Script consultant UK looks back on Mystery Train (1989)

As the busiest UK script consultant, script writer for hire and script doctor in the business I spend a lot of time watching movies from the past, this week I caught up with Jim Jarmusch’s lovely, enchanting and very amusing  Mystery Train (1989)


It’s fair to say that Mystery Train has grown over the years; it’s grown funnier, more beautiful and sadder. It feels like a film that knows the future that America will end up with in 2019. It’s not saying that back in 1989 things were much better, but it is saying that the people here, in this film and this time, be they black, white, Asian, Italian, or British could all find themselves in a run-down hotel in Memphis and get along, get drunk, shoot each other by accident and meet briefly with the ghost of Elvis.   

There are walls now, walls for keeping people out and apart. The walls in Mystery Train aren’t that thick, and they’re for hearing things through, or keeping noisey neighbours in check. The walls are for a sense of privacy. The walls in America today (and in the UK) are there to divide us.  Elvis can walk through both type of walls – but he’s the king.

The photography by the late Robbie Muller is stunning, the performances are a treat. I like everyone in this film. Screaming Jay Hawkins should have acted a lot more, and I like his dress sense.  And Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô are so much funnier and sweeter than I remembered when I first saw the film (when I was about the same age as they are in the film).

Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô

The sad part of watching Mystery Train again is the performance of the late great Joe Strummer. Joe did a little bit of acting here and there through the years. In Candy Mountain, Walker and Straight to Hell most notably. But Joe wasn’t an actor, he was the front man of one of the best bands of all time. Musicians acting can often be awkward, and Joe at times is awkward in this, but it works, and it comes across as part of the character and it feels real. It’s actually a very clever and accomplished performance by Joe, but it’s also in the writing and the work of a great director who has a feel for people and a place in his heart for outsiders, like Joe and the character he plays.

Special mentions must go to Tom Noonan (as a con man) and Sy Richardson who seems to play the same character in a lot of very good films.  And Nicoletta Braschi is so lovely it all must be a dream.  The trailer is below…

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire  and script doctor for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. He’s also a leading UK script consultant. You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. You can get in touch with Matthew on or hire him on Peopleperhour

His directorial debut Markham will be released in 2019.