I don't like Elvis very much. I've always found his music to be watered down and often cheesy, like a second-hand, pop-focused depiction of what rock and roll should or could be (and this is his early stuff - needless to say I don't care for his later music at all). I never thought he took it to another place musically in the same way the Beatles and Stones would do later. I realize this is a minority opinion that even the Beatles and Stones themselves would vehemently disagree with, but I bring it up here because I think Mystery Train loses a little bit of its magic when you don't believe in the central character. Elvis looms large over the film. He watches over the rooms in which the protagonists of each of the three stories find themselves, and his legend follows these characters around Memphis like the haunting score of the film that comes creeping back every time someone tracks through the dilapidated streets of the world-famous music capital.
Any time a film is split into separate (but often intertwined, as they are here) stories, it's natural to gravitate towards one or two of them as more appealing. Here, it was the first story for me, about a young Japanese couple making a pilgrimage to the home of the King - though for the man there seems to be some debate as to whether that king is Elvis or rockabilly legend Carl Perkins. The segment tracks their journey into and out of Memphis with a cold distance that is typical of Jarmusch's films, but the care with which he chooses their moments together makes the experience immediately relatable. This is their journey to a place that exist in perfection in their imagination, and the reality is at once more thrilling and anti-climactic than you could ever expect. Memphis, like any city, is a real place where people live, make art, have sex, die. Life is typical and beautiful, and this foreign experience that they are having together will last them forever, no matter what didn't happen or what will happen yet. Watching this segment after a stretch of Japanese films about World War II made it especially interesting because here - three decades after those films (and the songs they love) were made - are two Japanese kids completely separated from that history, yet beholden to its forward thrust.
The other two stories are less enjoyable, but still managed to maintain my interest in the film. Jarmusch in many ways represents for American independent film in the 80s what Cassavetes did in the 60s, a DIY style that totally eschewed the commercial trends of the time and instead focused intently on attempting to depict American life as it was in the moment. While Cassavetes mostly focused on characters, however, Jarmusch often emphasizes specific ways of living. The former highlights acting, while the latter zeroes in on places, or at the very least tones. You can see his influence clearly in early 90s indie start-ups like Clerks and fellow Criterion entry Slacker, but in general his work is even more influential. Having even his lesser work in the Collection is worthwhile, even if Down By Law and Stranger than Paradise are more impressive.
As a side note, I watched this on Hulu, and - damn - it looks good. Maybe the best Hulu transfer I've seen so far, giving me hope for the future of the collaboration - if it continues, considering the lack of additions to the catalog in the last few months.