Music in the movies: Spotlight on Tom Waits

Glen's weekly look at movie music considers Tom Waits, and the highlights of an impressive career...

“The devil doesn’t have the best tunes. Tom Waits does.” – Johnny Depp

I’ve been wanting to write a piece on Tom Waits for quite some time so thought that it would be a good fit now that I’m doing this Music in the Movies column. I will attempt to provide a fairly brief overview of some of the great man’s work. This will be by no means an exhaustive list (that would be obscenely long), more of what I consider some of his highlights of his career

Music career

Tom Waits has had a long and successful music career that began in the 1970s and continues to this day. Musically, what he’s producing now is considered slightly more experimental than his earlier output. Listening through his work chronologically, it’s interesting to chart his evolution as an artist.

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Even with the move to experimental material, he remains a great storyteller with his songs. Frequently his songs focus on deadbeat characters that wouldn’t be out of place in novels by Bukowski, Burroughs or Kerouac.

Waits is able to draw out a number of emotions from listeners (well, this is the case for me, at least) with albums that can contain songs that can make you laugh, terrify you and break your heart.

I didn’t start listening to Waits until I was in my early twenties, however, I distinctly remember watching 120 minutes on MTV one night when I was a teenager and seeing the video to What’s He Building In There? and being utterly terrified. I’m not sure who directed the video, but the imagery works perfectly with Waits’ track.

I go through phases of favoring a number of different Waits albums, depending on what mood I’m in; mostly it’s Real Gone which is his most recent full studio album.

Soundtrack work

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Waits’ music has appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, but his first attempt at composing an entire film earned him an Academy Award nomination. The soundtrack was for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 musical One From The Heart, which is, perhaps, best known as the film that bankrupted Coppola due to the costs of the production spiraling out of control. Waits, accompanied on a number of songs by Crystal Gayle, provides a near perfect soundtrack and one that provides a great match for the narrative of the film. As a standalone album it’s also up there with the best of Waits’ back catalogue.

Waits appears briefly in the film as a trumpet player, but his work with Coppola here lead to him appearing in a number of his later films in slightly more substantial roles. Due to him being a close family friend of the Coppolla’s’ he performed at the wedding of Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppolla. I can’t think of a cooler person to perform at a wedding.

Acting career

Waits’ made his acting debut in Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 movie Paradise Alley, playing a piano player called Mumbles. Since then he has gone on to appear in a number of excellent movies, working with some acclaimed directors along the way. He has collaborated with indie auteur Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola (as mentioned previously) a number of times. Indeed. after his debut he appeared in three straight Coppola movies (four if you count an uncredited appearance in One From The Heart), The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club.

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His conversation with Iggy Pop in Jarmusch’s Coffee And Cigarettes is, perhaps, my favorite segment of the film, although it is close between that and Bill Murray’s conversation with Rza and Gza. He also appears as Zack in Jarmusch’s brilliant Down By Law and lends his vocal talents to the role of radio DJ in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.

Waits’ most praised performance to date would be as Mr. Nick, the Devil, in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, a role that, according to Gilliam, Waits was born to play. As good as his performance in Parnassusis, his role as Doc Heller in Mystery Men remains my personal favorite. At the time of writing this I haven’t seen the Book Of Eli, so can’t comment on the quality of his performance as the Engineer, however, from the clip I’ve seen it looks very promising.

Songs in other media

Versions of Waits’ song Way Down In The Hole (from the 1987 album Franks Wild Years)are used to accompany the title sequences for The Wire. Wait’s original accompanies season 2 and the other series’ credits are accompanied by The Blind Boys Of Alamama, Neville Brothers, DoMaJe and Steve Earle.

There’s a documentary on the possible reconciliation between the sons of Pablo Escobar and the sons of some of his victims entitled Sins Of My Father after the Waits song, which also features in the documentary.

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Waits has collaborated with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and Robert Wilson on three plays: The Black Rider, Alice and Woyzeck. Waits and Brennan composed the music for the three plays whilst Brennan directs. The Black Rider also features contributions from William Burroughs and is a strange listen, to say the least. This is certainly not one for newcomers to Waits. Alice and Woyzeck (album is titled Blood Money) are excellent albums that are well worth a listen.

In terms of what’s next for Waits, there’s no news on an album currently being worked on by Waits. His latest release, Glitter & Doom, is a live album taken from his 2008 tour of the same name. I rather stupidly chose not to attend any of the European dates – a combination of me being tight (would have cost around £300 including ticket, travel and hotel) and not being able to convince anyone to go with me (mainly because of the price). It’s something that I hugely regret and I really hope there’s a tour in the not too distant future.Iif there is if won’t be making the same mistake again, regardless of cost.

With regards to acting, there’s no news on any projects being lined up for release after The Book Of Eli. I can’t imagine that it will be too long before Waits appears on our screens.

Here are a few of the many tracks that I listened to whilst writing this: Step Right Up Frank’s Wild Years Big In Japan Long Way Home I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You You Can’t Unring A Bell Goin’ Out West Way Down In The Hole Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen) Downtown Train What’s He Building In There? Singapore Falling Down

Let us know what your Waits favorites are in the comments below.