Assignment one – Music in film – Dead Man, 1995

Posted on February 26, 2012


Music in film

 Dead Man, 1995 Directed by Jim Jarmusch, music by Neil Young

Assignment one

Music 1, Part one, Tibor Kovacs

The Dead Man movie is a crazy cocktail of picture, poetry and music. It is placed in the far west of America in the nineteenth century and tells the story of William Blake, a young accountant, who travels to a town at the end of the railway line to occupy a bookkeeping job. William looks like a decent young man, but a poor fit to the place, and suddenly finds himself penniless in a place of hostile greed and jealousy, with a piece of metal in his heart. Introduced into poetry by a well educated Native American, William starts to “write” poetry himself, heading towards a death of a blessed angel.

The music of the film was improvised by Neil Young on electric and acoustic guitar, pump organ and detuned piano, while he was watching alone an early cut of the picture in a recording studio. Consequently, the music captures Neil’s immediate emotional reaction to the visual elements on the screen and the dialogues. The process is similar to drawing a portrait without lifting the pencil from the paper.

The main musical theme, based on a simple tune and chord progression, tends to stay with the audience for long after watching the movie. Parts of the tune, or just chords or sound effects, are well inserted into the storyline to ensure emotional focus, enhance the effect of the ambiance and define the rhythm of motion. The sound of electric guitar, often distorted, provides the baseline emotional tone, a sense of wilderness and surreal throughout the movie. This turns out to be a perfect background for the darkly humorous conversations alternating with dramatic scenes and poetical contemplative moments. The music is just the right amount, leaving place for silence, never distracting, nor competing for our attention. It becomes dissonant towards the end, in concordance with the delirious state of mind of the main character, leading him peacefully to “the place where all the spirits return”.



Dead Man (1995). Film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, produced by Demetra J. MacBride, distributed by Miramax Films

 Erdman, D. V. (Editor) (1988) The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Reviewed Edition. New York: Random House

 Prendergast, A. R. The Aesthetics of Film Music [online]. Centre for Instructional Technology Development, University of Toronto. Available from [Accessed 8th February 2012]

 Gerrard, L. The Color of Sound [online]. MIX Professional Audio and Music Production website. Available from [Accessed 8th February 2012]

Miramax Films interview with Jim Jarmusch [online]. New York Trash magazine website. Available from [Accessed on 10th February 2012]

 Dead Man [online] Wikipedia website. Available from:  [Accessed on 9th February 2012]

Dead Man (soundtrack) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 9th February 2012]

William Blake [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 9th February 2012]

Neil Young [online] Wikipedia website. Available from:   [Accessed on 9th February 2012]

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