Olivier Assayas’ Carlos (2010), a sprawling six-hour biopic of notorious terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez aka Carlos ‘the Jackal’ Ramirez, is many things at once. A character study of a narcissist Che-wannabe chronicling his evolution from nominal Marxist revolutionary to media celebrity to washed-up mercenary. A minutely detailed and globe-trotting look at the ins and outs of pre-9/11 terrorism. A behind-the-scenes history lesson on the international power games that defined the waning years of the Cold War. Carlos is all this and more, but one dimension of it not to be ignored is its fantastic soundtrack. Assayas peppers the film with epic needle-drops, mostly post-punk tracks from the 1970s and 1980s alongside a few Latin American and Arab songs to highlight the transnational nature of Carlos – both film and character.
This is not just done for the sake of it, nor only to serve as signposts of the historical period – after all Assayas avoids any obvious staple hits of the time. Every use of music resonates with the mood of its scene, and marks the rhythm of the whole, with Assayas using tracks at transitional points in the narrative. Hence “Sonic Reducer” by Dead Boys growls its lyrics – “Don’t need no pretty face, Don’t need no human race” – over the desperate last stand of nihilist-terrorist femme fatale “Nada”. The idealistic dreamy Brit-pop of The Lightning Seeds’ “Pure” dovetails with a montage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the symbolic end of the Cold War. The melancholy lament of the great Nubian composer Hamza El Din’s traditional oud complements Carlos’ decline as a has-been hiding out in Sudan.
But perhaps the film’s finest musical moments fall to tracks by the British band Wire whose jangling, angular post-punk songs with their addictive choruses revive the momentum of the film after scenes of tension and negotiation, while the mechanical precision of their riffs mirrors the procedural portrayal of Carlos’ operations. One highlight is “Dot Dash” blasting its chorus of exuberant energy over what is initially a montage symbolising Carlos’ swaggering ego, cutting from him enjoying being the focus of attention during an interview to the arms deals he orchestrates through Syrian and Soviet airports. Then, as Colin Newman’s vocals suddenly shift into a more hushed delivery, we cut to Magdalena, Carlos’ unfulfilled wife, stuck at home forging passports and more generally trapped in her existence as terrorist’s moll. It sums up the way Assayas uses pop music to propel a dense narrative forward, bridging different spaces, times and registers through aural momentum, and in the process scoring the perfect audio-visual aesthetic. What better music to accompany this examination of a now largely-forgotten piece of history, than a contemporary cult band that consistently went under the radar of the mainstream spotlight? Watching Carlos affords us the sensation of rediscovering both History with a capital H and musical history at the same time.