SoundTreks: The End of the Tour
As was pointed out by CraveOnline‘s own William “Bibbs” Bibbiani, James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, which opened in limited release on Friday, is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s an intelligent film about intelligent people having extensive intelligent conversations. It’s a fascinating interplay between an ambitious real-life reporter, David Lipsky, and his one-time, three-day-long 1996 interview with the humbly legendary David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, one of the more recent contenders for The Great American Novel. I could easily write another extensive and enthused review of the film, but this is not the place for that.
The End of the Tour is also a notably music-centric film. Since it takes place largely in 1996, Ponsoldt not only had to fill his film’s soundtrack with era-appropriate music, but had to keep a special ear as to the kind of era-appropriate music that these particularly taste-conscious people would listen to. Wallace was, after all, nearly crippled by his self-aware and unironic love for junky art; he loved it, but wanted to keep himself away for fear of being consumed by the comforting entertainment it provided. He calls himself an addict. The film’s songs reflect that conflict.
The sad thing: The collection of songs that we hear during over the course of the movie – a collection that so beautifully nails the era, and so cannily encapsulates Wallace’s ethos of junk art vs. high art – is largely absent from the original soundtrack record (available in stores on August 28th). The soundtrack record is, upon a quick glance, a hastily swept-together pile of five notable pop songs, paired with multiple tracks of Danny Elfman’s R.E.M.-inspired score.
I feel cheated, frankly. This is a film wherein they openly discuss music, and clearly has music on its mind, and doesn’t have most of that music on the soundtrack. Wallace, for instance, is a big fan of Canadian alt-pop pixie Alanis Morissette, and her “You Outta Know” plays heavily into the events of the film, yet the song – indeed any of Morissette’s songs – are absent from the record. Isn’t that ironic, don’t you think? The film’s entire score takes its audio cues from a song that doesn’t appear on the record. All we get is a mere five songs. What a letdown. Let’s take a closer look.
Track 1. “Intro” – Danny Elfman
The first sound we hear in “The End of the Tour” is R.E.M.’s “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” from their 1992 record “Automatic for the People.” This is a plaintive and faraway instrumental that evokes lost memories floating gently above a dew-scented wheat field a little too far off the beaten paths of Georgia. It sets the tone of the film perfectly: bittersweet, beautiful, laced with regret. R.E.M. were a musically intelligent band, and and emotionally intelligent band, and it’s worth noting that 1996 was the last year they operated as a full unit before their original drummer left the band.
Danny Elfman’s entire score is a spiritual quotation of “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.” Musically, this was the right choice, because that mood is appropriate throughout. The more soulful scenes get that little wink to R.E.M.
I do, however, have two complaints. One is, of course, some usual outrage over the omission of this particular R.E.M. song entirely. The other is frustration over how composer Danny Elfman has evolved over the years. I understand that he wants to explore his talents as a composer, but Elfman’s movie scores over the last 10-12 years have been functional and nondescript where they were once bold, quirky, and iconoclastic. This is one of the founding members of Oingo Boingo, and the composer of most of Tim Burton’s scores, now churning out movie music that sinks into the background and disappears. Elfman once had a “sound,” and he seems to have spent the last 12 years shedding it.
That’s his right as an artist, of course, and he is still getting plenty of work (he did the music for the overwhelmingly mediocre Avengers: Age of Ultron), but it doesn’t speak to his unique talents. The soundtrack record for The End of the Tour consists mostly of his score, including this track, also tracks 2, 3, 5-7, 10-15, and 18. It’s a fine score, but not entirely notable beyond its resemblance to the below song. Enjoy “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” here:
Track 4. “Perfect Circle” – R.E.M.
When David Lipsky first meets David Foster Wallace, Wallace is listening to R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album Murmur. Indeed, we hear several tracks from it, in the correct sequence, which is a musical detail I appreciate to no end; we listen to entire records from beginning to end in real life (or at least we did in 1996), so why not have an entire track listing?
R.E.M.’s moodiness is, as I have already said, perfect for the tone of The End of the Tour, and a record that featured numerous R.E.M. songs would not have been outside the realm. Plaintive, quiet, personal. Perfect descriptors of Wallace. “Perfect Circle” is not one of R.E.M.’s bigger tracks, and I appreciate when a music supervisor includes deeper cuts and obscurities of perhaps well-known bands. “Perfect Circle” fades and caresses. It’s not a slow dance song, it’s a song to listen to on headphones while laying on your bed in the dark, allowing your mind to wander down into your chest. This is likely an activity that director Ponsoldt engaged in, as he is also from Athens, GA, R.E.M.’s hometown.
It’s also just a relief to have at least one R.E.M. track.
Track 8. “They Don’t Know” – Tracey Ullman
I’ve never been sure how I’m supposed to feel about Tracey Ullman’s musical output. I find myself bobbing along to it, but since I know the artist is such a talented comedienne, I keep waiting for the joke to reveal itself. Are Ullman’s pop hits meant to be an elaborate satire, or are they wholly sincere? The title of her first record, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places,” offers no hints.
“They Don’t Know” is a 1983 cover of a 1979 song originally sung by Kirsty MacColl, another artist signed to the same label. It’s a knowing (I think) retread of ’60s bubblegum pop, and seems to fit equally well in the ultra-saccharine UK pop charts and the left-of-the-dial New Wave movement alongside acts like The Go-Go’s. The appearance of Paul McCartney in the music video, however, implies a pop playfulness rather than anything subversive. It’s a fun listen.
In the course of the movie, this is a song that merely plays in the background while the main characters sit in a car. This song might be a self-aware allusion to the alluring dangers of pop.
Track 9. “Our Lips Are Sealed” – Fun Boy Three
Speaking of the Go-Go’s, their “Out Lips Are Sealed” is one of the most beautifully insidious earworms of my youth. I kind of knew the song by osmosis, as did anyone my age, and you can hear aging Gen-Xers crooning this in karaoke bars to this very day. If Wallace talked about the addictive insidiousness of pop music, then The Go-Go’s would be a good example to support his case.
Of course, merely including the Go-Go’s version wouldn’t be as good a commentary as including this slightly more sinister version by Fun Boy Three, who took the upbeat poppiness of the song and mellowed it into something a bit more intimate. The original felt like a teen anthem that celebrated keeping light secrets from your girlfriends. This one feels like the secrets being kept are not entirely savory. Worth noting: This was Fun Boy Three’s final hit song.
Also worth noting: The three songs to appear on this soundtrack to date have been from 1983. That was the year Wallace took a break from school due to depression, and spent most of the year in a depressive state, reading Thomas Pynchon, and writing about taking antidepressants. 1983 is, perhaps, a significant year for Wallace.
Track 16. “The Big Ship” – Brian Eno
This is the coda of the film, as it plays over the film’s final catharsis moments. It also accompanies a scene of Wallace apart from Lipsky for one of the only times in the film. It’s a cathartic and hopeful note in an otherwise maudlin sound, and perfect to go out on. “The Big Ship” is a buzzy electronic instrumental that falls in place with the movie’s overall sound rather nicely. It’s a great example of using a pop song as a score.
Brian Eno is, of course, free in his experimentation, and is known for his electronic ambiance. I know little about Eno, sadly, beyond some of his film work, so I am unqualified to comment on how well Eno’s career meshes with the events of the film.
Track 17. “Here” – Tindersticks
This song plays over the credits of The End of the Tour, and I first mistook the lead singer for Leonard Cohen, jokingly commenting that Cohen was perhaps too perfect a choice for such a film. My wife corrected me, indicating that it was Nick Cave, and making the same comment. It turns out we were both wrong. “Here” is a cover of a 1992 Pavement song, performed by a British alterna-pop band called Tindersticks. Both versions are quiet and sweet, but Tindersticks finds something sweetly funereal in the song, adding an accordion and more tearjerking vocals.
Deeps cuts. Gotta love ’em.
If the soundtrack ended here, it would be a fine period to the record, but the 18th track is more Elfman score. Fine score, but it feels like a petering out, rather than a coda.
Which Is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?
Well, the five songs on the soundtrack all hit pretty hard, but, at the end of the day, there are only five of them. And they seem sneezed haphazardly across the film’s score, rather than complimenting the record as a whole. If you’re already a fan of the movie, then you’ll be able to, perhaps, reconstruct some of the emotions you felt during it, but when taken as an independent unit, this soundtrack is a whimper.
There was a beautiful chance here to use pop music as a commentary on itself, a way of using the art of curating as a form of criticism – a quality of all the best film soundtracks. But instead, we have a record that feels like a musical score that was padded out by five pop songs in order to get it to a salable length. The movie, ladies and gentlemen, is most certainly better.
Now go to your local theater and watch it. It’s great.