Reflecting on John Lurie’s Undervalued Career in Hollywood

Reflecting on John Lurie’s Undervalued Career in Hollywood

John Lurie is among the most underrated names in Hollywood history, with status as a household name eluding his grasp since he began working at the end of the 1970s. He first debuted as an actor in an unknown stint called Rome ’78 (1978), followed by a featurette titled Men in Orbit (1979), which he also wrote and directed. He then starred in a minor Super 8 film called The Offenders (1980) before playing a Saxophonist in Permanent Vacation (1980). The latter film was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, beginning the greatest partnership of Lurie’s career.

The pair worked together on three more projects before the decade would come to a close. But of their other projects, Lurie would only act in two: Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986). In their other collaboration, called Mystery Train (1989), he’d compose the score. That’s his other line of work re: the film industry. Score composition. He’s used these talents to build a committed stable of frequent collaborators throughout the years, with most instances being in front of the camera.

His Work as an Actor

Island Pictures

Off the bat, it’s worth homing further in on Lurie’s work with Jim Jarmusch: a minor role in Permanent Vacation, followed by starring roles in both Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. The former put everyone involved on the map of critical acclaim, with Stranger Than Paradise cited among the most important independent films of the eighties. Lurie performed brilliantly alongside Richard Edson and Eszter Balint — but in Down by Law, the actor at hand created a tangible rapport with Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni that resulted in the funniest prison film ever made.

He shows up as a minor character (named Slater) in Paris, Texas (1984), which marked his first collaboration with actor Harry Dean Stanton. This was followed by another part of lesser significance in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a film by Martin Scorsese that also featured Stanton — his and Lurie’s second piece with one another.

But Last Temptation also marks the first time Lurie ever worked with Willem Dafoe, perhaps his most frequent collaborator aside from Jarmusch. Sure, Harry Dean Stanton gives Dafoe a great run for his money in that regard. But did Stanton ever go ice fishing with Laurie in northern Maine? Probably not. Sidenote: Watch Fishing With John, if you haven’t.

His final film role of true prominence came as Sparky in Wild at Heart (1990), written and directed by David Lynch. It stars Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, but it also features Willem Dafoe and Harry Dean Stanton in supporting roles — everyone involved leads each other to new qualitative heights. Lurie showed up in a few films thereafter, like with New Rose Hotel (1998) starring Dafoe. But for the most part, Lurie transitioned to composing once the nineties rolled around.

His Work as a Composer

Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong in Animal Factory
Franchise Pictures

Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, and Down By Law — he acted in all three of these films from Jarmusch, receiving widespread praise from critics along the way. But here’s the thing: he also holds credits as their composer. At the end of the eighties, he and Jarmusch would collaborate once more with Mystery Train. Although Lurie didn’t appear in front of the camera, he did compose the score.

Related: The 20 Most Underrated Movies of the 1980s

His original music highlights many moments of the film by developing a melancholic atmosphere. And although Mystery Train marked his final Jarmusch collaboration, Lurie would go onto create many more original compositions for well-known Hollywood titles. Take Get Shorty (1995), for instance. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, it follows a loan shark (played by John Travolta) who stumbles into the production of a Hollywood film.

It’s a great film, with Lurie’s score garnering widespread acclaim unlike any of his prior works. The soundtrack for Get Shorty garnered a nomination at the Grammy Awards, and it should still be regarded as a staple of the film’s quality. For a few years thereafter, Lurie’s career hit a nadir as he scored mediocre titles like Blue in the Face (1995) and Excess Baggage (1997). And while Manny & Lo (1996) does feature a few high-quality elements of filmmaking worth writing home about, the same can’t be said for Lulu on the Bridge (1998).

Related: These are Jim Jarmusch’s Best Films, Ranked

With a shocking 0% approval rating on critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes, it’s by far the worst film attached to Lurie’s name. But it’s not as if the film’s paucity of quality can be traced back to the score from Lurie, or anything. It was destined to fail no matter who composed the music. In that same year, he created another composition for Clay Pidgeons (1998), a comedic outing with Joaquin Phoenix, Jeneane Garofalo, and Vince Vaughn. The project remains underrated today.

But among the greatest films with Lurie’s name attached is Animal Factory (2000), released at the turn of the century. It’s the final film credit of his career, and it should be considered among the most underrated titles from everyone involved. That includes Lurie as the composer. He scored several high-quality titles throughout his career, from Animal Factory and Get Shorty to Down by Law and Mystery Train. And although his acting collaborations with Jim Jarmusch and Willem Dafoe are highly overlooked in today’s cinematic landscape, they should help render Lurie one of his generation’s finest talents.


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