The Uncanny Sounds of David Lynch

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Since 1977 the name David Lynch has been synonymous with weird. Weird movies, weird animation, weird art. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire Lynch has built his brand leaving audiences confused and uncomfortable long after the screen flickers off and the drinks go flat. It’s what he does best. Eccentric characters, nonlinear plots, and disturbing surrealist imagery, all of these go into making his films what they are. However, one element of Lynch’s filmmaking that often goes un-regarded is his use of music. Along with distinctive sound design, Lynch’s musical choices help set the tone of his films, as well as revealing some deeper truths about how Lynch views the world in general, and America in particular.

               Many critics have remarked that, despite the general ambiguity of his films, Lynch has a clear tendency to divide his view of America into two diametrically opposed aspects. The first being the beautiful, idealized America replete with 50s suburban iconography. The second being a terrifying criminal, or even supernatural, underworld ruined by industrial decay and neglect. The music he uses tends to tie into this divide, deeply so.   

Lynch and His Five Favorite Genres

               There are five main genres, broadly defined, that Lynch typically makes use of, with the music itself generally provided by a few artists that he works with regularly. The five genres are dream pop, classic pop, classical, jazz, and avant-garde. As for Lynch’s usual stable of artists, Angelo Badalamenti has scored almost every film Lynch has done since 1986. Julee Cruise, meanwhile, provided dreamy, jazz-inflected pop tracks to many of Lynch’s projects before her unfortunate passing earlier this year. Like Badalamenti, she has also worked with Lynch since 1986. Earlier in Lynch’s career, specifically his first full-length film Eraserhead, he also worked with sound designer Alan R. Splet to create the unnerving soundscapes that also help give his films the atmosphere of wrongness they’ve become known for. While Splet only worked with Lynch once, their collaboration helped define his films, making him as important as any of Lynch’s regular partners. It is also worth noting that Lynch himself is a recording artist, with several albums to his credit.  

               As for how Lynch uses the music once someone has provided him with it, symbolism is usually involved somehow. The most basic example is Angelo Badalamenti’s scores, which do the grunt-work of helping set the mood for scenes and emphasizing character traits. However, this is underselling Badalamenti’s work with Lynch, which can be best described as retro-tragic, referencing Golden Age film scores by such notables as Miklos Rozsa and Dmitri Tiomkin, mixed with some Shostakovich. However, he also composes jazz and even ambient pieces, which also see use in Lynch’s films. Generally, the more classical the Badalamenti piece, the safer (or at least more neutral) the environment the scene takes place in is. Conversely, the more experimental Badalamenti’s music is, the better the chance that the scene in question is either going to unravel into a nightmare, or already has. While this is basic film scoring, it is also true that the mood of the music played over the scene is only half the point. In a Lynch film, the genre governs the scene’s mood as well.

               Which ties nicely into the way Lynch uses of pop standards. There are many instances of Lynch using a pop standard, generally from the early 60s, at a pivotal or tonally complex moments in his films. For example, the use of “I’ve Told Every Little Star”During the “this is the girl” scene in Mulholland Dr. provides a sugary contrast to ruthless Hollywood politics in action. Blue Velvet both takes its name from the classic Bobby Vinton song, and plays that same song over the film’s famous opening.    

Pop Standards in Blue Velvet

               Blue Velvet is an almost prototypical example, in fact. The opening of the film is a montage of over-the-top images of idealized American small-town life: white picket fences, fire trucks driving down suburban streets as clean-shaven fire fighters hang off the sides waving happily to passers-by. It’s a huge slice of white bread drizzled in corn syrup. Then a man watering his front lawn abruptly has a stroke and collapses as a toddler looks on in incomprehension. He receives no attention apart from a dog which drinks from the powerfully spraying hose still clutched in his rigid hand. Bobby Vinton’s saccharine crooning continues as the camera does a close vertical pan over the jet of water, with the dog still trying for a drink only to be battered back by the force of the spray on every attempt, but the music fades out as the camera suddenly dives into the grass. “Blue Velvet” fades, replaced by a crackling grind as the green blades part and the screen fills with swarming black beetles. While the metaphor is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, it’s an effective one, illustrating the corruption that exists beneath the town’s terrifyingly normal façade.      

               The film uses other classics ironically as well. For example, when protagonist Jefferey Beaumont is kidnapped by unhinged (and incredibly foul-mouthed) villain Frank Booth, he finds himself in a brothel run by a flamboyant pimp named Ben. After getting punched twice, establishing that the bad guys are not afraid to hurt him, Jefferey watches as Ben lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” using a small stage light as a microphone. The scene goes on until the song triggers some kind of micro-meltdown on Frank Booth’s part, and Ben shuts off the recording.

Things Frank Booth Says that aren’t F-bombs

               It’s also notable that Booth frequently uses song lyrics in his speech. Saying “candy-colored clown” to prompt Ben to perform “In Dreams” for him or threatening Jefferey by paraphrasing the lyrics to Kitty Lester’s cover of “Love Letter”, which later plays over a gunfight between Booth’s goons and the police.  He also has a fetishistic fixation on blue velvet, which comes up at some of the film’s most disturbing moments. However, Booth never actually says the words “blue velvet” onscreen. Possibly indicating that while he may embody the dark side of Lumberton, North Carolina, there are still parts of it even he can never touch.

               All that said, just because music sounds pleasant in Lynch’s world, doesn’t mean it hides unpleasantness. There is some genuinely beautiful music in Lynch’s work, and it signifies truth and beauty with no sinister undertones whatsoever. And part two of this article will be about exactly that.

               ‘til next time.  

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