An iconic filmmaker’s remarks on his most memorable soundtracks.
“I must have been obsessed,” said Wim Wenders during a Q&A at IFC Center in New York when asked about the many jukebox shots in his sophomore feature The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971). Throughout the film Wenders allows the camera to linger on and explore the graceful mechanics of the various machines, pointing to his own obsession more than any character’s. The seventy-year-old filmmaker, who came of age during the height of New German Cinema, has made a career out of projecting his fetishes onto the screen, creating a cinematic world adorned to perfectly suit his taste. And when it comes to music, the scores and soundtracks have always been the most important ingredient. “It’s difficult to pinpoint where it started; I remember the first album I ever bought was the Kinks,” said Wenders when I sat down with him at the Criterion offices in late August 2015. “Music has been one of the most constant and most important things in my life ever since I can remember, ever since I bought my first singles,” though in the early days he didn’t even own a record player and had to go to a friend’s house to play them.
Possessing a razor sharp eye for detail and composition, Wenders had early ambitions to become a painter before attending the University of Television and Film Munich, where he made a discovery that would shape the entirety of his work to come. He explained to me that after spending a night in film school playing around on the editing table, cutting one of his short films to different songs, he realized that each time he changed the music, the movie changed with it. “When I realized I didn’t have to dissociate between my love for music and my love for filmmaking, that was the happiest moment of my life, and that hasn’t changed,” said Wenders. And thus began a forty-plus-year love affair with the amalgamation of image and sound, using his films at platforms to feature the music that brought his world to life.
I asked the iconic filmmaker to comment on five instances of music that have defined his career.
On Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” in Alice in the Cities (1974):
The movie was a turning point in my life. I had already made three films, but I wasn’t so happy with them because I felt each owed so much to other movies. I really desperately wanted to make a movie that didn’t owe anything to anybody, only to myself. I was cooking up the idea of Alice in the Cities, and while I was thinking about the two central characters at one moment I just happened to be listening to Chuck Berry on the radio. I realized that my two characters were already in “Memphis, Tennessee.” I started writing the story of Alice in the Cities that very day, and Chuck Berry was instrumental in that.
In the end, I wanted to pay tribute to him and really wanted him to be in the film, so I actually shot Chuck Berry myself at a concert in Frankfurt when he sang “Memphis, Tennessee.” Robby Müller and I shot the concert with one camera. We shot him singing “Memphis, Tennessee,” and then when we tried to clear the rights it was out of our budget. I had shot it, I had the permit to shoot, but then to clear the rights, I couldn’t afford it. I don’t know through what happy circumstances I found out that D.A. Pennebaker had footage of a concert he shot of Chuck Berry and owned the rights himself.
When I asked him if I could have thirty seconds of Chuck Berry doing “Memphis, Tennessee” he said, “Sure.” I just paid for the minute he sent me, and that was much less than clearing the rights for the footage I shot. That’s why, in the film, the concert footage of Chuck Berry is by Pennebaker. We tried to match the audience shots with his, but it was pretty hard because he’d shot in color. I was a little unhappy about the situation because my own footage was very nice, but we just couldn’t afford it.
On Ry Cooder bringing Paris, Texas (1984) to life:
While we were shooting Paris, Texas I knew that Ry should do the score for it. Ry and I had had an unfortunate encounter on my film Hammett (1982), where I had really fought hard for the studio to accept him as a composer. We had some sort of a city blues in mind—Hammett took place in 1928, and it would have been the perfect time to have the first electric city blues in it. Ry had some great ideas, but the studio didn’t accept it. They said they didn’t want a guitarist—they wanted a composer, and at that moment Ry had never written a film score. So we were very unhappy. But Ry and I shook hands on the fact that whenever I was to make a movie where nobody could look over my shoulder he would score it. So that become Paris, Texas, and I knew the only music I wanted was Ry’s.
I had it in mind that I really only wanted one instrument for the film. In the end, it was a little bit more complex, though it’s basically just his guitar. But while we were shooting I had in mind a score like The Third Man, and I thought it would be great to have that sort of instrument we’d envisioned for Hammett as the key instrument. Then I had a rough cut of the film, and I played it for Ry—no music, it was just dialogue. I showed it to him in a screening room in Los Angeles, and it was a long rough cut, like four hours. I showed it to him so he could prepare and think about it, and I only put one piece of music in it. I put one little piece by Blind Willie Johnson called “Dark Was the Night.” I knew Ry had played it on his first album himself, so I put an excerpt of his own rendition of “Dark Was the Night” in one scene of the film and didn’t tell him. It was toward the end, so Ry saw the film thinking it was completely without music, and he didn’t expect any, then all of a sudden there was just a little piece of his own. He turned around and said, “That’s it, that’s what we’re gonna to do.” He said that he had it in his head the whole time and couldn’t believe I actually did it. So he made the entire score based on the harmonies of “Dark Was the Night.”
On Nick Cave in Wings of Desire (1987):
When I was preparing Wings of Desire—which at the time was a strange thing to prepare because I didn’t really have a story, and I only knew the places in Berlin I wanted to shoot, and slowly got used to the idea that this would be a story about guardian angels—I was traveling through the city everyday and walking, and every night I went to see concerts. I listened to a lot of Nick Cave because he played in all sorts of grunge places, and he was a real hero there—both The Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution. Both bands were playing a lot in Berlin, they both lived there, and they were the underground heroes. Making a film in Berlin, for me, was almost synonymous with having them both appear in it because they were cutting edge, and they were grunge before anybody knew the word for it.
They had a huge following, and I knew some of the people who went to each and every one of their concerts—and a lot of them worked on my film, actually, in the costume and the art department. A lot of people in the film were dedicated Nick Cave fans. It was a little scary because I was shooting the concert with this very old cameraman, who was eighty, and I was afraid that he, Henri Alekan, wouldn’t have the feeling to shoot a rock and roll concert, and to my surprise he loved the music and gave it a very interesting look. So it was part of the tapestry of the film I had in mind from the beginning.
On envisioning the future with Until the End of the World (1991):
It was strictly wishful thinking, but wishful thinking is a very fruitful approach. I actually wrote the same letter to twenty bands once we started editing. It was basically: Dear so and so, I just shot a film that is taking a look at the near future, it takes place 2000. I love your music and was wondering if you could try to transport yourself into the year 2000 and contribute a song as if you had to envision what music you would make ten years from now. That was basically the letter. It was to the people I listened to while we were shooting the film. We shot for about a year and were in many cars, especially in the end, in Australia, where we drove for hours everyday.
So I wrote to all these people whose music accompanied me during the shoot. Sixteen said yes, which was scary because I thought that, if I was lucky, five or six would agree. That’s why there’s such an abundance of music. So, in a strange way, it was wishful thinking, but wishful thinking that was rewarded so lusciously that when the film came out as the “Reader’s Digest” version some of the songs were only in it for ten seconds. Now, at least in my director’s cut, they breathe a little more. That was certainly the luckiest moment of my rock and roll career—those letters coming in. It was like Christmas for a whole year, every few weeks another song would come in.
On Lou Reed performing in Faraway, So Close! (1993):
By the time I made Faraway, So Close! I had already met Lou, and he’d given me a song for Until the End of the World. He’d written “What’s Good” for that soundtrack. We became friends, but I don’t know exactly why I wanted him to be in the film. It’s just one of those things that became the material—my desire to have Lou in it. So eventually it worked out, with that funny little appearance of his in the hotel where he improvises a little excerpt from the song “Berlin.” Then there’s the concert where he plays “Why Can’t I Be Good,” which he also wrote for this film. So, in a way, from the beginning, the desire that had led me to bring Nick Cave into Wings was the same desire to have Lou Reed in Faraway, So Close! Maybe it was also his album Berlin that led me to that as well.
“Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road” is currently running at IFC Center in New York through September 24, 2015. This comprehensive retrospective features his early films, new restorations of contemporary masterpieces, a rare director’s cut of Until the End of the World, a NYC premiere of Palermo Shooting, and a sneak preview of Wenders’s most recent film, Every Thing Will Be Fine. The filmmaker will be present for select screenings and conversations.
Hillary Weston is a film and culture writer living in New York. Her work can be found in BlackBook Magazine, Interview, Nylon, and MUBI.