Like Ricardo Montalban, David Lynch knows how to use the human ear to control his audience. He’s the progenitor of aural horror, probing the depths of the vestibules to get at deeper, indiscernible anxieties. Any boob can throw a cat into the frame and blare a swollen minor chord to get you to jump, but Lynch doesn’t settle for such petty conveniences.
His dexterous use of sound as an irritator, an instigator of discomfort, has been the subject of bountiful discussion since Eraserhead infested midnight screenings back in 1977. The whirring and grinding of gears and machineries and the vacuous moan of the abyss are audible from the film’s opening moments. There’s nary a moment of silence as static and fuzz pervade the whole film: the baby-creature’s shrill mewling; the hiss of the radiator; the verminous din of puppies suckling at their mother’s teats. And, of course, there’s frequent Lynch consort Angelo Badalamenti’s sultry scores, which seem to slink in from some dank, dark recess—sleazy lounge music from Hell, maybe.
Lynch uses diegetic music in unsettling, absurd ways (he prefers the word “absurd” to “ironic”), amplifying horror by usurping it. He uses the same principle as the creepy child trope, making us uncomfortable by corrupting something seemingly innocent. The feel-good vibes of ’50s-tinged pop tracks clash with the feel-bad images of nighttime terrors. Whereas Martin Scorsese, pop music ironist par excellence, uses rock and doo-wop in the background or layers it over images like an all-encompassing aural blanket (think of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” accentuating De Niro’s macho persona in Mean Streets while simultaneously undercutting it), Lynch weaves the music into the narrative thread by having his characters sing or play the music in real time. These moments offer his characters brief reprieve from the hostile world around them, but in the end these moments of amnesty always betray their benefactors.
One of the lynchpins of his films is the musical number, a moment when the film seems to pause and a character sings or lip-syncs to a popular song. Think of the Woman in the Radiator singing, “In Heaven/ Everything is Fine,” while stomping on spermatozoa. Think of Dean Stockwell lip-synching “In Dreams” while Dennis Hopper watches in agony, trying to remember the words, trying to repress some ineffable pain. Or the Spanish a cappella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in an eerie underground theater.
Lynch began experimenting with the standout musical number as early as his sensory-assaulting first feature. As intimate as it is intimidating, Eraserhead goes ravenously after the eyes and ears, yet its director never loses control. Lynch lulls you into a false sense of tranquility with the cosmic opening before pulling a lever and sending you into that deep, dark abyss. Its protagonist Henry (Jack Nance) has recently become a father. His baby is ugly (though it still looks realer than the plastic baby in American Sniper), and maybe not even human. It cries all night, and its mother, unable to deal with the strident bawling, eventually leaves Henry and the baby. Henry hallucinates, and in his delirium seeks solace with the Lady in the Radiator, a spectral woman with bloated orbs for cheeks. She sings to him, assuring him that, “In Heaven, everything is fine.”
Already Lynch has set a precedent for his chronic infatuation with music. The two-minute song acts as a sort of hospice for Henry, but ultimately betrays him. The momentary tryst doesn’t end well, since Henry’s head gets lopped off and turned into a pencil eraser. The moment of peace is laced with apprehension from the start, as it suggests the various sexual relations Henry has had, and the end of Henry’s freedom (what those bulbous cheeks harbor is ambiguous, but given the film’s fascination with bodily fluids, one can certainly take an educated guess).
The dreamy, musical succor plays a more vital role in Blue Velvet, Lynch’s unflinching look at the seedy underbelly of small town America, warts on frogs on bumps on logs and all. Everyone in the sleepy town of Lumberton plays a conspiratorial role in the overarching plot known as The American Dream. From good old Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), all-American college boy and student athlete with a thick head of hair and pleasant smile, to his almost-girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern), whose skirts are of tasteful length and her hair conservatively taut, everyone does his or her part in perpetuating the appearance of gender-apt roles in small-town Americana. Even Frank Booth (Denis Hopper), a drug-huffing psychopath whose maniacal ramblings are almost as scary as his ferocious dry-humping, seems to put on airs: clad in black and purportedly a car aficionado (“A ride! That’s a good idea!”), he’s as American as apple pie and spousal abuse.
In the iconic “In Dreams” sequence, the most studied and analyzed scene of Lynch’s career, Frank essentially falls victim to the same daydream poison as Henry and his Radiator Woman. Dean Stockwell lip-syncs a would-be serenade to Frank and his cohorts. Stockwell croons while Frank looks on with ostensible longing, as if hypnotized by Stockwell’s gently swaying hips and the halation blooming about his ghostly visage. Frank looks momentarily at peace mouthing the words, like he’s trying to remember a dream, before abruptly grabbing his head in pain. The respite over, he offers one final barbaric yawp: “Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!” And then disappears.
Orbison’s song has been forever tainted by the image of Stockwell and Hopper basically having aural sex, but few ever talk about the song’s reprisal in the next scene, when Frank plays “In Dreams” while violently kissing Jeffrey, smearing crimson lipstick all over both of their faces. He stares into Jeffrey’s eyes and says, in a staunch, matter-of-fact way, “In dreams. I walk. With You.” Frank flaunts a masochistic, macho persona, but betrays his guise whenever “In Dreams” plays. He becomes genuine. In Orbison’s “In Dreams,” Booth finds solace and gets away from the crushing Americana of Lumberton.
After Blue Velvet, Lynch’s next film proper didn’t come until 1990, and to date it remains a sneaky unfamiliar piece within his body of work; a moment of such earnestness, such sincerity, and such unrepentant romanticism that it stands out like a severed thumb. Wild at Heart, Lynch’s most polarizing film (that distinction previously belonged to Fire Walk With Me, which has, in recent years, finally garnered appreciation as the brutal, beautiful monster it is) depicts the twisted love story of two unbridled romantics, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern). The film opens with Sailor stomping a man’s face and ends with Sailor serenading Lula. It’s Lynch’s feel-good flick.
Essentially a hastily-constructed hodgepodge of Lynch’s usual proclivities—Elvis, murder, lovers in love, rebel outlaws hitching cross-country in a big ’ol American car, the kind with chrome bumpers and ribbed leather seats—Wild at Heart would rank as one of Lynch’s few plodding, forgettable films, except it ends on an ostensibly happy note, which makes Wild at Heart a mutineer. Sailor, having previously told Lula that he would only ever sing Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” to his wife, breaks into song as the end credits roll over their faces and Lynch’s camera revolves around the pair. Sailor’s unusual marriage proposal closes out the film on a soppy note.
Devoid of the absurdist, ironic cynicism of its ilk scenes in Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, this magic moment remains the only time a musical scene has represented anything other than false hope and deceiving illusions in a David Lynch film. It’s his only film to put on its right blinker and actually turn right. Even Inland Empire, a beguiling three-hour experiment in standard definition video, uses music to unsettle, in the form of a group of buxom prostitutes breaking into a deftly choreographed dance to “Locomotion,” while Laura Dern watches in horror. But Wild at Heart settles for the literal. Like Henry and his unwanted child, you want to love Wild at Heart. A guy named Bobby says, “Sing, don’t cry,” and Wild at Heart takes his advice in earnest: it sings its heart out, but the tune is off-key.
Whereas Wild at Heart feels false despite its earnest intentions, Lynch’s best musical moments revel in pretense and use artifice as a reflector. No film has reveled in the glassy gleam of artifice more than Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive. From the dead-eyed, hair-sprayed Camilla Rose (“This is the girl”) to the seedy Silencio, the film holds up a smudgy mirror to the deceit of show business. While its bears only a passing semblance to Blue Velvet, the “In Dreams” scene does have the same feeling of nostalgia laced with arsenic. The film opens with a coterie of teenyboppers dancing rapturously before segueing into ominous synths and a lonely limo coursing the winding roads of Hollywood Hills. Badalamenti’s score acts as the viaduct between the omnipresent noise of Eraserhead and his own pop-score for Twin Peaks. There are two distinct musical scenes here, the first of which features a pair of doo-wop songs. We see a young woman, dolled-up, singing in close-up, but as the camera slowly pulls away back-up singers enter the frame. She’s in a recording studio. But the camera keeps pulling back, and soon the studio becomes a studio within a film set, wheels within wheels. It’s a simple in-camera trick, all done with just one shot, yet it acts as a decoder for the rest of the film. Instead of a dreamy soliloquy, as with Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, this moment is literally staged, and the actress has already been cast by a surreptitious, sinister man with a tiny head. Hollywood, the place of saccharine dreams: it’s as sweet as candy embedded with a razor blade.
The scene that acts as a root note around which Lynch wraps his entire symphony, and which emblemizes his entire career, takes place in Silencio, a sketchy, forlorn underground theater that would today appeal to the bearded masses of NYU’s graduate programs. After making love during a steamy moment of identity suspension, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Lara Harding) go to the theater in the thralls of night. There, an enigmatic man takes the stage. “No hay banda,” he says. “There is no band…it is a recording.” He throws his arms up, and wherever he aims, a muted trumpet sound emerges. “It is an illusion.”
He leaves. A young woman takes the stage, and Lynch moves in for close-ups. She steps to the mic and performs an a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Her singing has a profound effect on Betty and Rita, who both break down into tears. Her performance acts as a sort of spiritual sequel to Stockwell’s, exhuming from Betty and Rita the same kind of emotional response that Stockwell has on Frank. Again, a moment of solace turns treacherous: After several minutes, Lynch goes to a wide shot, and the woman collapses to the floor. Her voice continues to spill from the speakers, filling the theater. Men come to drag her body away, and the singing never stops. The singer’s voice lingers in the air like a fine mist, or ghostly residue. It stays with Betty and Rita, with us, as we exit Silencio, exit the dream. Like the freakish baby’s wailing in the dead of night and like Roy Orbison’s sanguine voice, it’s a sound that conjures images, not the other way around.
Henry’s DNA is splashed all over this scene, as well as the “In Dreams” scene. Frank, Betty, and Rita, the bastard offspring of Henry and the Woman in the Radiator, are all imbued with Henry’s desperate longing, his lonely, lustful solipsism. They all have Henry’s disease in them. That Frank is a drug-huffing rapist and Betty an aspiring actress doesn’t necessarily distance these characters from Henry; on the contrary, it binds them. None of them are what they seem, or what they want to be. “In Heaven” becomes, in essence, the most fucked-up baby-making music to ever stain American cinema. Henry’s a reluctant father to a deformed baby, and—through music—the unwitting father to some of David Lynch’s career-defining moments. That suave fucker.