Undertones: Volume 5
Removing the veneer of squeaky-clean suburban American life to reveal its seamy underbelly, David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet, is a modern masterpiece and perhaps the most crystallized example of Lynch’s filmic vision. Concerned with the misadventure of a clean-cut teen called Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) who upon discovering and subsequently investigating a severed ear becomes caught up in a creepy criminal underworld headed by the disturbed Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), Blue Velvet is also significant for being Lynch’s first collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti. With his knack for juxtaposing angelic melodies that border on corny with dark harmonies that are weighed with dread, Badalamenti’s sound was the perfect musical accompaniment to the world depicted by Lynch in Blue Velvet.
Badalamenti, who previously worked on film scores such as the blaxpoitation film Gordon’s War (Ossie Davis, 1973) and Law and Disorder (Ivan Passer, 1974), was introduced to Lynch by a friend on the set of Blue Velvet. As Lynch had been having trouble with the singing abilities of actress Isabella Rossellini (who plays nightclub chanteuse Dorothy Vallens in the film), Badalamenti was suggested as a vocal coach. After hearing a recording of the arrangements Badalamenti had written for Rossellini, Lynch was so taken by Badalamenti’s work that he asked him to score the entire film. Unlike many other filmmakers, Lynch worked very closely with his composer, going as far as to sit with Badalamenti as he was working at the piano and suggest what direction a melody or chord progression might take.
Blue Velvet opens with the camera panning from almost painfully bright white picket fences and red roses on a suburban street to a subterranean world where monstrous insects are found writhing under immaculately groomed lawns. Serving as a metaphor for the entire film, the sequence is then followed with the film’s title shown on a backdrop of blue velvet accompanied by Badalamenti’s “Main Title” cue. The rather anfractuous piece, oddly for an opening theme, is only heard one more time in the film and was influenced by the writing of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. According to Badalamenti, Lynch had been playing the works of Shostakovich on set and, in his idiosyncratically abstract style, had instructed the composer that the opening theme had to “be like Shostakovich, be very Russian, but make it the most beautiful thing but make it dark and a little bit scary.”
The progression of the film from almost being a pastiche of 1950s sitcoms to a sadomasochistic tale filled with Freudian intrigue is mirrored in the score via its implied nostalgic romanticism and evocation of a dark and sinister atmosphere through employment of low-register strings. The result is that the score hints at an underlying menace even in the most comforting of moments due to Badalmenti’s ability to create great tension in his listener. Describing his method for achieving this, Badalamenti explains, “It is not the top melody or even the bass, it is something in the middle that kind of rubs wrong, and is maybe even mildly dissonant. You hear it, but it is not in your face.” This compositional technique was used to great effect in scenes in Blue Velvet showing Jeffrey’s dealings with the underworld, those in which he interacts with the mysterious Dorothy and most notably those involving the town’s resident sadist, Frank.
In one of Blue Velvet’s most memorable scenes, Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy’s apartment and hides in her wardrobe while Badalamenti’s score cuts in and out of the soundtrack creating great suspense. Firstly a sustained dissonant chord is used when Jeffrey is almost caught by Dorothy after she is interrupted from opening the wardrobe door by a phone call from her kidnapped son, and is followed by long, low-register notes when she is observed whimpering on the floor. The score finally comes to a head when Dorothy, suspecting someone is in the wardrobe, approaches brandishing a knife. Here the score meanders in no particular key creating suspense as the viewer observes Jeffrey about to be caught. When Dorothy finally opens the wardrobe door the score climaxes and a resounding brass chord rings out, signifying Jeffrey has been caught and echoing Dorothy’s shock at discovering what she understandably perceives as a strange pervert residing in her wardrobe. As she interrogates Jeffrey as to his motives for being there, the score is incessant and mirrors her panic before stopping entirely when she seems resolved with the idea of making out with him. Soon the pair’s heavy-petting is interrupted by the arrival of Frank at the door and Jeffrey resumes his place in the wardrobe. As Frank, who proceeds to get high as a kite on what appears to be Nitrous Oxide, starts getting all Oedipal with Dorothy, Badalamenti’s score resumes the use of the long, low-registered notes to denote that there is something seriously messed-up with this guy. The overwhelming tension and dread felt whilst watching the scene can be largely attributed to Badalamenti’s intuitive scoring.
Blue Velvet also marked the first occasion in which Lynch and Badalamenti would collaborate to write their own unique brand of pop music, influenced by the teenage anthems of unrequited love heard in the 1950s and ‘60s. Lynch had initially wanted to use a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” by the band, This Mortal Coil on the soundtrack but given that would have set the film back $50,000 in synching rights, it was suggested that Badalamenti write a similar song instead. The result was “Mysteries of Love,” a simple sentimental song composed by Badalamenti with an almost naïve quality further accentuated by the evocative lyrics penned by Lynch himself. Heard in a scene between Jeffrey and his love interest Sandy (Laura Dern), the song is performed by the ethereal-voiced Julee Cruise and essentially sums up the overall meaning of the film — that there is darkness in even the most beautiful of things and in the end only love can truly save us from the horrors of the world. “Mysteries of Love” was the first of the pair’s collaboration on an original repertoire of pop songs that would appear in their subsequent projects and also on the solo releases of Julee Cruise.
With Blue Velvet, Badalamenti had created the perfect sound for Lynch’s vision of America. Both melodic and post-modern in its pastiche of American pop music in combination with the dark orchestral scoring of 1940s film noir, Badalmenti’s score adds much to the overall success of Blue Velvet’s interpretation by its audience. The collaboration between Badalamenti and Lynch proved a winning formula and in their next project, the television series Twin Peaks, the pair would explore further in their work the theme of decaying suburbia that was central to the narrative of Blue Velvet.