From Bernard Herrmann’s music from Taxi Driver, let’s catch a ride with another cab film, Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 five-vignettes plot, connected by a soundtrack by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.
A key moment in any cab journey always begins when the passenger first speaks to the driver, and the interaction between them. What direction will this take? Will it be simply efficient, silent, awkward, friendly, convivial, intrusive, explosive or even sinister? Is the passenger adding to the driver's knowledge, or vice versa? Will they be simmer with silent anger, like De Niro's Travis Bickle who want to clean the scum of those streets? Or he pugnacious cabby Jimmy Cagney fighting off gangs and unexpectedly speaking Yiddish in the film Taxi (1932)? Or, as Jarmusch’s film, a variety of strange encounters around the world having different experiences on the same night?
In Los Angeles a cabbie played by Winona Ryder picks up a female Hollywood director, who is at first pushy and rude, then as a talent scout, starts to suggest she could use her for a role, but the driver rejects her because her career aim is to be a mechanic.
In Paris, a driver from the Ivory coast is mocked by two African diplomats so he throws them out. He then picks up a glamorous blind woman, played by Béatrice Dalle, who plays with him flirtatiously, then departs.
In Rome, Jarmusch’s likeable star from Down By Law, Roberto Benigni, here as driver, picks up a priest, who inspires him to confess his sins, but then in typically over the top fashion, goes into huge detail about his sexuality, and causes the priest to have a heart attack.
In Helsinki, three drunk workers describe the terrible plight of one of them, who passes out. Yet the driver has an even sadder story.
Finally in New York, an inexperienced cabbie from East Germany picks up a savvy local going to Brooklyn, who is so exasperated by the driver’s incompetence, he takes over, and also picks up his sassy sister-in-law played by Rosie Perez. It’s a baptism of fire for the immigrant, faced with the crazy chaos of the NY streets in this period.
How do you tie all of this disparate, offbeat, drily humorous plot together? With great difficulty, but the soundtrack, with various instrumentals and three vocal songs by Tom Waits, gives the film a gloriously downbeat, lugubriously amusing tone, just as for the early film Down By Law, and in it's accompanying album the arguably better Rain Dogs (1985). Nevertheless, this was his first studio work since 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years, and using instruments from piano to pump organ, a brass section played by Ralph Carney, Josef Brinckmann on accordion and several other fabulous musicians, Night On Earth helped spur on Waits’s career into the 1990s alongside his inspiration co-writer and wife Kathleen Brennan. The song, a forlorn love story, loosely connects experiences across the world, and that beautifully sad style that is his hallmark:
There's a blue eyed girl with a red bow tie
And a string of pearls with one good eye
In a rainy town the chimney smoke will curl
No one likes clowns on the other side of the world
And the children know she'll never let me go
There's a one legged priest that tangos with the farmer’s wife
Beauty and the beast is taking her own life,
And a tear on a letter back home turns into a lake of your own
And a crow turns into a girl on the other side of the world
And she tastes like the sea and she's waiting for me
In the spring the weeds will show that he brought back the only rose
And he gave it to his girl on the other side of the world
And I drink champagne from your thin blue veins
She visits his grave wearing her mother's shawl
Should I shave or end it all
There's an old sailor song that the children know
As their fingers curl 'round the other side of the world
On a bone white mare lost in Kathleen's hair
In the spring the weeds will show he brought back the only rose
And he gave it to his girl on the other side of the world.
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