The architect of noir cinema is a master of turning your deepest, weirdest dreams into gripping art. Del Pike delves inside the murky world of the cult director and musician, looking at how he brings sound and moving image together with such chilling effect.
The undisputed Godfather of modern surreal cinema, DAVID LYNCH, has inspired generations of like-minded misfits since he unleashed his startling film debut, the beautiful nightmare Eraserhead in 1977. Since that release, Lynch has become as much an enigma as the films he produces, to categorise him as simply a filmmaker would be in some way to miss the point. As his prolific film career has progressed, he has utilised his vast bank of extra-curricular abilities to enhance and personalise his work, his more practical skills borne from the handiwork he was forced to carry out to fund Eraserhead, during long breaks in filming. From physically hand-building sets, including the unnerving furniture in 1997’s Lost Highway, to creating his own soundscapes alongside collaborator Alan Splet, standing mic in hand in vast factories and industrial workplaces.
Lynch is an artist too, and clearly not your average amateur painter. The 2007 documentary Lamp finds him painting a twisted branch yellow in order to create a grotesque deformed table lamp. Photography projects involve disturbingly framed, non-erotic nudes and rotting animal carcasses, whilst art experiments have included actually blowing up a cow, naturally. His 2014 exhibition of images The Factory Photographs, shown in The Photographer’s Gallery in London consisted of a collection of monochrome images of factories and power plants from Philadelphia to Nottingham, set against the low hum of his field-recorded industrial soundscapes.
Lynch’s appearance is as instantly recognisable as fellow eccentric surrealists, Magritte and Dali; with his shock of grey Orwellian hair, constant smouldering cigarette, tidy-suits and up-to-the-chin, button-down shirts, he is almost a work of art himself. The area that Lynch seems to have found most success in alongside his filmmaking has undoubtedly been his music. Where other great American directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola weave found music into their films to set an era or establish a mood with flourishes of genius, or, in the case of Tarantino, to exhume cool, Lynch takes the very same idea and runs amok with it. By linking carefully selected tunes and passages of music with his own compositions or with his musical associate Angelo Badalamenti, the scores of his films become as integral as the narratives.
To enter the world of Lynch cannot simply stop at a trip to the cinema, you are either IN or OUT – no compromise. An understanding of Lynch’s music is a requirement: within the enigmatic compositions and choices that Lynch presents exists humour, meaning, terror, grief and mystery.
Fans are currently experiencing this right now in the return of Lynch’s seminal TV show, Twin Peaks. Originally planned to air for just nine episodes, a disruption which saw Lynch walking out temporarily has led to a longer run of 18, with Lynch directing all shows (he only helmed selected shows in the original run). This has meant that the original plan to launch in January 2016 was severely delayed and the show returned in June this year.
In the time since the original series was aired, TV has played host to many imitators, M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines being a contender for closest homage, but the show has never been bettered. A true example of event TV, with the world on alert with speculation over who killed Laura Palmer, the prom queen washed up on the shore at the start of the first episode. At the time Lynch suggested that the first episode, a feature length pilot was an exercise in grieving and this is certainly the case. From the early scenes of Sherriff Andy crying at the lakeside through the elongated sequences of Laura’s weeping parents, the grief barely lets up. Badalamenti’s score creates an all-enveloping stage for the grief to play against. A suite of yearning arrangements that never quite accelerates beyond a moaning sway. The repetition of the themes does not irritate at any time, however, and the audience gradually becomes aware of each passage in relation to the character on-screen. A rhythmic pattern develops that enables the viewer to predict which passage of music will occur by a single establishing shot of a house or bar. The only respite comes in the school and police station sequences where a slow jazz swing comes mischievously into play, a tune which the audience soon realises heralds the much-welcomed interludes of dreamlike fantasy or twisted comedy.
That the Twin Peaks soundtrack was the centrepiece of a unique performance by American experimental noise-pop group Xiu Xiu at Liverpool’s Kazimier in 2015 with subsequent album, should not come as a surprise. With added electronica, their tribute is a luxurious experience. This followed up a singular Lynch event at the Barbican in London earlier that year that saw the likes of Stealing Sheep, Mick Harvey and Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth performing songs from Lynch films. The collection of Twin Peaks tunes reflects a dark-as-hell otherworld that has kept followers waiting for a quarter of a century to discover even more secrets within. The White Lodge in the show is a place in the pines where a dwarf dances and talks backwards, the ghost of Laura Palmer holds court and the iconic image of red velvet curtains and monochrome zig-zag flooring becomes the stuff of very real nightmares, all seen through the night terrors of FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Badalamenti’s scoring throughout these sequences, creates an unnerving experience that could only come from a collaboration with Lynch. Largely silent bar a sonic hum or lone bell, the silence serves to highlight the bizarre reverse dialogue. When the dwarf begins his hypnotic dance and Badalamenti’s Dance Of The Dream Man kicks in, a shuffling sax led jazz ramble, it is welcome relief and a reminder that humour is never too far away once more.
The Twin Peaks Theme (Falling) is a forlorn piece, bringing comfort to fans with each journey. Tinged with both sadness and hope, the piece, a collaboration between Badalamenti and Lynch muse, Julee Cruise, resulted in a vocal version which was a semi-successful single, bringing Twin Peaks momentarily into the mainstream. Cruise somehow resembled the lady in the radiator from Eraserhead, sans puffy cheeks, the product of another nightmare and her fragile vocals on Slowly Falling, reflecting the fragile body of Laura Palmer. Lynch enjoys nightclub settings which is where we first see Cruise singing her signature tune in the Twin Peaks Roadhouse. The sleazy places where these people meet provide a perfect backdrop for the sordid activities of the bar owners, local teenagers gone bad and small-town drug dealers. In the movie spin off, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch takes his bar-room music to extremes placing his own The Pink Room against scenes of drunken teenage sexual mis-adventure. More violent than Badalamenti’s contributions, the piece drones on for what feels like an eternity, drowning out the dialogue completely. DVD optional subtitles reveal that it is fairly nonsensical dialogue anyway. It is one of the most startling scenes in the film and a first watch is petrifying.
The new series of Twin Peaks has been a surprise so far, in that the constant Badalamenti themes have been noticeably played down, making way for lengthy score-free scenes. The tone of the show has changed dramatically as a result. The addition of a ‘guest’ artist playing out each episode in the Bang Bang Bar is an unexpected bonus. Very much in keeping with the style of Julee Cruise and the torch singers of previous projects, the likes of Chromatics, The Cactus Blossoms, Au Revoir Simone and Trouble (featuring Riley Lynch, son of David) have been a welcome element to the new show. As Lynch’s most popular work, the Twin Peaks musical project acts as a blueprint for the rest of his work and is a masterclass in how to bring all emotions to the fore with a range of startlingly diverse styles.
Eraserhead suggested immediately a life-long marriage of music as experimental as the images it accompanied. A work by Lynch, Alan Splet and Peter Iver, a symphony in churning machinery and grinding cogs. Leaning heavily on sampled tracks by Fats Waller, drowned out by the din of the Philadelphia factories, a world is created that is at once horrific, but, given time, addictive. The centrepiece of the film is the mesmeric In Heaven, composed by Iver and sung by the lady in the radiator, actress Laurel Near. Possibly Lynch’s signature tune given the weight of cult admiration the track has garnered, the song accompanies the iconic image of Near, placed centre stage on the recurring black and white op-art stage-floor (hand stencilled and painted by Lynch, obviously), velvet curtains à la White Lodge intact, performing initially a meek child-like dance, pausing only to squidge elongated sperm creatures with her heels. Her echoed, dis-engaged vocals beckon protagonist Henry Spencer to a death dance of sorts as he peers at her through his bedroom radiator. The song is hypnotic and irresistible and, despite her grotesque appearance, we are all drawn in. That the song has been covered by such luminaries as Devo, Bauhaus, Modest Mouse, Faith No More and notable Lynch fanatics, Pixies, is testament to the song’s charm.
It is difficult to measure how much influence Lynch had on his following features The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984) as this was his period of transition from indie darling to potential Hollywood player (thank god that didn’t happen) and was largely under the guidance of Mel Brooks and Dino De Laurentiis. While Dune was bizarrely scored by MOR rock balladeers Toto (it was the 80s), John Morris’ score for The Elephant Man is more in line with the Lynch ideal set up in his debut feature. The hurdy-gurdy Victoriana of the soundtrack immediately evokes the setting of late 19th century London and its foggy backstreets, but also recalls the smothered Fats Waller passages from Eraserhead: both films embrace the idea of carnival.
Lynch’s recognisable style came into play in his mid to late 80s period leading up to and including Twin Peaks. Blue Velvet (1985) was Lynch’s ode to Middle Class American suburbia and the flipside to The American Dream. Reflecting, to an extent, his own upbringing, he modelled the main character Jeffrey Beaumont (TP’s Kyle MacLaughlin) on a younger self and embraced the favourite movie genres of teen and noir. The combination of Badalamenti’s startling lush Hollywood golden age score mixed with 50s and 60s classics provided the film with a retro feel despite its contemporary setting. The title track, Blue Velvet finds Lynch’s future wife Isabella Rossellini crooning the song typically against velvet curtains in a seedy nightclub, predating Julee Cruise by five years. The song is given a sinister context as later we see Dennis Hopper’s evil Frank Booth stuffing pieces of blue velvet into Rossellini’s mouth during a harrowing sex act. Roy Orbison’s In Dreams with its disturbing “The candy coloured clown they call the sandman” lyric, is similarly made grotesque by the lipstick smeared Dean Stockwell’s delivery, in a hell-hole brothel, once again in front of tarnished velvet curtains.
The inclusion of bubblegum post-war pop is a recurring motif in Lynch’s films, notably in Mulholland Drive some years later, but his move into rural Americana in Blue Velvet’s successor, Wild At Heart (1990) packed a more disturbing yet humorous punch. Nic Cage’s rocky output has been at times unforgivable, but look no further than Wild At Heart to see what could have been. Based on the Sailor and Lula stories of American pulp writer Barry Gifford, the film sees ex-con Cage and his teenage girlfriend played by Laura Dern on a road trip across America’s Midwest. The heightened violence in the film, played against Powermad’s Slaughterhouse, brought new levels of disturbia to Lynch’s work, and gave Badalamenti a broader palette to work from. The soundtrack album mixed old time rock and roll from Gene Vincent and Them with modern work from Chris Isaak and Rubber City. Cage’s Sailor is based around the kitsch idea of an Elvis impersonator and he strikes the poses and curls his lip accordingly. Lynch makes Cage actually perform the Presley classics Love Me Tender and Love Me to create a fully formed love song to a lost age of American film and music culture.
It is not surprising given Lynch’s penchant for surprise that he stalled in embracing the cool in his music until middle age. 1997’s Lost Highway formed a catalyst for Lynch to show his acceptable tastes in modern popular music whilst allowing Badalamenti to supplement his already rich catalogue of scores with more beautiful arrangements. The film opens with a fender POV of a speeding tarmac against one of the director’s most inspired choices of non-original soundtrack music; Bowie’s I’m Deranged. The standout track from his Outside album from ’95 is a frantic, dark and haunting piece which reflects the mood of the film succinctly. The soundtrack also saw inclusions from Rammstein, The Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor, Barry Adamson, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails and the film included cameo’s from Manson and Henry Rollins. Perhaps the most powerful piece of music in the film comes from 4AD’s This Mortal Coil and their perfect version of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren. Played to a halogen drenched sex scene between Patricia Arquette and Balthazar Getty as they make out on white desert sands, the song is unfortunately absent on the soundtrack album.
Lynch’s induction into the world of self-penned and hip music appears to have encouraged him to experiment further with his own compositions. Fans had already heard glimpses of what was to come on the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, notably the previously mentioned The Pink Room, the ferocious A Real Indication and The Black Dog Runs At Night.
Lynch’s first commercial foray into recorded music came in the form of Blue Bob in 2001, a collaborative album between Lynch and John Neff. Two of the tracks, Mountains Falling and Go Get Some, appeared in Mulholland Drive the same year. Both tracks are exercises in metronomic mood music, the former incorporating distorted vocals that would come to typify his later solo work. A further collaboration with composer and concert pianist Marek Zebrowski in 2007, titled Polish Night Music, showed further scope to Lynch’s musical talents with a more focused sedate approach. The four lengthy tracks included Night: A Landscape With Factories, a more Lynchian title you could hardly conjure. The link with Poland was a follow-on from elements of Inland Empire, his three-hour epic of almost impenetrable surrealism the previous year.
In the same year, Lynch collaborated with Dean Hurley on a soundtrack to an exhibition of Lynch’s art and photography. The Air Is On Fire is categorised as a soundscape rather than a collection of songs and is the closest to pure David Lynch music as you are likely to find. Atmospheric airs with slamming doors and whistling winds dominate the recording and to close your eyes and drift away would be to risk an encounter in your own Black Lodge. 2009’s incredible Dark Night Of The Soul – a music/artwork crossover album with Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse – served as further preparation for Lynch’s coming solo debut.
2011 was Lynch’s breakthrough year in terms of gaining recognition as a valid player in the music world. Another Dean Hurley collaboration with vocalist Chrysta Bell on the This Train album, spawned the singles Bird Of Flames, Real Love and All The Things. The sound directly soaks up elements from all of Lynch’s previous works and clears the decks for his first bonafide solo LP Crazy Clown Time. A remarkable album that relies heavily on Lynch’s own distorted vocal patterns and bass heavy thrumming and drumming, provides a scary as hell insight into the mind of the musician. The lead single Crazy Clown Time, and its equally deranged video, show a man at the very peak of his creative powers and the Pinky’s Dream single with vocals from Karen O opened up his music to a wider audience. The album has been widely praised and is undoubtedly one of the factors in the re-appraisal of his music by contemporary artists that we have witnessed in recent years. His follow up, the equally outstanding The Big Dream (2013), inspired the stunning Lykke Li collaboration on the single I’m Waiting Here.
All of this work has shown Lynch to be one of the most multi-faceted artists of our time and this does not even include his work in advertising, music videos and meditation manuals. All hail the Dark Knight Of The Soul.