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A man in a dusty suit and red baseball cap wandering the deserts of Texas.
Harry Dean Stanton as wilderness wanderer, Travis. Photo 12 / Alamy

Paris, Texas at 40: how Ry Cooder’s soul-stirring soundtrack tells a tale of heartache and redemption

This year marks four decades since Paris, Texas was awarded the 1984 Palme d’Or at its acclaimed Cannes debut. The film’s mystifying personae and desolate neo-western vistas have lost none of their original intrigue, thanks in large part to Ry Cooder’s iconic soundtrack – a defining showpiece by a slide guitar savant.

The album cover of Ry Cooder's soundtrack to the Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas.
Tricolour tones for the soundtrack album. Photo 12 / Alamy

Recorded over three days, his music plays a pivotal mood-setting role, providing a plangent underpinning for German director Wim Wenders’ postcard renderings of Americana.

The soundtrack marries Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western sensibilities with the freestyle film-score anarchy of Miles Davis.

Cooder gleans inspiration from further back, too, digging up gems from his early years spent absorbing anthologies of folk, hillbilly and roots on radio and vinyl during a lonely purgatorial period. Fitted with a glass eye and sequestered to a blacked-out bedroom after an accidental knife injury, the epic songwriting back catalogue of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash kept him company.

Art imitated life with a wry wink when Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground went on to provide a key musical reference for Paris, Texas. The song’s atmosphere of gospel agony parallels the film’s preoccupation with personal reckonings and protagonists whose paths have gone askew.

Rattlesnakes and heartbreak: setting a lonely tone

Cooder’s soundtrack chronicles the exploits of two ill-starred lovers looping through self-inflicted exile. A soothing rendition of folk song Canción Mixteca attunes to their early courtship, serenading them during nuzzled-up snapshots enshrined in Super-8 film.

The score discloses the subsequent fallout of their domestic dysfunction and underscores their shared experience of heart rupture and reunion. Its desert evocations contradict the pervasive din from planes, trains and automobiles, with a whistling, string-skimming technique that summons swivelling sands and whispers carried on the wind.

Sonic spectres trouble the title credits, wafting in and out like wayward tumbleweeds. Captured behind the scenes, sounds from plastic hoses lasso the air, sketching out indistinct elliptical shapes and ambient phantoms.

A jerry-rigged Kawai keyboard conjures up a cowbell stuffed with a sock: a fateful totem, as is later revealed. Its muffled clangs feel cryptic, uneasy. We decipher its symbolism on hearing the grim anecdote of a young woman tied to a stove to keep her from straying – corralled by a controlling spouse and cuffed at the ankle like chattel.

Cooder enters on guitar, a “humble 1930s Harmony Sovereign”. He takes pains to slice into the characters’ scar tissue, carving out a memorable melodic line that is at once anguished and sublime: la douleur exquise.

Lingering notes hum with vibrato, clinging to the wrung-out blue skies of the lone-star state. Their pitches pioneer in this sprawling expanse. Soul-searching and seeking, Cooder sounds out melodic shapes that slump down then swoop upward. He deftly milks the intervening microtones, slowly sliding across the tiny pitches nested between main notes to exploit maximum expressive power.

His pacing feels intentionally unfixed. Rather than strictly keeping time, musical bar lines seems to disintegrate, represented figuratively as tumbledown rock formations in the Texan landscape – towering obelisks and crumbling chimney stacks that exhibit Robby Müller’s masterful cinematography.

Punctuated by silence, the soundtrack slithers back in a few scenes later. Its added rattlesnake reverberations spell the end of the road for a shook-up pair of reptile-skin boots.

Creating space for contradiction

As the narrative evolves, Cooder’s bittersweet, bluesy stylings capsulise its many in-built ironies and oxymorons. The film’s moniker fuses the sophisticated savoir faire of the French capital city with the renegade justice of the American wilderness.

Its protagonists occupy antagonistic poles of masculinity and femininity. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is “kind of raggedy and wild” – black-eyed, gravel-blasted and gaunt, shrouded in a square-cut pinstripe suit and sneakers.

Jane (Nastassja Kinski) is softly seductive, her unfathomably beautiful features wreathed by foam-rolled, buttery blonde curls. The arresting pink of her lipstick and fluffy sweater contrast sharply with the charred red of his bruised baseball cap.

The music accommodates these discordant elements. With no discernible beginning or ending, it feels rootless, untethered. Both infinite and intimate, it belongs to no one in particular and is situated nowhere.

It allows the estranged duo to exist as extremes in both exterior and interior spaces: a nomad needing neither sleep nor sustenance, traipsing through no-man’s land and a pristine peep-show performer in a seedy club, cloistered within a glass box.

In one backdrop behind Jane, we spy gingham curtains in virginal hues – vestiges of a de-robed Dorothy whose innocence has been auctioned off. Telephone static drones dispassionately: “We’re not in Kansas any more.”

Paris, Texas confronts us with these challenging scenarios, but withholds the relief of a watertight finale. As such, it foils the original screenplay’s syrupy conclusion.

Music bows out and bears witness for the bulk of the film’s closing scenes. The soundtrack’s shushed status and extended silence starkly remind us that, for troubled souls like Travis and Jane, redemption is a thorny business. It demands sticky sacrifices and payment of the requisite pound of flesh.

Still, Cooder’s own path to musical alchemy reveals that, where resurrection is concerned, “the worst thing is never the last thing”. Certainly, his Paris, Texas soundtrack attests that it’s possible to transform pain into insight and even – in special instances like this one – pinnacle artistry.

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