andy Warhol’s Manhattan space, surrounded by various glamorous figures (Bianca Jagger, Wim Wenders, Steve Rubell, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente). Warhol himself wrote in his Diaries, dictated to Pat Hackett, “This party was just a great party.” Also present at the Lurie fest was Jim Jarmusch, so that Lurie would introduce the film director to Waits.

As Jarmusch recalled of the bash:

“I don’t much enjoy that kind of thing, with celebrities hanging around. I’m still kind of shy, and Tom also seemed to be sort of in a corner. He was shy and guarded, yet he had an incredible sense of humor”.

Down By Law

“I’m doing a picture and New Orleans in November with Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie and this guy named Roberto Benigni — who’s a famous comedian in Italy. It’s called Down By Law, and it’s breaking out through the swamps of “Through The Bloodhounds” movie — there they are all innocent victims of blind Justice.” Tom Waits

Down By Law is predominantly a road movie, a Hollywood genre that has a large place in American culture and its legacy to world cinema. The road and the cinema both flourished in the twentieth century, as technological advances brought motion pictures to a mass audience. The mass-produced automobile opened up the road to the ordinary American. When French sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard equated modern American culture with ‘space, speed, cinema, technology,’ he could have added that the “Road Movie” is its leading figure (Cohan/Hark, 1997).

Jarmusch described the movie as a “neo-beat-noir-comedy.” The film is effortlessly laidback, with storytelling that unravels quirky characters and society’s outsiders uniquely. There’s a hypnotic score, monochrome cinematography by Robby Müller, breathtaking performances, and conscious stylistic choices taken by Jarmusch as the film progresses.

Tom Waits plays Zack, an unemployed DJ that unfairly ends up in a grim Louisiana prison for a crime he didn’t commit. John Lurie co-stars, flawlessly playing the sketchy character, Jack. The pair share their cell with an eccentric Italian called Roberto, played by Benigni.

Even though not a great deal happens in Down by Law, the film is an anthology of pulp images from the world of film noir. It is about character development, style, and atmosphere, and it’s super funny although occasionally sad. Jarmusch so cleverly chose the cast and soundtrack. One of the firm’s notable scenes is when Roberto catches the word “scream,” he starts chanting the phrase, “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream,” and within seconds, the entire prison population joins the chant.

Music is crucial to Jarmusch’s storytelling, so the carefully curated soundtrack sets the movie’s tone with a distinctive vibe. While Lurie mostly wrote the score, the songs “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore” from Waits’ Rain Dogs album are also featured, alongside the original 1961 recording of Irma Thomas’ Soul/R&B ballad “It’s Raining,” credited as written by Naomi Neville.

Aftermath

Over the years, Lurie distanced himself for years; however, Waits and Jarmusch have kept their intense creative relationship going. Waits narrated Mystery Train, chatted to Iggy Pop in Coffee & Cigarettes, composed the musical score for Night On Earth, and appeared on the recently released Garage Tapes — three short films featuring footage of Waits shot by Jarmusch.

Jim Jarmusch is New York’s great film director, switching from his lo-fi, post-new-wave early movie features to showcase new aesthetics, marked by exquisite cinematic plots that bring together eclectic ensemble casts. His filmmaking journey continued with diverse movie concepts:

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999), where he recreated an entire sequence of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill movie, Broken Flowers (2003) — starring Bill Murray and the mesmerizing sounds of Mulatu Astatke, a movie that won him the Grand Prix at the 2005 Cannes film festival, the crime drama The Limits of Control (2009), the Iggy and the Stooges documentary Gimme Danger (2016), the atmospheric vampire thriller Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and the reflective drama Paterson — starring Adam Driver. Jarmusch recast Waits on the zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die — where he also brought together Selena Gomez, Billy Murray, and RZA (2019).

Music Curator, Radio Broadcaster, Researcher, Creative Industries Coach

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