Fire, Dance With Me: David Lynch’s Audio-Visual Mastery
Throughout his five-decade film career, David Lynch has constantly refined a genre all his own. Whether he’s dabbling in noir-horror (the masterful ‘Mulholland Dr.’), surrealist whodunnit (the definitive water-cooler TV event, ‘Twin Peaks’), humanistic drama (the fittingly titled ‘The Straight Story’) or flat-out experimentation (his breakthrough film, ‘Eraserhead’), all of the Montana-born writer-director’s projects feel like small pieces of a larger work — individual specks within one massive pointillist painting.
So what exactly is that “Lynchian” quality, anyway? On one hand, it’s guttural, intangible — press pause on any Lynch film, even one you haven’t seen before, and it’s easy to spot his cinematic fingerprints — even if you can’t articulate why. Like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick or Jean-Luc Godard or Wes Anderson, Lynch is an auteur in the purest sense — he can’t not make a Lynchian movie, even when he’s stepping out of his comfort zone in terms of narrative content (see the sci-fi flop ‘Dune’) or visual style (the digitally shot ‘Inland Empire’).
But certain technical trademarks are impossible to ignore: detailed cinematography (the shadowed curtains in the ‘Twin Peaks’ red room scenes), bizarre dialogue (“Baby wants to f—!” from ‘Blue Velvet’) and — equally important — a distinct sonic palette. Think about your favorite Lynch scene: What does it sound like? Whether it’s the nightmarish industrial noise backdrops of ‘Eraserhead’ or the romantic synth pads of the ‘Twin Peaks’ theme (courtesy of longtime composer-collaborator Angelo Badalamenti), sound and music are crucial in creating his signature, sensually charged atmosphere.
Next week, Lynch fans can savor the new ‘Twin Peaks’ box set, ‘The Entire Mystery,’ which includes more than 90 minutes of deleted scenes from the ‘Fire Walk With Me’ film. To celebrate, let’s explore Lynch’s audio-visual mastery, looking back on some of the man’s most unique pairings of sight and sound.
‘Twin Peaks’ (particularly in its nail-biting first season) is one of the most enigmatic shows to ever air on television. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost built a nuanced, kaleidoscopic world within one small logging town; investigating the murder of prom queen Laura Palmer, coffee-fueled FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper chased dreams and hallucinations, zigzagging through eerie roadhouses, mysterious hotel rooms and hellish waiting rooms.
But can you imagine any of it without the music? Badalamenti’s iconic opening theme — with its lush synth-pad arpeggios and droning electric guitar tremolo, alternating between major and minor — sets the entire tone for the show, conjuring the appropriate balance between nightmare and nostalgic childhood memory.
Badalamenti created unique soundtracks for each area of the ‘Twin Peaks’ universe — like the R&R diner scenes, with their walking jazz bass lines and brushed drums. The sight of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) swirling in ecstasy to that jukebox texture is one for the TV time capsule.
Lynch left the show early in the second season, but his musical pulse remained. The man’s always had a thing for slow, waltzy, campy ballads sung in a doo-wop style — and this awkwardly lovable scene offers one such gem, with lead hunk James (James Marshall) serenading his two female loves on a living room floor with an (un-amplified yet somehow amplified) electric guitar.
One of Lynch’s greatest film scenes — if not the very greatest — is the climactic Club Silencio scene from his 2001 epic, ‘Mulholland Dr.’ Identity-crossed lovers Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) are seated in a creepy theater, watching Latin American singer-songwriter Rebekah Del Rio mysteriously singing “Llorando,” a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s brokenhearted ballad ‘Crying.’ As the vocalist falls to the ground, the backing track continues to play and she’s drug off the stage. It’s four minutes of spine-tingling cinematic brilliance, impossible to forget once you’ve seen it the first time.
Lynch has always romanticized the magnetic appeal of a beautiful woman singing a love song. From Club Silencio mimer Rebekah Del Rio to ‘Twin Peaks’ roadhouse crooner Julee Cruise, these female performers usually deliver tender ballads on a dimly lit stage, framed in a sensual cinematic halo — styled as old Hollywood sirens, singing into antiquated microphones. The first (and arguably the finest) textbook example is found in this standout scene from Lynch’s breakthrough film (and first collaboration with Badalamenti), 1986’s ‘Blue Velvet,’ in which victimized nightclub signer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) delivers the title tune.
On the more disturbing side of that same coin, this ‘Blue Velvet’ scene finds innocent small-town boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLaughin, later of Agent Cooper fame) encountering the maniacal, sex-crazed, gas-huffing villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) at a house party. A creepy man wearing a copious amount of make-up mimes the elegant Roy Orbison tune ‘In Dreams’ into a bulky microphone, swiveling to and fro as Booth mouths the words in silence. (“In dreams I walk with you / In dreams I talk to you” might as well be printed on Lynch’s business card.)
‘Eraserhead,’ Lynch’s feature-length debut, opened his singular career in 1977 with one weird-ass bang. Ultra-surreal and nightmarish even for his standards, it stars frequent collaborator Jack Nance (aka crazy-eyed Pete Martell from ‘Twin Peaks’) as Henry Spencer, a tall-haired, zombified apartment dweller caring for his mutant offspring within a cold industrial cityscape.
The film itself is a slow-moving beast, light on dialogue and heavy on abstract visual vignettes. The lack of plot allows Lynch to develop his skills as a sound designer, adding mechanical drones and buzzes to fill in the gaps. But the film’s most memorable aural moment is an actual song — the haunting, climactic lullaby delivered by the terrifying Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). “In heaven, everything is fine,” she sings, her wide eyes staring crazed daggers into the lens. “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.”
Some critics have attacked Lynch for depicting female characters as sex toys or helpless accessories (see the late Roger Ebert’s infamous pan of Blue Velvet), and while that argument isn’t totally without merit, Lynch doesn’t discriminate in gender stereotypes. While his female leads are often styled as glamorous, starry-eyed old Hollywood dreamers (like Betty in ‘Mulholland Dr.’), Lynch’s male leads frequently ooze testosterone, representing some kind of idyllic James Dean cool (Bill Pullman’s grizzled, disintegrating saxophonist in ‘Lost Highway’, the dueling Bobby and James from ‘Twin Peaks’).
Probably the most on-the-nose example is the relationship between on-the-run outlaws Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) in the 1990 crime-thriller ‘Wild at Heart,’ without a doubt the polarizing film Lynch ever made. Cage’s cartoonish performance is part Elvis Presley snarl, part generic biker-dude — a magnetic, love-to-hate-it (or hate-to-love-it) display of polarizing, dick-swinging American male id.
The musical highlight of ‘Wild at Heart’ is the climactic Good Witch scene. After Sailor unsuccessfully attempts to square off with a gang of hoodlums and gets punched in the grill (soundtracked by a blues-rock riff), the ‘Wizard of Oz’ character appears to Sailor in a trippy vision. “If you’re truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams,” she tells him, as sparkly synth pads ring out beneath.