“Orbison’s music combines perfectly to create the nostalgic bliss of the fantasy world and its underlying horror.” Todd McGowen
David Lynch’s body of work most certainly reveals a distinctive style of filmmaking, which is recognizable for his surrealist approach to images on-screen often described by many as “Lynchian.” With his heavy use of dream-like imagery, Lynch has created films which center around the everyday individual in America, and the nightmarish reality that occupies their seemingly “normal,” mundane existence. A major component to his distinct style that complements his bizarre visuals and characters is the music that lays under the scenes. This music provides a warped sense of stability and always creates unease for the audience.
One scene in Blue Velvet comes to mind when I think of Lynch’s use of pop music within a scene of unhinged weirdness: Dennis Hopper staring at his drug dealer friend lip-syncing “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. Hopper’s performance as the sadomasochistic gangster Frank is summed up in this one moment as Frank watches in sad admiration the flamboyant performance, at times calm, and moments later wincing. This scene shows Frank in a vulnerable emotional state, and Orbison’s classic song adds a somber quality to this unpredictable and memorable scene.
As “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus does for dancing serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, “In Dreams” becomes almost synonymous with one of the most strangely crafted scenes in recent Hollywood film making.
Lynch doesn’t hold back in matching visual flare with oldies tunes. Bobby Vinton’s classic “Blue Velvet” plays in the opening scenes of Lynch’s eponymous film with a sequence of shots involving a typical suburbia with neighbors watering their grass, fire trucks passing by and waving to pedestrians, and crossing guards guiding kids to school. This sugar coated fantasy of an innocent town is quickly disrupted by the camera zooming increasingly closer to the ground until we are in close with ants burrowing through dirt. Vinton’s song fades and low drones of insects drown out the speakers. Lynch’s opening scene propels the audience into the larger theme of this film, and many others; there is always darker underground to the shiny surface of the normal suburban American landscape.
In one of Lynch’s more cryptic films Mulholland Drive, a Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is again lip-synced by a singer in a club named “Club Silencio.” The woman sings for the audience and both the main characters Betty and Rita break down in tears while holding each other. At this point in the film, Betty comes to the realization that her perfect life as an up-and-coming actress with a blossoming love life is in fact just a dream, and in that moment, the dream has ended. This revelation comes about when the singer falls to the ground, her vocals still echoing in the venue. Lynch again uses an Orbison song of loss to provide a dark realization to the nature of reality, in this case Betty’s life.
Another Lynch trademark of music is used in the forefront of attention in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me during a scene which depicts Laura Palmer going to a sleazy night club with a friend, which subsequently turns into an orgy. Much like Lynch’s solo albums and work with frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, many of Lynch’s musical choices can be described as sleazy jazz-blues. The harsh screaming guitars and saxophone not only create a sense of degradation and moral corruptness in the “peaceful” town of Twin Peaks, but it usually is played at high volume so that the audience can barely hear the dialogue between characters.
Lynch uses this strong, loud soundtrack to create a sense of distance with the characters much like Laura Palmer’s inability to hear conversation in the club. Laura eventually becomes a victim to the decadence of the town’s sinister residents, especially the manipulative men in the bar, ultimately leading her on a path that endangers her life. She realizes the town is stricken with jealous and deceitful men and that there is no one to help or listen to her. This music is greatly contrasted with the almost hopeful sounds of Badalamenti’s very different seminal opening sequence to the Twin Peaks series, which is also used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
A crooning Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart, a free-form Sax playing Bill Pullman in Lost Highway, hopeful actresses singing bubblegum pop tunes in Mulholland Drive: David Lynch constantly bombards the audience with eccentric uses of pop tunes and genre music to immerse them in something more than what’s on the surface. No Lynch film is easy to decipher, but he definitely makes you feel a brooding sense of unease and that something sinister is present.
Alex Gougeon is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music. This feature is part of our ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives. Search “Lust for Life” on the sidebar to see many more iconic and iconclastic films.