The soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World

The use of period rock and pop songs as film soundtracks is a powerful tool that movie directors utilize to create a strong sense of time and place by connecting with a widely recognized cultural reference. Movies from or about the 60s such as Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Platoon included period music so well that scenes from them are etched in our memories as much due to the music as the visuals. Who can forget the opening scene from Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their motorbikes while Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf is playing in the background or the start of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with The Doors’ The End. In later years movies such as Almost Famous, Pretty in Pink and High Fidelity all used popular songs very effectively. In 1992 Cameron Crowe used the early Seattle grunge scene as a backdrop to the movie Singles and helped boosting the popularity of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and others. That same year saw the release of a movie that grossed only a meager $752,856 in the US box office, a bona fide flop that was soon forgotten. But that movie came with a soundtrack that in my opinion is not only a great example of incorporating songs into a movie, but also one of the best song collection albums, making up a soundtrack that is even more impressive when listening to it on its own outside the context of the film. This is the story of the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World.

Until The End Of The World Poster

When the movie was released in 1991, it was a futuristic road movie with a backdrop of an impending nuclear disaster at the end of the millennium. It is a movie made of two halves, the first a frenetic globetrotting tour de force, where the main characters hop easily between Venice, Paris, Lisbon, Berlin, various US locations and Japan. I will not go over the plot here as too much happens at a very quick pace, but the visuals are stunning and the way they combine with the music is unsurpassed. The second part of the movie takes place in the Australian outback, where the pace relaxes and the plot shifts into the effect of watching one’s dreams on the main characters’ psychic. As you watch the film you get the sense that this was a much bigger undertaking production-wise than any of the director’s previous films. Wenders said in an interview in 2011: “Until the End of the World was the most ambitious film I’ve ever done, and the most expensive. We had to release the film in a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version. That sucked.” The original version of the film lasted two and a half hours, cut almost by half from Wenders’ intent in order to appease film distributors. Two years after the film’s original release in 1992, Wenders created a director’s cut version of the film, lasting almost five hours. It was distributed in Europe, and had to wait twenty more years for a worldwide release, losing its futuristic flavor due to current day’s dysfunctional social behavior propelled by technology. Wenders says: “The film has strange insights into the future. If you look at the people running around looking at their little monitors in front of them all the time, that’s what you see in the streets today everywhere — that sort of addiction to the computer image. You’ll find that in many young people today. It’s a real disease.”

William Hurt

Fine acting is performed by all, including the star Solveig Dommartin, who also played the trapeze artist in Wings of Desire (who came up with this silly English title for Der Himmel über Berlin, or The Heavens Over Berlin?) and sadly passed away at the young age of 45. She is pursuing Trevor, turned Sam and portrayed by William Hurt, and being pursued by the narrator Eugene (Sam Neill). The cast also includes Rüdiger Vogler in the role of a harmonica player private eye and Chick Ortega in the funny role of a robber/drummer. Confused? Go watch the film, it’s worth it.

Wim Wenders Solveig Dommartin
Wim Wenders and Solveig Dommartin

Wenders is a music aficionado who enjoys the incorporating music into his films no less than his film directing role. In an interview to Spin magazine in July of 1992 he said: “I’d be stupid to let anybody take over the only part that’s really fun anymore. Finding the music or putting it together or working with the musicians – that’s almost the most gratifying piece of the whole work. I’d really not let anyone interfere with that part.” A dedicated listener and follower of blues and rock music, Wenders meticulously selects music that he likes for his films. His website includes the following telling paragraph: “You get this feeling from his early works on, where Wim Wenders often puts all his favorite music into his films, making us listen to ‘his’ music while seeing with ‘his’ eyes.” Instrumental music is also very powerful in his films and always adds a vital dimension to key scenes, such as Paris, Texas with Ry Cooder’s iconic slide guitar and Wings Of Desire with a great soundtrack by Jürgen Knieper. Until The End Of The World also features wonderful instrumental passages with music written by Graeme Revell and played by Cellist David Darling who released a number of great records on the German ECM label.

Wim Wenders

But it is his use of songs within his films where Wenders truly excels, a trend that started with his early road movies. Alice in the Cities from 1974 included live footage of Chuck Berry, a score by German experimental rock band Can, and a key scene featuring On The Road Again by Canned Heat. Paris, Texas featured great actor Harry Dean Stanton singing a soulful take on the traditional Mexican folk song Canción Mixteca.  In an interview for The Music Show with Andrew Ford in 2003 Wenders talked about a new direction he started taking before the filming of Until The End Of The World: ” I have started to use more and more songs made for the film by all sorts of artists, in order to help tell the story, and I think music and rock ‘n’ roll are so much art of our contemporary lives that it’s almost unthinkable for me to not have music become part of what the film is about.”

Wim Wenders2

Few films use songs written and tailored to specific scenes as well as Until The End Of The World, and Wenders took his time with that one: “The most fun is to choose and talk to musicians and find with whom you want to work on a particular scene. And mostly I use music that doesn’t exist yet, and very often, I mean I listen to music all the time and also when I’m shooting and when I go home and when I drive my car back from the set, and when I sit at home and work on the next day, I listen a lot to music, and mostly the music I’m listening to while I make the film then becomes the core choice for the musicians I approach.” The songs indeed either describe particular scenes or are related to them in some way. Given that the movie’s plot takes place at the turn of the century, about a decade ahead of the actual filming of the scenes, Wenders asked the musicians to envision how they might sound in 1999. I can’t say that the results sound futuristic, but in some cases the songs written for the album do sound different from the rest of their respective artists’ output. The film’s first half is a road movie in the best sense of the word and where most of the songs are played, usually during traveling scenes. This is consistent with the director’s outlook on the use of music in film: “One of the discoveries of the road movies was not only that you could travel and work and make a film at the same time, and improvise it, but that rock and roll could also be, in the true sense, a driving force.” In no film of Wenders’ is that concept better utilized than in Until The End Of The World.

Fifteen songs are featured on the soundtrack CD of Until The End Of The World, and a few other songs are used in the movie but were committed from the CD. Each is    performed by a different band or artist. This was by far the director’s most ambitious soundtrack project: “It’s very complicated to put a movie together out of five, six, seven different sources already. You need armies of lawyers to make a film like this. But to put together a soundtrack like this was even more complicated. Filmmaking is easy compared with putting together a soundtrack of that order.” What is even more extraordinary is the level of effort that the musicians put into the songs they wrote for the movie, an evidence to their respect for the director. A good number of these songs represent in my opinion career highlights for these artists, and those are the ones I will focus on.

until the end of the world soundtrack

The soundtrack to Until The End Of The World is not very well known, due to its lack of big hits. Even though some of the artists who contributed the songs were quite big names at the time, the songs they wrote for the movie were not the chart topper material. With one exception – the title song written by U2. In 1990 Wenders directed the video clip to the band’s take on Cole Porter’s standard Night and Day and a year later, near the end of the band’s recording sessions for Achtung Baby, he approached the band for a song. Bono had a guitar riff that went nowhere earlier in the album’s recording sessions. The Edge gave it another shot and came up with one of the best guitar performances in a career that has no shortage created of memorable guitar licks. The song lyrics have nothing to do with the movie, a narrative describing a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. The band named the song after the movie title and gave Wenders an early studio cut, but asked to also include it on their album. The movie was released in Europe a month before the release of Achtung Baby, and fared much worse than U2’s worldwide success. I like the soundtrack version better than the one that appeared later on Achtung Baby. It is one of the band’s best songs, including not only great guitar parts, but a hypnotic rhythm courtesy of Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr on drums. Here is the soundtrack version set to various scenes from the movie:

The song became a mainstay in U2’s grandiose live performances starting with the Zoo TV tour that followed the release of Achtung Baby, where at the end of the song they segued into New Year’s Day with a dramatic change of lights from dark to bright. Quite a good ten minute block of music in my book. During the live performance the video clip that Wenders directed for the song was projected on the huge screens, featuring the recorded dream sequences from the movie. The collaboration between Wim Wenders and U2 continued throughout the 1990s, with U2 contributing songs to Faraway So Close in 1993 (the sequel to Wings of Desire), Beyond the Clouds in 1995 (co-directed with  Michelangelo Antonioni), End of the Violence in 1997 and Million Dollar Hotel in 2000, based on a story by Bono. Wenders also directed the video clip for Stay (Faraway So Close) from Zooropa. Circles close, and twenty years after U2 released Until The End Of The World it was beautifully covered by another artist who contributed a song to the movie, Patti Smith.


At the beginning of 1991 Depeche Mode were resting from the World Violation tour, their biggest tour to date that took the band around the world for most of 1990 in support of Violator, the album that produced such hits as Personal Jesus and the wonderful Enjoy The Silence. The plan was to rest for a year before resuming activity on their next album, but a call from Wim Wenders asking them for a song film put half of the band back in studio for a few days. The song they ended up with is one of my favorite in their catalog, and an odd one at that, a gospel/cabaret ballad unlike anything else they have created before, Death’s Door:

The song was written by Martin Gore who also delivers a great vocal on it, but most of the brilliant arrangement behind it was done by Alan Wilder, who assembled together unused tracks from the Violator recording sessions. The guitar parts were taken from Gore’s tracks for Blue Dress, and the pedal steel guitar were outtakes from parts played by Nils Tuxen on the song Clean. Wilder created a masterpiece blend of sampled synth pads, bass lines and drums that creates just the right mood for the film. The song was played live on the band’s next tour in support of their Songs of Faith and Devotion album, with a minimal piano accompaniment and highlighting the gospel side of the song with two backing singers.

Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode

Julee Cruise was an unknown singer back in the mid 1980s, when she played Janis Joplin in a New York theater production of Beehive, a revue of 60s female singers. Her rise to fame started when Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch’s musical collaborator, recommended her to sing The Mysteries of Love, the song to the closing scene of Blue Velvet. This was the first of many collaborations between the composer and the director, and they fell in love with Cruise’s angelic voice. So much so that they featured her on several songs in their next project together, the TV series Twin Peaks. The production of the soundtrack for Twin Peaks coincided with Cruise’s debut album Floating into the Night, for which David Lynch wrote the lyrics and Badalamenti wrote the music. A number of songs from the album were featured on Twin Peaks, including the theme song Falling, which became a huge hit for Cruise, and the dream pop masterpiece The Nightingale. Wenders found something in that dreamy winning combination of Cruise’s voice and Badalamenti’s lush orchestration and asked for a song. They found the perfect candidate in an unlikely 1960 song by Elvis Presley called Summer Kisses Winter Tears that was featured on his western movie Flaming Star. Badalamenti worked his magic again, this time recruiting the talents of lap steel guitar player Greg Leisz, whose name became almost synonymous with the instrument. His credits include over 500 guest performances on records by artists such as Jackson Browne, Bill Frisell, Holly Cole, K.D. Lang, Joni Mitchell and many others. The result was as dreamy pop as it gets, a great rendition of a forgotten song.

T-Bone Burnett has an impressive list of credits when it comes to producing film music. Perhaps his crown achievement is his collaboration with the Coen brothers, whom he met after watching their early films Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Their first collaboration was on the cult movie The Big Lebowski, where Burnett is credited as Music Archivist. The film includes unforgettable scenes with songs such as the dream sequence with Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in) and the Gipsy Kings’ cover of Hotel California  introducing Jesus to the big dude and his friends at a bowling alley. About that cover Burnett tells the funny tale of trying to acquire the rights to feature Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ Dead Flowers for the end credits. Notorious manager Allen Klein, who owned the rights to the song, wanted a hefty sum. Burnett asked Klein to view the film and they got to the scene where the Dude says “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” Klein stood up and said “That’s it, you can have the song!”. Priceless. Even more impressive was Burnett’s work on the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, where he worked with the duo while the script was still being developed, and the soundtrack was recorded before filming started. The soundtrack is another impressive collection of songs that remind one of the dust bowl period of the 1930s. One of the great song scenes in the movie is The Soggy Bottom Boys singing I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow. For Until The End Of The World Burnett contributed a song he also featured in a different version on his 1992 album The Criminal Under My Own Hat. I prefer the soundtrack version of the song, Humans From Earth,

and the great guitar playing by Dean Parks, another musician with a list of credits a mile long, including the opening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. Humans From Earth dates back to the 1960s when Burnett founded the Interplanetary Real Estate Agency to sell vacant lots (what else?) on planetary bodies. The lyrics now make sense, or do they?

We come from a blue planet light-years away

Where everything multiplies at an amazing rate

We’re out here in the universe buying real estate

Hope we haven’t gotten here too late

T Bone Burnett
T-Bone Burnett

I cannot extend this post to all the songs on the soundtrack album, so excuse me for not going into details on other fine songs such as Lou Reed’s What’s good, which also appears on his album Magic and Loss, Can’s Last Night Sleep, Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith with It Takes Time, Elvis Costello with a cover of the Kinks’ Days, and one of the album’s most successful songs, Jane Siberry and k.d. lang singing Calling All Angels. I still have my top four songs on the album to cover. Here goes.


The year that Wenders released Until The End Of The World was a career changing period for R.E.M, with the release of Out Of Time. The band, who was a favorite of college radio and enjoying increasing popularity prior to the album’s release, shot to meteoric fame propelled by sales of 18 million copies of the album. That album also produced the singles Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People, and in the days of MTV those video clips were on constant rotation. The band rehearsed and recorded more songs during the recording sessions than could fit into an album, and managed to drop one of the finest songs in their entire repertoire, the dramatic Fretless. Years later Peter Buck admitted in the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M.: 1988-2003 that the band should have included the song in the album. Fretless did make it as a B-side to the mega single Losing My Religion, but did not receive much of an airplay. Its inclusion on Wim Wenders’ film did not move the needle given how poorly the film performed. In the movie the song starts after Sam, played by William Hurt, selects a track on a jukebox:

The year Out Of Time was released R.E.M played an unplugged MTV show and included a great version of Fretless. The song did not make it to the video produced from the show, but the audio is available, a great acoustic version:

Nick Cave first connected with Wim Wenders when the director decided to put live music at the front on his 1987 film Wings of Desire. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performed From Her to Eternity  in a key scene in the movie, appropriately situated in a gothic Berlin club. From there Nick Cave started a great streak of albums. Tender Prey was released in 1988 with the band’s signature song The Mercy Seat, followed by one of my favorite albums of his, the piano-heavy The Good Son. In 1992 the band followed with another great album, Henry’s dream. In between these albums in 1991, the band responded to Wenders’ request for a song and recorded one of their best songs, (I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World. Cave is known for delivering dramatic songs, but few come close to the narration-like delivery he came up with for this song, which regretfully is heard only briefly during the film.

Nick Cave Wings of Desire
Nick Cave

We are lucky to have a short documentary film about the recording of the song by German film director Uli M Schueppel, who also directed the documentary film The Road to God Knows Where, chronicling the band’s five-week US tour in 1989 following the release of Tender Prey. The film, appropriately named The Song, shows the development of the song over a period of four days at Hansa studio in Berlin, the same studio where U2 recorded Achtung Baby. The producer of the song is Gareth Jones, who also mixed all the instrumental music for Until the End Of The World at the same studio. The film includes great footage of Cave working with drummer Thomas Wydler, guitarist Blixa Bargeld and the string players, developing the song’s music and lyrics until the final version.

And here is the full song in case the documentary got you too wrapped up in the making of the song to miss how it sounds beginning to end:

Two of the best songs on the soundtrack were sadly the swan songs for their respective bands, who managed to pull together one last great effort before disbanding. The first is Crime and the City Solution, who were also featured on Wings of Desire, performing Six Bell Chime while Solveig Dommartin is dancing in abandon. In 1990 the band released a masterpiece of an album with Paradise Discotheque that included a unique take on the spiritual (Sometimes I Feel Like a) Motherless Child. The album was recorded at Conny Plank’s studio, the legendary producer’s farmland studio where so many classic krautrock albums were recorded, as well as Holger Czukay’s Persian Love. After receiving a request for a song from Wenders the band went again into Plank’s studio in December of 1990 to record The Adversary. It was used in the train scene, showing Claire desperately looking for Sam.

The song, a duet between band leader Simon Bonney and Mick Harvey (of the Bad Seeds, you can see him in the above film The Song), features great vocals by both and a mysterious arrangement including great playing by Thomas Stern on acoustic bass, Bronwyn Adams on violin and Alexander Hacke on guitar. This is truly one of the band’s crown achievements, as well as their last studio recording before they broke up with that lineup. Here is the full song:

Simon Bonney went on to contribute two songs for Wim Wenders on Faraway, So Close in 1993 and years later revived the band in the US, albeit with a different lineup.

Crime and the City Solution
Crime and the City Solution

The last song in this review is also the last song recorded by its band, Talking Heads. In 1988 they released their last album Naked, and like R.E.M dropped one of the best songs of their career from the album. Like Crime and the City Solution, they were able to put together one last effort even though they were practically not a functioning band anymore and recorded the song, Sax and Violins in 1990. In the liner notes to Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads David Byrne recalls: “The music was written during the rehearsals and recording that led to the Naked LP. I wrote the words later for the opening scene of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. The movie is supposed to take place in the year 2000, so I spent a lot of time trying to image music of the near future: post-rock sludge with lyrics sponsored by Coke and Pepsi? Music created by machines with human shouts of agony and betrayal thrown in? Faux Appalachian ballads, the anti-tech wave? The same sounds and licks from the 60s and 70s regurgitated yet again by a new generation of samplers? The Milli Vanilli revival? Rappin’ politicos… sell your soul to the beat, y’all? Well, it was daunting… so I figured, hell with it, I’d imagine Talking Heads doing a reunion LP in the year 2000, and them sounding just like they used to.”

Talking Heads
Talking Heads

The resulting song, Sax and Violins, is used in the film opening scene showing Claire waking up in a party. The song was a posthumous hit for Talking Heads. It appeared on the collection Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites in 1992 and as a single topped the Billboard modern rock hits chart in February that year. The drum groove with the brushes, the synth pads and percussion courtesy of Brice Wassy and Nino Gioia all work great together to create a hypnotic rhythm, not unlike some of the songs on their classic Remain In Light.

It will be an injustice to finish a post about the music in Until The  End Of The World without giving a credit to the actors themselves who in various scenes during the second part of the movie, while in the Australian outback, are playing music with a strange combination of drums, harmonica, bass and didgeridoo. One fine example is the end of the millennium New Year’s party, when Claire sings a version of Days with the cast supporting her as a make shift band. A nice touch by a film director who has a passion for music as much as for film:

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4 replies »

  1. I absolutely adore this film…it’s one of my all-time favorites. I remember going to see it at the Coolidge Corner Theater in the Boston suburb of Brookline, and I was completely blown away by it. Ran out and bought the soundtrack the next day, which also remains one of my favorite releases of the 90s. As it happens, I found a semi-bootleg copy of the director’s cut on dvd a while back, and I’m looking forward to watching it again after all these years.

    Thanks for the lovely review!

    • Thanks, and funny as the Coolidge Corner Theater is 15 min drive for me and still a great place to see good movies that do not sound like a product of the Hollywood sound assembly line.

      • Cool! Yeah, I was a college kid in the Boston area in the early 90s (Emerson College, back when it was in the Back Bay) and got to see a lot of great indie flicks there. I’m on the other coast now (SF, CA) and dearly miss the Beantown area. 🙂

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