The Sound of Yesterday’s Future: Notes on the Until the End of the World Soundtrack

The Sound of Yesterday’s Future: Notes on the <em>Until the End of the World </em>Soundtrack

Rock music, as director Wim Wenders once joked in an interview, offered to him and other Germans of his generation the “only alternative to Beethoven.” There is likely as much truth as hyper­­bole in the statement; considering the role that journeys and far-flung destinations play in his films, it seems safe to presume that Wenders is familiar with a burning desire to get away from all things German (for which Beethoven was only synecdoche). Jukeboxes like the ones so often found in his movies introduced him to the original American rock and rollers and to melomania. To young ears in the sixties, rock was still an egalitarian, largely Anglo-American sound. It promised to whisk the listener away to some different place through the power of what has long been the music lover’s motto: You have got to hear this. Wenders began rock’s crucial decade as a teenage schoolboy but ended it as a filmmaker.

As is often the case, Wenders’ formative mania is at its most pronounced in his earliest works: in the all-consuming musical obsessions of short films such as Alabama (2000 Light Years) and 3 American LP’s (both 1969); in his 1970 debut feature, Summer in the City, which he later described as an attempt to put his musical “top ten on the screen.” And from the beginning, rock’s underlying yearnings have attached themselves to the other major preoccupation of Wenders’ career: the road. In his classic films, one finds near-devotional moments in which the music takes over a scene and time slows down: a café jukebox playing Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” in Alice in the Cities (1974); every time Bruno puts a record on his portable player in Kings of the Road (1976); the show by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that sets the scene for an angel’s long-awaited meeting with a circus acrobat in Wings of Desire (1987); a dark, smoke-filled concert by Crime & the City Solution at a West Berlin rock club in the same film.

One gets to know Wenders’ musical tastes extremely well by going through the seventies and eighties filmography that built his reputation: his love of the Kinks, the masters of wit from London’s Muswell Hill; his affinity for prepunks and postpunks, more than for the phenomenon of punk itself; that inclination toward lonesome truck-stop, border, and road sounds exemplified by Ry Cooder’s score for Paris, Texas (1984). His generation—not his fellow Germans but his fellow filmmakers, the ones who started at the post–New Wave end of the sixties—was the first to take electric-guitar music as seriously as they took themselves. But crucially, Wenders never adopted the swagger of rock and roll in his own filmmaking; the use of music in his movies is more contemplative and patient than frenetic. What it replicates, more than anything else, is the experience of listening. (This, after all, is the most important power given to the angels of Wings of Desire: they can hear the poetry and music of our thoughts.)

It speaks to the goodwill that Wenders had accumulated by the time he began soliciting songs for his dream project, Until the End of the World, around 1990, that he not only got so many of his favorite musicians to agree to participate (leaving him, initially, with more material than he knew what to do with) but that they also all seem to have taken the collaboration very seriously. An unbelievable number of great songs were recorded for the film. A few would become famous, such as U2’s “Until the End of the World,” which ended up on their album Achtung Baby, and Jane Siberry’s lovely “Calling All Angels,” which has become the Canadian singer-songwriter’s signature tune. Others remain fan favorites, including R.E.M.’s “Fretless,” Depeche Mode’s “Death’s Door,” and Talking Heads’ flexuous “Sax and Violins,” the band’s final release, which choreographs our introduction to the character Claire Tourneur and the strange near-future world of 1999.

“One can’t help but wonder how much of the eventual reappraisal of the movie came by way of those who discovered it through the music.”

Wenders’ original pitch was simple: he asked the artists to record the kind of music they imagined they might be making at the end of the nineties. Yet the soundtrack itself is neither exclusively futuristic nor free of callbacks to the filmmaker’s earlier movies. Both Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came through with material: the former with “The Adversary,” a prime cut of gothically brooding postpunk that lifts unexpectedly to a chamber-pop bridge; the latter with the barroom theater of “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World,” a largely spoken noir love ballad about an escape from a dangerous town called Longwood that remains one of Cave’s most actorly recordings. In filmmaker Uli M Schueppel’s footage of the recording sessions (included in this edition), the singer can be seen trying different takes of the vocal, first with a mug of beer in his hand, then a lit cigarette, gesticulating as he narrates to an invisible audience.

The krautrock pioneers Can, who had recorded the score for Alice in the Cities in a single day, reunited for a one-off session to produce the eerie groove of “Last Night Sleep” with their original vocalist, Malcolm Mooney. Elvis Presley, one of Wenders’ earliest favorites, is represented by a sublime cover of the early-sixties track “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears,” performed by Julee Cruise and produced by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch; Bob Dylan, another idol, is invoked (if less directly) by the producer Daniel Lanois, whose “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” features an appealingly Dylan-esque vocal. And while Wenders was unsuccessful in getting Ray Davies, the lead singer and chief songwriter of the Kinks, to create an original song for the film, he did procure a cover of “Days,” one of the band’s most poignant songs, performed by Elvis Costello. 

One can’t help but wonder how much of the eventual reappraisal of the movie came by way of those who discovered it through the music. Almost certainly, more people bought the soundtrack on cassette and CD over the years than ever saw the 158-minute version of the film in theaters. Released in the last weeks of 1991, Until the End of the World: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack benefited from the recent successes of R.E.M.’s Out of Time (which had turned that band into a huge international act) and U2’s Achtung Baby. That year, which saw the months-long rise of Nirvana’s Nevermind up the charts, would prove to be a pivotal one for alternative rock, both commercially and creatively, as artists who had previously found airplay only on college radio suddenly found themselves with major-label contracts and multiplatinum records. The soundtrack album’s cover art (actually a still from one of the dreams recorded by Dr. Henry Farber’s machine in the movie) may have been mystifying, but the roster of artists spoke for itself—the ones already mentioned and many others, among them Lou Reed, k.d. lang (as a vocalist on “Calling All Angels”), and Patti Smith. 

As, of course, did the music. To this day, the Until the End of the World soundtrack album remains not only an exceptional time capsule of its era but also one of the coolest, most consistent, and most cohesive records of its kind. It is filled with songs of darkness and heartache; alternative and rootsy sounds interspersed with down-tempo, New Age, and spoken-word moments; lots of guitar delay, lap steel, and synth pads. One can hear reflections of the film’s eclectic combination of futuristic ideas and retro influences in the groovy percussion, surreal lyrics, and bubbling synths of “Sax and Violins” and “Last Night Sleep,” and in the spacey country ambience of “Calling All Angels.” (There are some differences between the music in the film and the soundtrack release, it should be noted: some songs that appear in the movie are not on the album, while others appear on the album in alternate or remixed versions, with U2’s “Until the End of the World” and Neneh Cherry’s “Move with Me” being the two most significant examples.)

“Taken as a whole, the soundtrack expresses that uncer­tainty about both present and future that is the postmodern condition.”

One of the key functions of the music in Until the End of the World is helping to convey the emotional lives of the characters, at least three of whom—the bank robber Chico, the private eye Winter, and Claire’s ex-boyfriend Eugene—might be described as amateur musicians. It expresses their restlessness, creates moments of emotional repose, helps us understand connections between them, and tracks the progress of the story from a wired world with warning signs of dystopia (one of several subtexts that was lost in the short version of the film) to the primeval Australian landscape in the aftermath of a global computer wipe. One obvious example of this narrative use of music is the recording of the Aka Pygmy chants (also sampled in Graeme Revell’s evocative opening theme) that Claire receives from the fugitive Sam Farber, in a futuristic format that looks and works something like a key card—a detail that hints at the symbolic relationship among music, travel, and opened doors. Another is Wenders’ reuse of songs in different contexts, sometimes even in different recordings. “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” appears in the Presley version at the start of Claire’s journey, then later with gender-flipped lyrics in the Julee Cruise version, at which point it carries a different emotional weight; “Days,” which is first heard in the form of Costello’s cover when Claire returns to the apartment she shares with Eugene in Paris, is later performed at the Farbers’ compound in a sing-along led by Claire. (Fittingly, both songs address the passage of time and a relationship’s coming to an end.)

But what does this music tell us on its own terms? Because for the most part, the songs of Until the End of the World are not optimistic. Some offer sardonic takes on the species (T Bone Burnett’s “Humans from Earth”), death (Lou Reed’s “What’s Good,” written for his concept album Magic and Loss), and the possibilities of the future (“Sax and Violins”). Many are songs of anguish. “Fretless” strips R.E.M.’s jangle rock down to stark domestic angst, with a pensive bass in the verse and a backing vocal from Kate Pierson of the B-52s in the final chorus that couldn’t be more different from her buoyant prominent vocal on the Out of Time single “Shiny Happy People.” “Until the End of the World,” with its sweeping, sucking effects-heavy guitar riff, is a song of biblical betrayal in which Judas takes on the persona of a venomous lover. 

In fact, there are biblical references scattered through­out the lyrics—including in “Fretless” and Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden,” the song that plays as Sam and Claire land their disabled plane in the outback. (It is probably the most notable of the songs that were excluded from the soundtrack release; a more polished version, with backing vocals from Sinéad O’Connor, appears on Gabriel’s 1992 album Us.) We hear requests for heavenly intervention in “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World”—albeit “not to God above” but to a beautiful woman, an echo of the blending of the sacred and personal in “Days”—and in “Calling All Angels,” and references to death and destruction throughout. Even “Last Night Sleep,” one of the soundtrack’s most playful moments, radiates eeriness. The prevailing mood, even in less pessimistic songs like “Calling All Angels,” is one of millennial, romantic, and spiritual anxiety, as summed up by a piece of English-language graffiti that we glimpse at a Paris railway station early in the film: “The End of the Century . . . The End of Us!” 

Taken as a whole, the soundtrack expresses that uncer­tainty about both present and future that is the postmodern condition. Yet Until the End of the World, which begins by looking down on our planet and ends by looking up at it, is not an apocalyptic work; instead, it offers the hope that we may someday move on from our preoccupations, whether technological or emotional, and look back on them as if they were the impermanent romances that figure so prominently in both the plot and the songs. The soundtrack, with its notes of both bittersweetness and gloom, is a part of the film’s complex texture, along with the globe-trotting locations, anachronisms, classic archetypes, video-screen distractions, futurological predictions, and elements of genre pastiche. And like Until the End of the World itself, it is ultimately asking timeless questions: How long can this last? Will we still be here tomorrow? Is anyone listening?


This essay has been adapted by the author from one written for the A.V. Club in 2016.