Music alongside image should augment it; help it sustain the illusion of reality. Emotions registered subtly on the screen should be writ large in the score. Music should make the internal audible…or so Hollywood tradition states.
Applying this concept to director and writer David Lynch is not straightforward. Lynch uses sound and music almost constantly in his films, but he doesn’t simply amplify the emotional. Music is pushed to do far greater things than promote empathy.
“I do whatever feels true,” he told ABC’s Sarah Kanowski while visiting Brisbane to launch his exhibition Between Two Worlds. In Twin Peaks truth meant slick 50s-style lounge jazz, in Wild at Heart, rock and rockabilly, in The Straight Story folksy Americana and in Inland Empire dark industrial electro. For Eraserhead, where his feature-filmmaking journey began, Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet created a combination of mechanical hums and inhuman screams, a legendary soundtrack that took four years to complete. In one key scene the claustrophobic brutalistic score briefly gives way to a sliver of low-fi dream pop:
In heaven, everything is fine…
In fact, it could be argued the entire dream pop genre started with this effulgent 90-second torch song. The Pixies opened virtually every show with it and acts from Jay Reatard to Modest Mouse and Bauhaus have covered or adapted it. Not only is In Heaven an early example of Lynch incorporating ‘live’ performance into his films, but it gives us our first glimpse at themes he consistently returned to: An angelic woman dressed in white signifying moral purity, a man (in this case, Jack Nance) entering a realm between life and death, and the now-familiar mix of the surreal, funny, menacing, mysterious and comforting. Written and sung by Peter Ivers and performed by ‘The Lady in the Radiator’ Laurel Near, In Heaven exists in Eraserhead in both dream and ‘reality’.
In dreams you’re mine / All the time / Forever. In dreams.
Lynch did the same thing nine years later in Blue Velvet, another film about a young man approaching sex with a combination of fear and fascination. In a central scene, vicious psychopath Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper) commands a dandyish Dean Stockwell to mime to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams before weeping. In Blue Velvet Lynch uses pop culture to evoke a time and place, in this case smooth 50s pop and shots of picket fences and mowed lawns, before literally moving beneath their surface. The lyrics from In Dreams are used by Booth in a seduction / intimidation scene in which Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) is smeared with blood, violently kissed and beaten. The brutal violence and aggressive sex scenes gain power from their juxtaposition by being set in an idyllic, Reagensque setting and using iconic songs. When interviewed about how some people may never hear In Dreams the same way again, Roy Orbison, in his last ever interview, told Nick Kent:
Oh, I was shocked! I was mortified. But later, I really got to appreciate not only what David Lynch gave to the song, and what the song in turn gave to the film, but how innovative the movie was, how it really achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to "In Dreams". I find it hard to verbalise why, but Blue Velvet really succeeded in making my music contemporary again.
Music, in Lynch’s hands, becomes far more than simply a soundtrack. It drives narrative, it’s re-appropriated and charged with far more than the songwriter ever intended. Blue Velvet is especially unusual compared to other films of the mid-80s in that it features a huge amount of symbolism: Insects, birds, ears, orifices, colours and numbers are all invested with layers of meaning. As such, the viewer (and listener) is encouraged to place extra weight on Lynch’s choices of song and look for meaning in them. Further examination is always rewarded.
She’ll never go to Hollywood…
“Collaboration…has to marry to the picture, it has to marry to the whole thing, or it will kill it.” Lynch told Sarah Kanowski. “It’s better to have no music than music that doesn’t work.” Making the TV series Twin Peaks saw Lynch at his most collaborative, working with a large cast and crew and all the opportunities, and restrictions, of a major TV network. The series and ensuing film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are Lynch’s second and third collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise. The scene in which Cruise sings Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart at the town’s bar The Roadhouse comes at a pivotal moment in the series. Laura Palmer’s killer is about to be revealed and several other story arcs are reaching their peak or resolution. At this point, with 20+ million American households on tenterhooks and viewers around the world holding their breath, Lynch slows everything down for a musical interlude.
Laura’s friend Donna, sitting at a booth, smiles and mouths the song’s lyrics to new boyfriend James Hurley. The town sheriff sips a beer, the Log Lady shells peanuts and we drift forward in time to another gossamer-light pop song, the glacially paced The World Spins. We then watch FBI Special Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, again playing an innocent moving into a liminal world) as the music shifts again, to a slow, haunting piece signifying The White Lodge, an extra-dimensional place he’s visited before in a dream. Cruise is replaced by The Giant, a messenger from The White Lodge, who cryptically tells Cooper that another murder is taking place. The stage on which Cruise is performing becomes a site for the transmission of messages to Cooper: Music makes the public, private. The overlapping of these worlds, and the splitting of self, is a recurring motif not only in Twin Peaks, but throughout Lynch’s career. Music is an essential part of creating a world in which this is not only credible but also familiar. The scene finishes with Cooper struggling to comprehend the message he’s received – reconciling his ‘selves’, and we transition, aided by the fading sounds of the theme from the White Lodge and the rising, ominous click of a record needle turning on the last groove of a record, to one the most protracted and violent murders ever portrayed on US television.
No I banda. There is no band…
Nowhere is music used more effectively to demonstrate this union or splitting of self than in Mulholland Drive. When asked to describe the music Lynch curates, chooses and writes, people are invariably lost for words. The terms ‘dreamlike’, ‘moody’, ‘atmospheric’, ‘scary’ and ‘weird’ are often used, and almost all of these terms appear on websites in which films are discussed when trying to explain or decode this film. Some give up, others agonise over the importance of fleeting symbols, but all feel the intense atmosphere as Lynch languidly depicts primal urges and subconscious drives, toying with our traditional ways of interpreting films.
We can see the woman with blue hair sitting out of focus in a balcony above Rebekah del Rio as she sings Llorando, Roy Orbison’s Crying, in Spanish. We recognise the importance of the woman’s hair being blue because of the blue box Naomi Watts’ character Betty is carrying and the blue key that has just appeared in Rita (Laura Harring)’s handbag. Seasoned Lynch watchers will recognise that on a deeper level Lynch has chosen this because it is somehow connected to the ‘Blue rose case’ of his previous film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and its soundtrack song Questions in a World of Blue, and of course earlier film Blue Velvet. But what does it actually mean? Menace? Calm? Lynch himself certainly isn’t going to answer (“The colours are part of the mystery. Blue is my favourite colour,” was as deep as he went when Laurent Bouzereau asked him to elaborate for the website Cineaste). It is this sense of urgency without recognition that gives his scenes their power, and frustrates the viewer used to solving mysteries and defining purpose. Music is a perfect vehicle to draw in the viewer and allow them to accompany this deep emotional push without signifying anything specific.
"We don’t know what the thought or idea is until it enters the conscious mind,’ he told Sarah Kanowski animatedly, and it is this state that Lynch works so well in - the ability to trigger something like a repressed memory or a dream but without consciously giving definition to it, and he always uses music to do it. Even in his very earliest short films The Alphabet and The Grandmother, acquiring knowledge leads to futile despair, a theme that returns throughout his work as well-meaning people try to solve mysteries and wind up embattled in their own psyches. Those films, and Eraserhead, are as celebrated for their sound design and use of discordant non-natural soundtracks as they are for anything seen.
In depicting the subconscious on screen, Lynch has said he wants to give audiences the sensation of ‘floating’. He has also said that the best way he can do this is through sound. No film features as many floating point-of-view camera shots and sustained, lingering melodies as Mulholland Drive.
The film’s pivotal scene at Club Silencio, described above, highlights just how important this public/private real/dream dichotomy is. Before familiar red velvet curtains, Rebekah del Rio falls to the floor and Llandro keeps playing, the film cracks and perspectives and identities shift. With silence, the illusion that is the film world falls away.
“Silence is beautiful,” Lynch told Sarah Kanowski. “They say that this field within each one of us is infinite silence and infinite dynamism together. Just the word silence is very interesting to think about. It’s a beautiful, beautiful word.”
Angelo Badalamenti’s long, languid sustained ‘cluster chords’ are hallmarks of Lynch films and here, in an earlier scene, as amnesiac Rita discovers the dead body of Diane Selwyn and realises she is in mortal danger, one of Badalamenti’s chords stands in for her scream. Badalamenti has often spoken of the close bond between himself and Lynch. Whether he’s narrating the creation of Twin Peaks’ theme, causing Lynch to laugh so hard he required surgery for a hernia with his attempts to rap, or writing NME’s favourite film soundtrack of all time, their closeness is evident. It was clearly a big move for Lynch to step away from the man on whom he’d relied as a composer for 20 years when he decided not simply to pen lyrics for Badalamenti, but compose music himself, and sing it on his most recent film, 2006’s Inland Empire.
Lynch has always embraced new technologies, particularly those that grant him greater control over his art. He left film and TV altogether to focus on creating animations for davidlynch.com and pledged never to use film stock again now that digital allowed so much creative control. An artist with nearly limitless tools at his disposal, Lynch focused on music and released two albums, Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013) both loaded with celebrity guests and recorded at his home studio.
“If I’m honest, I’m a non-musician and there are great musicians in the world, great players and singers. And what they’ve done is inspire me so much that I’m off with my lunchbox into the studio to try and have fun in the world they’ve inspired,” he said in the documentary Making the Big Dream. Inspiration is possibly the most profound gift Lynch has given from all of his art, and it is powerfully present in music today. Chillwave, dub step, witch house, dream pop - all of these atmosphere-driven genres and sub-genres venerate the work Lynch has done.
In one of the more notable examples, Lana Del Rey seemingly took a 2011 Guardian article referencing David Lynch's influence on her music as a challenge to cram as many Lynch references as possible into a two-minute version of Blue Velvet in a advertisement she made for retail brand H&M.
Lynch’s finest musical moment since launching his musical career is an iTunes bonus track I'm Waiting Here from his album The Big Dream. The track is a duet with Swedish songstress Lykke Li and showcases all his favourite musical tropes: reverbed guitars, ominous bass, sparse rhythm and a prominent breathy falsetto. It’s a reminder that, unlike many great musicians and filmmakers of the last 30 years, Lynch knows when to leave part of the job to someone else and, unusually for such a noted auteur, can play well with others.
Along with, tellingly, a remix, I’m Waiting Here is his most recent, and one of his strongest songs and when those factors coincide, it bodes well for whatever the future holds.