“Every note of music has enough breath to carry you away, and as a director, all you have to do is let the right wind blow at the right time” – David Lynch
Sound and music are incredibly important in David Lynch’s films. From Eraserhead (1977) on, Lynch has shown his talent for creating creepy and dreamy soundscapes, which include music and dialogue as well as diegetic and non-diegetic sound effects. Perhaps Lynch’s most popular film, Blue Velvet (1986) perfectly blends together pop music, original score, and Lynchian sound effects. Blue Velvet is especially rich with beautiful music that both comments on and runs counter to the images onscreen. This was the first film in which Lynch focused on both original score/sound effects and pre-existing pop music.
David Lynch is never completely serious or completely joking – he is always both at the same time. In The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, writer Nicholas Rombes refers to this as “sincerity in irony”. There are certainly moments of humor in Blue Velvet – Jeffrey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) “chicken walk”, and the absurd way characters speak and behave – but Lynch does not make fun of his characters or the worlds he creates. This is also true of his other works such as Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. Characters and situations are absurd and silly, but they are still meant to be taken seriously. Lynch is completely sincere and ironic at the same time, which also applies to his use of music.
Angelo Badalamenti wrote the original score for the film. This was the first collaboration between Lynch and Badalamenti, who would go on to work together for all of Lynch’s feature films except for 2006’s Inland Empire. In Michel Chion’s book David Lynch, he notes that the director wanted a score that was “the most beautiful thing in the world,” while also being dark and a little bit scary. Badalamenti’s soaring theme repeats throughout the film, and assists in creating a noirish, dark, yet romantic atmosphere. Clare Nina Norelli refers to the theme as “lush” and “soap-operatic”. His score is largely influenced by classical music, and quotes from Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. The classical motifs that are repeated within the score give the film a timeless feel, as though this is a classical Hollywood noir such as Sunset Boulevard or The Maltese Falcon.
The original score also features elements of blues and pop music, on tracks such as “Akron Meets the Blues”, “Honky Tonk Pt. 1” and of course “Mysteries of Love”. Badalamenti’s scores are diverse and eclectic, and each track is different from the next, with a few repeated motifs throughout. Norelli notes that Badalamenti also uses orchestral dissonance throughout the score, in order to unnerve viewers. Much of the music in Blue Velvet is unnerving and eerie. There are two versions of the song “Mysteries of Love” throughout the film, one of which has lyrics written by Badalamenti and Lynch and is performed by Julee Cruise. The song is associated with Sandy (Laura Dern), as it plays a number of times when she is onscreen. The instrumental version plays when she tells her dream about the robins to Jeffrey, and Julee Cruise’s beautiful, breathy version plays when Sandy and Jeffrey dance together at a party. This song (and Sandy herself) represent innocence, light, and sweetness – one side of the town of Lumberton, and the world of Blue Velvet itself.
“Through his lens songs that were otherwise innocent, even saccharine in their sentiment, are transformed into the anthems of the demented and the doomed” – Clare Nina Norelli
David Lynch is well-known for his fascination with 1950s Americana. Blue Velvet is filled with white picket fences, roses on front lawns, smiling children, small-town friendliness, and old-fashioned diners. Norelli writes that “…Lynch takes the pop Americana of his childhood and subverts it” – he is obsessed with small-town innocence, but is even more obsessed with the darkness hiding beneath the surface. The lightness represented by Sandy and her musical theme is juxtaposed with the darkness of the town, where children are kidnapped and ears are cut off and women are beaten up in abusive psychosexual relationships. For every sweet-looking nuclear family, there is a tortured Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a violent, drug-addicted Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Policemen are corrupt, families have secrets, and sometimes the person being spied on is more dangerous than the spy in their closet.
One way in which Lynch expresses this juxtaposition of lightness and darkness is through the use of pop music. Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” is of course one of the most important songs to this film. After Badalamenti’s main title theme plays over the credits, the film fades in on a sunny neighborhood while Vinton’s dreamy song plays on the soundtrack. Everything appears sunny and happy until the camera reaches Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), Jeffrey’s father, as he collapses onto his lawn writhing in pain from a heart attack. The camera moves in closer to the ground, into the blades of grass, as the song fades further and further away and begins to be replaced by a low, rumbling sound. As the camera moves closer into the grass, the screen is filled with images of ants crawling all over one another, and the rumbling sound becomes mixed with the crunching sound of ants’ legs and bodies rubbing against each other. The sweet, romantic love song is replaced with something strange and terrifying.
The song appears multiple times throughout the course of the film. It plays diegetically later in the film when Jeffrey goes to visit Dorothy at her apartment, and of course it is performed by Dorothy herself at the Slow Club. Rossellini’s version of the song is slowed down and melancholy, befitting Dorothy’s personality. The song becomes less romantic and more desperate, much like Dorothy herself, whose son and husband have been kidnapped by Frank, while she is forced to submit to his every desire. The same song is heard four times throughout the movie, and takes on a different meaning each time. Vinton’s version suggest romance and sunshine, while Dorothy’s version suggests despair and secrets. Lynch is able to shift the meaning of the same song in order to display both the light and darkness present within the film.
Notice Mr. Badalamenti playing piano behind Ms. Rossellini
The other prominent pop song used in Blue Velvet is Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, a song which Frank is obsessed with. He implores his friend Ben (the amazing and wonderful Dean Stockwell – “here’s to Ben!”) to perform the song for him, and becomes so emotional during the performance that he stops Ben halfway through the song. The song is about longing for someone, and dreaming about being with them – a fairly innocent concept. But of course the words seem to become sinister as they are associated with Frank. He plays his cassette of the song again later when he takes Jeffrey out for a “ride”, and beats him up in the desert. It is a scene of classic Lynchian absurdity: Orbison’s angelic, romantic voice croons over Frank viciously beating up Jeffrey, while a strange woman dances on top of a car as if nothing is happening around her. It is darkly humorous, scary, and sad, all at the same time.
The candy colored clown they call the Sandman…
It is also important to note that both “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams” are performed by characters at various points in the movie, once again demonstrating Lynch’s sense of “sincerity in irony”. Performing songs (whether a cover or a lip-sync) calls attention to the performance of acting and the artifice of the film world, but this does not mean that Lynch is poking fun at the artificiality of cinema. Rather, music and performance are important to these characters, as it is how they choose to express themselves (although Frank expresses himself through the conduit of Ben). Characters perform in Lynch’s other works as well: Julee Cruise performs her songs at the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks, the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) sings “In Heaven” in Eraserhead, and Rebekah Del Rio performs “Llorando” at Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. Characters’ emotions are expressed through these performances, which are themselves often absurd and slightly sad.
One of my personal favorite songs in Blue Velvet is Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters”, which plays towards the end of the film as Jeffrey discovers the Yellow Man (Fred Pickler) and Dorothy’s husband (Dick Green) both dead in her apartment. Frank references the lyrics to the song earlier in the film, before he beats up Jeffrey:
“I’ll send you a love letter, straight from my heart, fucker! You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker! You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever!”
Once again, this is a simple love song turned dark and terrifying in the hands of David Lynch. The lyrics tell the story of a young woman who cherishes the love notes she receives from her romantic partner, yet for Frank, “love letters” are bullets meant to threaten his enemies. While the sweet and smooth song plays on the soundtrack, Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s (already pretty creepy) apartment to find one man shot in the head standing straight up, and another with his ear cut off, tied up with blue velvet shoved into his mouth. The song immediately takes on Frank’s meaning, and ends up seeming dark and strange. Even more unnerving is the fact that the song appears to be playing diegetically – as it gets louder when Jeffrey enters the apartment – but the volume stays the same even as the camera cuts outside to the police. The song seems to exist in the space in between diegetic and non-diegetic, furthering one’s sense of strangeness.
Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most masterful works. It is a perfect and terrifying neo-noir psychological thriller, full of Lynchian absurdity, darkness, and humor. Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, and Laura Dern all give some of the best performances of their careers. The widescreen images are gorgeously shot, and the sound design by Lynch and Alan Splet is meticulously crafted. The soundtrack perfectly combines lush and romantic classical score with orchestral dissonance and pop music used in unexpected ways. The music reflects both the light and the darkness present within the film, and the pop songs represent both romance and violence at the same time. The very last moment of the film shows Dorothy reunited with her son. As she watches him play, she stops for a moment and her sad rendition of “Blue Velvet” plays on the soundtrack: “…and I still can see blue velvet through my tears”. This is one final moment where Lynch suggests that even though things look happy, there may be more secrets lurking beneath the surface.
Related Topics: Music