The Art of Storytelling Abounds on Soundtrack to Gaspar Noé’s 90s-Heavy ‘Climax’

What kind of soundtrack pairs with a deliciously unhinged dance party that progressively disintegrates into a rat-king of horror, trauma, and drug-fueled carnage in a studio in 1990s France?

What music helps tell a story that makes Suspiria look like G-rated Disney fare? I’ll tell you: Some of the best electronic and dance music of the ‘90s.

But before we get too far, internalize this: You don’t just see a Gaspar Noé film. Offerings like 2002’s Irreversible, 2009’s Enter the Void, and 2015’s Love all are wholly experiential fare, using music to profound effect to help tell Noé’s intense and challenging stories. Climax, which releases today in American theatres, is no different.

Noe has said he prefers to use licensed music rather than scores. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter did score Irreversible and since then the artist has popped up with a song or two on subsequent Noe soundtracks. On the Climax Original Motion Picture Soundtrack — which Milan Records gave a vinyl release today — we are graced with two Bangalter cuts. One is the previously released “What To Do” and the other a gorgeous new cut “Sangria,” which factors into the film with utmost importance.

The film is set in the 1990s, which means the bulk of the soundtrack’s songs evoke the dirty house parties and wild soirees of that golden era. Bangalter’s contributions sound straight out of that Wisconsin barn party he and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo played before they became robots. Rounding it out are some gems from the 1970s and 1980s.

Let’s first dive into the film’s psychological horror story itself and then into the music. Climax centers on a group of mostly French dancers who collect at an abandoned school for a late-night rehearsal. They’re downing sangria and having a blast — seriously, the music and dancing in this is stunning — when they start to endure viscerally frightening hallucinations. What was once bliss ends with a hellscape in which they all turn on each other a la Lord of the Flies, but with drugs and sex. It turns out that LSD is in their drinks and they’re not sure who did the lacing.

With that backdrop — filtered through Noé’s uncompromising filmmaking style — enters the songs Noé uses so expertly. The release plays like a singular narrative and not merely a selection of songs from multiple eras licensed for a film. This is one major reason why Noe eschewing a bespoke score is not as troublesome as it would be in the hands of a more cynical, profit-driven filmmaking operation. (This is true whether you experience the 18-cut digital version or the 15-cut vinyl iteration.)

gaspar noe climax soundtrack

From Paris to Detroit

Bangalter’s cuts stand out, not the least because they take the listener back to that time when he and Guy-Man ushered in a new paradigm for French House. We forget now, but in an era when music execs saw dollar signs over guitar-heavy rock and hip-hop, Daft Punk somehow managed to land “Da Funk,” a lengthy instrumental, in marquee spots on MTV.

“What To Do” is pure kinesis amid a sea of distractions. There’s an airtight drum beat with jungle breakbeats on top. A manipulated vocal sample uttering the title in fits and starts colors the melodic elements of the song. Each layer drips a sweaty intensity that compounds with each mantra, “I don’t know/I don’t know why.”

“Sangria” is the more cinematic of Bangalter’s contributions. Cinematic synth strings emote with Badalamentian panache as a pulsation of synths beat against the walls of your chest and a crescendo of electronic noise builds to an all-encompassing presence of undeniable suffocation. The fruity Spanish wine was laced and the LSD is kicking in. To put it in the context of the mid- to late- ‘90s work of Daft Punk and David Lynch: It’s a bit like “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” and “Rock’n Roll” smashed together with something off the Lost Highway soundtrack to make a film cue just right for a key scene in Climax. It’s an absolute highlight of the album.

It’s great to see Suburban Knight (AKA James Pennington) represented on Climax. The soundtrack features “The World’s,” which is a classic Detroit techno gem from 1990. Pennington is known for a more subdued, even moody take on the genre and in that vein this cut is transcendent. It still makes your body move, to be sure, but the dark and subterranean essence alter the nature of your experience.

Wild Planet’s “Electron,” an acid number from 1993, offers a rawkus and abrasive ablution at the hands of the Warp Records masters. (Fellow Warp artist Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” likewise brings joy, albeit in a more progressively deconstructed fashion. There’s less joy when you experience the song’s employment in the picture.)

Neon’s “Voices” is a vigorous and minimalist, acid-tinged house cut from the late ‘80s. The minor chords of the synths paired with the headspace the mix suggest what would happen if John Carpenter had moved to Belgium and started a New Beat project.

The ‘80s classic “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go (Extended Version)” by Soft Cell is a dark synth-pop cut that pairs well with the rest of the songs. It has a somewhat climactic role in the film, and on the soundtrack album does not lose sight of that.

Other standouts are an instrumental, specially edited version of Cerrone’s disco classic “Supernature” and Gary Numan’s “Trois Gymnopedies (First Movement),” a Berlin School-recalling instrumental number that glistens with sugary bliss when mixed into a story like Climax. It’s a B-side from a Beggars Banquet release of Numan’s We Are Glass that plays like a modern film-score cue.

As a whole, you don’t need to see Climax to experience the fantastic voyage of the soundtrack album — you will have your own experience through a who’s-who of electronic music greats. Nevertheless, I encourage you to see the film so that you can augment your experience. You’ll end up with two parallel  confrontations with the music that are concurrently rewarding and divergent. On one hand you have a fantastic mix of dance cuts that are curated so heavily as to create their own story for the film in your mind. On the other hand, if you do see the film, you’ll always remember the soul-shredding moments associated with Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” and other gems. Life is about experiences, so with that in mind I recommend you tackle both the film and the soundtrack. 

Climax hits U.S. theatres today, thanks to A24. You can buy the vinyl soundtrack via Milan Records and other outlets.

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