Attention, class! The question for today is: How can an American director, best known for intimate tales of wisecracking urban wanderers telling their stories as much with what they don't say as what they do, craft a glacially meditative, gut-wrenching love letter of a rockumentary and disguise it as "the little film that could"?
The answer, for Jim Jarmusch and his new film Year of the Horse, about the 25-year-old rock band Crazy Horse, is to pay attention to the music and the details of two decades of a rock 'n' roll quest and let the band tell its own tale. That tale is epic, tragic, redemptive and joyful. The telling of it allows Jarmusch to stretch his legs and approach rock 'n' roll in the same way he approached manifest destiny and death in 1995's Dead Man &emdash; as a uniquely American vision quest.
On paper, Year of the Horse is a film about a band. But Crazy Horse (with whom Jarmusch toured in 1996), in addition to featuring one Neil Young on guitar and vocals, has also proved a case study in rock 'n' roll as a spiritual pursuit and a road that can still lead, despite a business arm that serves the youth market first, to real salvation. Crazy Horse has pushed on through tragedies (overdoses, deaths, addictions, day jobs) that would have most musicians racing for the locker room of suburban comfort.
This is all laid stark and given moving context through Jarmusch's artful ordering of performances, interviews, archival sequences (the movie offers an added temporal dimension through shots of the band on tour in 1976 and 1986 mixed with new material) and landscape footage (long, radiant portraits of the Midwestern and Western horizons).
For Year of the Horse, Jarmusch hasn't hijacked the rock film form and taken it anywhere new in particular. He has reinjected it, though, with a thoughtful and illuminating cinematic sense often lost in the mess of contrived, quick-cut-to-the-point-of-nausea or just plain insulting music videos that sacrifice insight for trendspotting. Filmed largely in Super 8 and black-and-white by Jarmusch and cinematographer L.A. Johnson (a musical film vet of unparalleled credentials), the concert footage is static enough to dislodge even the most MTV-acclimated viewer. And Crazy Horse's performances are hypnotic enough to suck in even the staunchest rock-loather.
Thanks to Jarmusch, when the film arrives at the signature Crazy Horse song, "Like a Hurricane," presented in all its cacophonous glory and cross-cut between '86 and '96 footage, we are given proof that the spirit endures best when a vision is shared. Jarmusch and Crazy Horse realize that rock 'n' roll's mortal soul salvation doesn't happen in the cross-promoted bins of the local mall's Coconuts or Sam Goody store. This is not your average rock 'n' roll flick!
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