In Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.
In 1990, German director Wim Wenders began planning the soundtrack for what he believed would be his magnum opus: Until The End Of The World, a sprawling sci-fi road movie that would take viewers from the cities of near-future Europe to the primeval landscape of Australia, all in pursuit of a prototype technology that can record what people see and dream. For something like the first half of the story, this doodad—which looks like a de-shelled Oculus Rift with a couple of pea-soup Game Boy LCDs wired to the front—is a total McGuffin, a reason for one character to keep moving and for others to keep following. Then a nuclear weapon explodes in orbit, stranding the characters in the Outback for pretty much the rest of the movie (which, just to be clear, is really long), at which point it becomes all about the technology of recording dreams and watching them on handheld players—an image that seemed very silly for years after the film’s release, and a lot less silly once we started regularly bumping into things while looking at portable phone-type screens. The film’s great. So is the soundtrack, a once-in-a-blue-moon collection of songs that’s every bit as eclectic, while remaining eminently listenable.
Wenders had been trying to get Until The End Of The World off the ground for over a decade when the success of Wings Of Desire—his 1987 film fantasia about an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist in West Berlin—finally got him the clout necessary to convince a major American studio to lose tens of millions of dollars on a movie about the future of staring. World’s structure is travelogue followed by detour. It’s all oriented around vision and looks—clothes, faces on wanted bulletins, screens, some Oedipal stuff with blindness—which probably explains why a lot of dialogue is sophomoric, or why the characters are either motivation-less archetypes or caricatures (like the Chico Marx-esque sidekick who’s actually named “Chico,” or the fedora-wearing gumshoe who plays the harmonica). Wenders always was a bit of a cornball, even in the 1970s, when he was making black-and-white movies about balding Germans driving around the Rhineland in search of meaning. Wings Of Desire is corny as hell—all that business about angels in black overcoats harping on about the bittersweet beauty of humankind. But what it also has is an all-enveloping sensitivity, which turns its preciousness into something delicate and touching.
Until The End Of The World doesn’t have that. It casts its spell through fascination: cyberpunk technologies, picturesque squalor, outrageous fashions (including the last valiant attempt at envisioning the neckties of the future), pachinko parlors, neon nights, random instances of Vermeer lighting. I’d say it’s the last fiction film where Wenders was able to translate his fascinations into film and still sustain attention. His future world is basically a cosmology of cinema, embedded with two different affectionate parodies of film noir (both the Sam Spade and the Jean-Pierre Melville varieties), where a fugitive named Sam Farber (referencing director Samuel Fuller and critic Manny Farber, champions of the American B movie) takes a woman named Claire Tourneur (as in Jacques Tourneur) to meet his parents, played by arthouse icons Max Von Sydow and Jeanne Moreau—but not before a stopover at a Japanese inn tended by Yasujirō Ozu’s favorite actor, Chishū Ryū. Unpacking the whole goddamn thing would take a lot of parentheticals and probably some footnotes. And then there’s the music, which is its own pocket universe of tastes.
Until The End Of The World was supposed to be the big artistic statement of Wenders’ career, and the music was, as always, crucial to that. Whether it was Ry Cooder’s score for Paris, Texas or the personalized selections that soundtracked his German films, his choice of music had always had a certain “cool” factor; he was part of the first generation of filmmakers who made their record collections a part of their style. And so, for what was already a logistical nightmare of production, he enlisted just about every musician that a cool grown-up of the time could be accused of liking—Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, etc.—and asked them to record the kind of music they imagined they would be making in the film’s far-off setting of 1999.
As often happens when you ask a bunch of creative types to pitch in on something, a lot of those artists ignored the instructions and just kind of did their own interpretation the movie’s mix of world-weary romance and technological confusion. (Cue Reed sing-talking “What good’s-a-com-pu-terized nose” in his best about-to-hiccup voice.) The resulting soundtrack was such a perfect document of a certain breed of mid-to-late-’90s sophisticate, it might as well have come bundled with a copy of Rain Dogs and a Keith Haring hairline.
That was the only type of grown-up I knew well in my own mid-to-late-’90s childhood, where Until The End Of The World, film and soundtrack, had a place of pride. These were expats, writers, adjunct professors—the kind of people to whom the movies made by Wenders or Jim Jarmusch represented “cool.” The film (which we owned on VHS) had been a flop in 1991, but the album was a success—probably the biggest stateside hit of Wenders’ career, so much of which has been fixated on synthesizing a kind of forgotten, dusty Americana. Mine wasn’t a very cosmopolitan upbringing, limited to whatever American university my dad, a poet, happened to be teaching at. But it hungered for anything that smacked of cosmopolitanism. And so the Until The End Of The World soundtrack (which came into my life courtesy of my dad’s second wife) became as much a part of my middle school years as under-attended readings, amateur attempts at exotic cuisine, and having people with mountaineering backpacks crash on the couch.
As much as one might be inclined to chalk up to the success of the album to some hacky observation about Wenders’ narrow preferences, the fact is that these 19 tracks (13 originals songs, two covers, four Revell cues) represent one of the most consistent, best-sequenced entries in the hit-or-miss companion-album subgenre, and one of the few that can be comfortably played from start to finish. It was a masterful mixtape: an atmospheric instrumental featuring a member of the ECM Records roster, followed by the last-ever song by a seminal band, then an Elvis cover produced by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti circa Twin Peaks—all within the first three tracks. As in the film itself, Graeme Revell’s opening credits theme—in which David Darling’s mournful New Age cello sighs over synth pads, samples of an Aka Pygmy chant, and what sounds like space whale—fades into the first and most overtly futuristic song on the album: “Sax And Violins,” the final official release by Talking Heads and a damn great song.
“Sax And Violins” is the scene-setter, the track that scores the introduction of Wenders’ very poorly defined heroine, Claire (the late Solveig Dommartin, squeezed into a variety of great and awful costumes), as she wakes up in a daze at a party in Venice next to some vampire-looking doof. “Sax And Violins” is the platonic ideal of Until The End Of The World’s first half, seductive and goofy in equal measure. It grooves and bobs along to synths and percussion (some of it by the great Cameroonian bandleader Brice Wassy). David Byrne’s voice slips from croon to yelp as he describes a fall from space—which comes from the opening voice-over—straight into the freak-out of alienated modern living.
The most famous of the originals included here is the title track, which U2 wrote for the film, but later opted to include on Achtung Baby. For this reason, it’s referred to as “previously released” on the soundtrack packaging, though Until The End Of The World opened (and flopped) in Europe before Achtung Baby had even finished mixing. (In the name of exclusivity, the soundtrack album uses a different mix, though the version in the film is the better-known one.) “Until The End Of The World” is sequenced second to last on the album, putting it on the exact opposite end from “Sax And Violins,” which is fitting: U2, who had opened for Talking Heads a few times in their early years, were at their creative apex, while Talking Heads were at their nadir (even though both contributed great songs here). “Until The End Of The World” digests the movie’s air of decadence and end-times romance and electrifies them with the kind of swagger, biblical metaphor, and all-around Sturm und Drang that Wenders strenuously avoided.
Along with the final track released by Talking Heads pre-breakup, Until The End Of The World also includes the last song by perennial music-taste signifiers Can, who pioneered and perfected krautrock and then devolved into mystifyingly shitty self-parody. Recorded in a one-off session without key member Holger Czukay, “Last Night Sleep” is even eerier and groovier than Talking Heads’ “Sax And Violins.” Hypnotic and irresistibly loopy, it features original lead singer Malcolm Mooney’s single finest vocal and makes Rite Time—their previous reunion effort with Mooney, which suggested a group who’d long forgotten how to turn musical ideas into music—seem like a half-remembered bad dream. Mooney’s verses and occasional use of gibberish are both evocatively nonsensical.
Until The End Of The World was destined to be a film maudit, a fancy critic’s term for a movie whose unique qualities damn it to a poor reception. It’s timeless in a way that’s unique to instantly dated things (it’s set partly in the Soviet Union, which formally dissolved the day after the movie opened in the U.S.) and so aestheticized that it’s more or less cursed to never express itself as eloquently through dialogue and performance as it does through how Wenders curates what’s on screen. (However, I’ve always been partial to Von Sydow’s mad-scientist-like “You’re now looking at the human soul singing to itself, to its own god!” which betrays just how much of a pastiche the movie is.) It’s futuristic, but also retro. The women all dress like they’re from space, and the men all dress like they’re from the 1940s, in three-piece suits, fedoras, and suspenders. And despite the existence of such unbelievably advanced technologies as holograms and private space travel, the characters mostly get around in trains, vintage cars, and propeller planes.
The sense of being just slightly out-of-time extends to the soundtrack, which includes two ’60s covers and a preponderance of country and folk influences. Canadian producer Daniel Lanois (who co-produced U2’s track with Brian Eno) contributes his best impression of Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan with “Sleeping In The Devil’s Bed.” T Bone Burnett, who would later become a celebrated soundtrack producer through his work with the Coen brothers, pitches in a bit of reverb-laden blues rock called “Humans From Earth.” But when it came to bringing those classic, folksy sounds to modern audiences, neither of these would have the impact of “Calling All Angels,” singer-songwriter Jane Siberry’s very pretty duet with k.d. lang. “Angels” would become Siberry’s signature song, commencing a strange, years-long migration from the back end of an arthouse film soundtrack to the adult-contemporary charts, then eventually back to film again in the likes of Pay It Forward.
The only musician here to accurately, sadly predict their own future was Elvis Costello, whose skippable cover of The Kinks’ “Days” presaged the inessential non-reworkings of ’60s and ’70s songs he would provide for movies like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Notting Hill in the real 1999—the boring one without videophone booths. Similarly underwhelming, Patti Smith and Fred Smith’s “It Takes Time” sounds like it was read off the back of a receipt and features hand drums, thereby confirming all negative stereotypes about spoken-word tracks. It’s the actual weakest entry—though its persistent wuh-wuh-wuh synth backdrop blends in harmlessly on the album—but “Days” is the real stumbling point in the album’s sequencing. This despite its working within the context of the film, both as a song that the milksop narrator played by Sam Neill would totally listen to and as a nod to Wenders’ debut, Summer In The City, which remains unreleasable in most places because it features more Kinks songs than any arthouse distributor can afford to license.
Until The End Of The World was an amalgam of self-reference, a self-conscious attempt at making the ultimate Wim Wenders movie. Dommartin, the star of Wings Of Desire and Wenders’ partner, plays a muse to an aspiring novelist—the Neill character, Eugene—who often comes across like Wenders’ parody of himself. Rüdiger Vogler, who had played a character named Philip Winter in Alice And The Cities, pops up as another Phillip Winter, this time a private eye resuscitated from Wenders’ troubled American debut, Hammett. And even on the soundtrack, there’s a rematch between Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and Crime & The City Solution, the two bands who appear as themselves in Wings Of Desire.
With its elaborate description of a bombing aftermath and its insistence on referring to a blue dress as a “dress of blue,” The Bad Seeds’ “(I’ll Love You) Till The End Of The World” is such a choice cut of Cave-iana—as much performance piece as song—that one’s almost inclined to overlook Crime & The City Solution’s track. Such is that group’s curse, to be forever known as the band with the gothic Australian baritone frontman that featured former members of The Birthday Party, but wasn’t Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. But take my advice and dig deeper. Though “The Adversary” is a tad monotonous (apart from the unexpected, transformative bridge), there are still four very good albums of Jim Morrison-esque post-punk with their name on them, and they are waiting to be appreciated.
With the exception of Neneh Cherry and Julee Cruise—the David Lynch-approved chanteuse whose perfectly evocative cover of Elvis Presley’s “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” follows “Sax And Violins”—all of the musicians involved had careers going back at least a decade. Most either started the 1970s, as Wenders had, or were closely associated with the era. Depeche Mode and R.E.M. (both founded in 1980) were storied bands at this point, but were also breaking into mainstream stardom at the moment that the Until The End Of The World soundtrack was being assembled. The former contributes “Death’s Door,” a stripped-down piece of synth cabaret recorded during a break from touring behind the massively successful Violator, with a dramatic vocal by Martin Gore. Meanwhile, R.E.M. offers the stark “Fretless,” produced during the recording sessions for Out Of Time. The songs have since developed well-deserved reputations as fan favorites.
Part of the appeal of the Until The End Of The World soundtrack as an objet d’art is that it fulfilled more than a few fantasies. The movie itself borrowed the foreign (to American and European eyes, at least), the futuristic, and the old-school cool to assemble an alternate world that was pulpier, more cosmopolitan, more melancholy, and also a heck of a lot goofier than the one that came to be. The album pulled off something similar by playing to a very specific palate, toward which, at the time, I had only the slightest of inclinations. I knew Lou Reed’s voice from the Velvet Underground, whose live reunion album my then-stepbrother and I would play over and over. David Byrne and Patti Smith I knew as something grown-ups had opinions on, like grant applications and the merits of particular cheap red wines—both things that we were instructed on from an early age.
It’s funny now to recognize my enjoyment of it as aspirational. Until The End Of The World was part of the cocoon I grew up in, and in which a good number of folks lived at the time—a world that was mostly defined by its bookshelves and whatever was left out on its coffee tables. Everybody grows up with their parents’ tastes, but for me, “taste” was all I knew. I lived in a world that believed it could define itself through careful collection and curation—though the only result of that is typically people like me, who know how to hide ignorance or indecisiveness in an ambiguity of opinion. Nevertheless, it is indelibly part of the ongoing curation of myself. And sitting here, writing this at a coffee shop in a foreign country, I know that when I’m done I’m going to put on “Sax And Violins” (which I always have on my phone) and look up at skyscrapers, while it once again scores my own dreams of tomorrow.