Monday, October 25, 2010

Blow It Up & Start Again

Olivier Assayas' superb Carlos is notable for numerous reasons, some of which I will hopefully tackle when I write about it in my end-of-year list, in which it will most probably feature.
But one of its most obvious strengths is its soundtrack, and that I want to write about now. Assayas has always placed a great deal of importance in his soundtrack choices; from the scores he has commissioned from Sonic Youth and John Cale to the terrific taste he displays in his selections of songs in his films, from the Incredible String Band through Brian Eno and Pere Ubu to Metric.

Instead of going for a contemporaneous collection of era-evocative pop and rock hits, he fills the Carlos soundtrack with post-punk songs, most of them out of step chronologically with the historical scenes they accompany. This suggests that Assayas wants us to pick up on the elements of Carlos' personality - or that of the film itself - captured by the songs in all their angular, jerky appeal.

Post-Punk is musically a far more diverse, complex and interesting sub-genre than Punk itself. Poppier, more intellectual, there is an undeniable chill to some of the music Assayas selects. It is all cold, scratchy guitars and mathematical rhythms, lead vocals in a bored monotone, impenetrable or vaguely Punkish nihilistic lyrics. Much of the film is set in wintry 70s Europe, in cities like the Hague, Paris, Vienna and Budapest, and this music is a perfect fit. He also cuts many songs off before they get going, so that all we hear are a series of extended guitar intros, taut basslines and feedback.
Its a brilliant soundtrack for a brilliant film, but as far as I can tell, no soundtrack album exists. While far from exhaustive, here is a selection of some of the music heard in the film, with some brief commentary:

New Order: Dreams Never End
Assayas uses the phenomenal intro from this, the opening track off the album Movement, twice in the film. Its shifts in tone and texture and those rapidly chopped chords clip along like the movie does; at an unforgiving exhilarating pace. Any film that uses early New Order is alright by me.

Feelies: Loveless Love
The horribly underappreciated the Feelies played a much larger role in the plans Assayas originally made for Carlos. He used several of their songs at key points as he cut the film, but when the band were approached they were reluctant to have their music associated with Terrorism in any way. They were finally convinced to give permission to use songs over scenes without any direct connection to Terrorist acts, and Loveless Love, from their excellent debut record, Crazy Rhythms, is used like the New Order song, for the extraordinary fluidity and power of its stripped down intro. He uses another Feelies song, Forces at Work, from the same record, at another point in the film.

Dead Boys: Sonic Reducer
The closest thing to actual punk on the Soundtrack - and a rare period fit, as characters listen to it on the radio at a key point - is this storming rocker, which soundtracks a moment of violent madness and perfectly captures the spirit of the character involved in all her messy, wild abandon. "I got my death machine, Got my electronic dream/ Sonic Reducer/Aint no loser/Sonic Reducer/Aint No Loser."

A Certain Ratio: All Night Party
I love A Certain Ratio in all their fascinating, difficult, unsung glory. I think Assayas does too, and the use of this herky-jerky, creepily off-key treasure from their (largely unavailable, these days) catalogue only proves that.

Wire: Dot Dash
When the Feelies proved reluctant to participate, Assayas more or less replaced them with their not dissimilar British contemporaries, Wire. There are three Wire songs in Carlos - that I noticed, at any rate. "Ahead" is used for its guitar intro and eerie, calm cool, "Drill" for its frenetic rhythm. And "Dot Dash" plays in its entirety. Its perhaps the band's most commercial song, a catchy, bouncy, fun singalong, which might make it sound wrong for a film about a murderous terrorist/assassin. But Assayas makes it work, somehow.

The Lightning Seeds: Pure
Another odd fit, you might say, but Ian Broudie's lovely slice of pop genius is utilized in a rare scene of domestic harmony and happiness, and in that context, it is a terrific choice.

Davy Graham: Jenra
The tonal changes of the third section of the film, mainly set in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, are reflected in the eclecticism which creeps into the soundtrack choices for that portion of the film. Most of them I did not recognise, but this I did. Davy Graham's hypnotic, Morocco-inspired raga becomes more and more hysterical and intense as it progresses, just as the bloated, paranoid Carlos does.

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Blogger James Taylor said...

I'd want to see that movie under most circumstances, but with that soundtrack, I'm in.

1:28 pm  
Blogger David N said...

The full 5 and a half hour version is out on DVD in the UK already and you should absolutely see it. And all Assayas' other films, for that matter.
If memory serves, he uses Sparks (one of your favourites, right?) at the end of Boarding Gate...

12:52 am  

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