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