film analysis & video essays
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Video Essays

The Musical Performances of David Lynch

In a majority of David Lynch’s work, he includes scenes where characters both minor and major sing or perform music, usually in front of a crowd. The purpose of the video essay was to juxtapose these performances, as well as the reactions from the audience within the film, in order to show the similarities across all of David Lynch’s work from Eraserhead (1977) to Twin Peaks: the Return (2017). The purpose of this essay is to further explain how he uses and includes these scenes, their role in the whole of each film, and the similarities and differences between his works.

To begin, David Lynch’s first film Eraserhead was made over several years in the 1970s. It follows the anxieties of new fatherhood, among other things. Henry Spencer, the new father, is kept up at night, terrified of his newborn, malformed son. While he is up in bed at night, unable to sleep, he enters his radiator, where he meets the Lady in the Radiator. She is on a round stage, lights around the edge. There are audience seats and a balcony. She sings to Henry. She dances around her stage, singing to him. Things fall from the ceiling. His infant son, dressed in a suit, sits in the balcony and laughs at Henry. He becomes decapitated. 

Henry meets the Lady in the Radiator twice in the film. Their meetings seem to be enlightening moments, metaphorically showing Henry’s anxieties—being a joke to his son, dying. The Lady in the Radiator’s words, “In Heaven, everything is fine,” seem to connote a belief in the afterlife, and that heaven is better than life on Earth. This can be read as his subconscious telling him that death is preferable to life—and it is this idea, and it is his interactions with the Lady in the Radiator, that lead Henry to cut open his infant son, killing him. The Lady in the Radiator’s performance occurs at a key moment of decision-making for Henry, while also metaphorically exploring his mental state.

The next Lynch film to include musical performance is Blue Velvet (1986), whose title is taken from the song written and composed by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris in 1950. In Blue Velvet, there are three musical performances. In the first, Dorothy Vallens, introduced on stage as The Blue Lady, sings ‘Blue Velvet.’ Jeffrey Beaumont, a college student returning to his hometown after his father’s stroke, finds a severed ear, and with the help of the detective’s daughter, Sandy, they begin to investigate, which they believe to be connected to Vallens. After posing as an exterminator to steal her key, Jeffrey and Sandy go to her club, and watch her perform. As Dorothy sings, Lynch cuts between Dorothy and Jeffrey, focusing on his intent expression as he becomes enamored and fascinated with this woman. They leave, and Jeffrey uses the stolen key to enter her apartment. He was already invested in solving the crime, but watching her performance adds a layer of sexuality, with Jeffrey becoming entranced by Dorothy. This is furthered by their next interaction, where she catches him in her apartment, and makes him undress in front of her. He witnesses Frank’s brutal meeting with Dorothy. He later goes to another performance of Dorothy’s, where again she sings ‘Blue Velvet.’ There, he sees Frank, holding a piece of blue velvet, and begins to follow him.

The third musical performance in Blue Velvet occurs later in the movie, after Frank finds Jeffrey with Dorothy. He takes Jeffrey and Dorothy to the home of Ben, his partner in crime, who has Dorothy’s son. There, Ben lip-syncs a performance of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams.’ Ben is framed in an archway, and uses a lamp as a fake microphone. The way he is shot, he looks like he is on a stage, performing for Frank and his cronies. The song sends Frank into sadness, and then rage. He takes Jeffrey and Dorothy and some of his cronies, and they leave. When he tries to sexually assault Dorothy in the car, Jeffrey stands up to him. ‘In Dreams’ begins playing again, and Frank has the car pulled over, and beats and intimidates Jeffrey. The Orbison song acts as a catalyst for Frank’s anger and behavior. Sure, Jeffrey’s behavior encourages Frank to beat him, but he wouldn’t be so angry if it weren’t for the song, which started his rage. 

Lynch’s next film, Wild at Heart (1990), contains a different kind of musical performance. Whereas in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet where supporting or minor characters sing, Lynch has Sailor, his leading man, serenade Lula, his girlfriend. The first performance occurs early in the film when Lula and Sailor go to a club, and Sailor starts a fight with a guy dancing on Lula. After Sailor wins, he grabs the microphone, instructs the band, and starts singing a heartfelt rendition of Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me.’ This is only the third scene after Lula and Sailor are reunited several years after Sailor’s imprisonment. Sailor’s song acts as an affirmation of his and Lula’s love. Even after years of being apart, he proves he will still fight for her, and declare his love in front of a crowd of people.

The second musical performance in Wild at Heart occurs after Sailor is released from prison, again. Lula, who had his child while he was in prison, picks him up, but Sailor tells her that he can’t stay with them. The movie ends with Sailor changing his mind after seeing a vision of the Good Witch. He runs back to Lula and serenades her with Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender,’ a final affirmation that their love is strong. Where the musical performances in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are coded to reflect the character’s inner emotions, in Wild at Heart the singing itself is the emotion, and the lyrics are literal. They are honest depictions of emotion from one main character to another, as opposed to a single singer to a crowd. 

In Mulholland Drive there are three musical performances. Two of them occur back to back, when director Adam Kesher is auditioning women for the lead in his movie. One actress sings ‘Sixteen Reasons.’ After her, Camilla Rhodes, ‘the girl’ who is supposed to get the part, sings another song from the same time period. During that performance, Diane Selwyn is brought into the studio, and she and Adam lock eyes. Lynch cuts between them in increasingly more extreme close-up. This is the first indication that Diane’s dream will break. She recognizes Adam, and Adam recognizes her. The two women singing are in sound booths with microphones, framed like they are on stage.

The last musical performance in Mulholland Drive occurs when Diane’s dream fully breaks. Diane and Rita go to Club Silencio, where they watch Rebekah del Rio sing a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying.’ Diane and Rita have a visceral reaction to the song, crying on each other’s shoulder. They’re shaken when Rebekah falls to the floor mid-song, but the music continues. The song prompts Rita to remove the mysterious blue box, and Diane’s dream is officially broken.

With Twin Peaks: the Return, fans were put-off by Lynch’s inclusion musical performances at the Bang Bang Bar. Nearly every episode ends with a band or performer singing one of their songs, including the Chromatics, Nine Inch Nails, Rebekah del Rio, and the Twin Peaks character, James Hurley, among others. These performances are accompanied often by mysterious conversations and interactions between characters. However, these performances are just a trend; they are one of Lynch’s motifs that occur throughout his work. With his previous movies, musical performances are accompanied by his main characters having epiphanies or making decisions.

Music offers his characters an opportunity to feel—they cry, they get angry, they fall in love. They separate a dream world from reality. They offer Lynch an opportunity to include music from the 1950s and 1960s, when music was cleaner, hearkening back to a time that most of the audience today cannot remember. A time that seems, on the surface, to be better than where we are now. Through Lynch’s juxtaposition of this music with modern horror, perhaps he suggests that romanticization of the past isn’t as clean as we’d like. 

Aaron Locke