[Blue Velvet] was the song that sparked the movie!
Blue velvet, red lips, sprawling, manicured neighborhood lawns; the transgressions that go on behind the closed doors of ostensibly squeaky-clean American suburbia; the mysterious melancholy behind a pop song written in the early 1950s: these were the things that inspired David Lynch to write Blue Velvet. Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont in the film, a young man who returns to his hometown of Lumberton after his father has had a stroke. Whilst walking home after visiting his father in hospital, Jeffrey comes across an ant-infested human ear in an empty lot and takes it upon himself to investigate the mystery surrounding it, resulting in his being seduced and almost destroyed by the seamy underbelly of the town. In his investigations Jeffrey is torn between two worlds, one of innocence and one of corruption, and it is a duality that is not only reflected in his romantic interest in both Sandy (Laura Dern) and Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), but also in the film’s soundtrack.
The song “Blue Velvet” appears in two interpretations within the film. Blue Velvet’s opening sequence presents slow motion images of red roses, a blue sky, white picket fences and an apple-red firetruck, all beautifully filmed and vividly colored, as if they were pulled from a dream or photographed through the haze of nostalgia. Over these images Bobby Vinton’s 1963 version of “Blue Velvet” is heard. His quivering vocals, which lament a lost love, each utterance of “velvet” coming on like a heartbroken sigh, croon over a lilting accompaniment and invests the montage with a melancholic character that immediately signifies to the audience that all is not as it seems. This is reinforced when we are then shown Jeffrey’s father having a stroke followed by the camera journeying deep into his lawn’s insectoid-ridden undergrowth. The song slowly fades out of the soundtrack and is replaced by a manipulated sound montage (no doubt co-created by Lynch and the wonderful sound designer, Alan Splet) that overwhelms and unnerves, rendering the otherwise unthreatening undergrowth dwellers monstrous and horrifying.
In Blue Velvet and many of his other works, Lynch takes the pop Americana of his childhood and subverts it. Through his lens songs that were otherwise innocent, even saccharine in their sentiment, are transformed into the anthems of the demented and the doomed. The disturbed Frank Booth (Dennis Hooper) loves mid-century pop music. He beats Jeffrey to the strains of Roy Orbison’s haunting “In Dreams” (1963) and threatens to kill him though a reference to Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters” (1962)—the bullets from Frank’s gun are his “love letters” for those who cross him.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Frank and his cronies take Jeffrey and Dorothy for “beer at Ben’s!” Dorothy’s kidnapped son is being kept at Ben’s (Frank’s underworld associate, played brilliantly by Dean Stockwell) and whilst she is off-camera visiting the child, Jeffrey, Frank and his gang watch as Ben mimes in a theatrical fashion to a recording of Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank follows Ben’s twisted pantomime intensely, mouthing the words with a concerned expression, before grimacing and shutting off the tape. For Frank, it isn’t just Orbison’s otherworldly wail that cuts deep, the song clearly has some painful associations, and elsewhere in the film “Blue Velvet” elicits a similar response. It is never revealed to us exactly why these songs affect Frank in such a way, provoking violent outbursts or his psychosexual abuse of Dorothy, but they hint at a vulnerability in his character. Perhaps they recall a lost love; an abusive childhood that was soundtracked by the croons of lovesick torch singers emanating from a radio or television set? Perhaps the very idea of love, as it is expressed in the songs’ lyrics, simultaneously fascinates and repulses Frank? Whatever his reasons may be, the otherwise contemptible Frank’s response to these songs allow for his fragile humanity to be momentarily exposed to us.
In her role as nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens, Isabella Rossellini was required to perform “Blue Velvet” with a jazz ensemble on the stage of Lumberton’s Slow Club. Rossellini had initially struggled with the song, to the point that one of the film’s producers, Fred Caruso, suggested to Lynch that his composer friend Angelo Badalamenti (who had experience in musical theatre and performing cocktail jazz at Catskills resorts) come down from New York to work with Rossellini. Lynch was initially reluctant, but as no progress was being made with Rossellini he eventually agreed to the producer’s suggestion.
Badalamenti spent a day with Rossellini working on an arrangement of the song, eventually settling on a style and key in which Rossellini could comfortably sing, and forwarded a tape of their work on to Lynch. The previously apprehensive director was immediately enamored with Badalamenti’s results with Rossellini, and the composer’s dreamy lounge version made it into the film, with Badalamenti himself even appearing in a cameo role as Dorothy’s pianist.
Lynch was so impressed by Badalamenti’s “Blue Velvet” arrangement that he was asked to score the entire film. Badalamenti’s lush soap-operatic theme soars and falls during the film’s opening credits, and elsewhere in the film his use of orchestral dissonance unnerves, as is heard in scenes in which Jeffrey (hiding in Dorothy’s closet) witnesses Frank’s abuse of Dorothy.
Of all the music Badalamenti wrote for Blue Velvet however, it is the song “Mysteries of Love” that is the most memorable. It has also led to a long-term creative partnership with Lynch. Lynch had originally wanted to the use the song “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil for Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, the rights to the song were too expensive for the film’s budget. It was suggested that Lynch write some lyrics and have Badalamenti set them to music in a similar style. Though Lynch was not particularly happy about having to substitute another piece of music for the song, he grudgingly agreed, writing a cosmic poem that was then given to Badalamenti. Initially, Badalamenti found the words difficult to set to music—there appeared to be no distinct meter or hook—but he worked with Lynch to create a pop song that was unlike anything being heard on mainstream radio at the time. Badalamenti then had his friend Julee Cruise perform the song, the singer reigning in her big musical theater voice in order to attain the subdued, breathy intonation required for “Mysteries of Love.”
The ethereal “Mysteries of Love” appears in scenes that involve Jeffrey and Sandy, their relationship and the song itself providing a counterpoint to the darker subject matter presented in the film. In one scene Sandy tells Jeffrey about a dream she had involving robins, explaining that there was an overwhelming darkness until hundreds of robins arrived, bringing with them “a blinding light of love.” As she describes the dream an instrumental version of “Mysteries of Love” is heard on a church organ, accompanying her as if she were giving a sermon. In the end her dream proves prophetic and love prevails, supplanting Frank and his gang and restoring peace to the town of Lumberton.
“Mysteries of Love” proved to be a turning point for both Lynch and Badalamenti. Lynch discovered that he enjoyed making music, and Badalamenti found a new collaborator and career in the world of film. Offered a record contract by Warner Bros. on the strength of the song, the pair then co-wrote and produced Julee Cruise’s album Floating into the Night (1989). A theatre piece Industrial Symphony No.1 (1989) that featured Julee Cruise soon followed, and Lynch and Badalamenti began to work on music for their most recognizable and commercially successful project to date: the soundtrack for the television series Twin Peaks (1990).
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.