David Lynch: The Marriage of Sound and Imagery

Look up David Lynch on the internet and you’re bound to find a ton of adjectives describing both himself and his life’s work. Adjectives describing his work in any of these categories are filled with words such as surreal, weird, violent, unwatchable, abrasive, absurd, dreamy, difficult and frustrating. Even as a fairly big Lynch fan, I’d have to agree with most of these sentiments. Although, instead of becoming frustrated, the difficult aspects to his work tend to draw me in further. Besides the surreal imagery and dreamlike narrative structures of his on-screen work, there is another defining characteristic to what is typically coined as “Lynchian”: and that’s his extensive use of music and sound to create very distinct moods. Lynch and his musical cohort, Angelo Badalamenti, often collaborate on various projects to orchestrate just the right atmosphere to either match what’s happening on screen, or in some cases, lay campy pop classics over certain scenes for what can sometimes be a rather disorienting and foreboding experience i.e. Laura Dern having a vision of women dancing to Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” during a particularly unnerving scene in Inland Empire. Clearly, Lynch’s love for music and sound have always played a very prominent role in his career as a writer/director – and that much was clear from the very start with his first full length film, Eraserhead.


I’m not even going to begin picking apart this film’s various themes or underlying meanings, but I will say that the sound design for this film is hugely responsible for what makes this particular movie so beautifully unsettling. Following the HIGHLY surreal opening sequence, we meet Henry Spencer, the main character. We see him walking through what appears to be an industrial wasteland, complete with a constant mechanical drone punctuated with various whirs, clicks and buzzing that allude to massive pieces of machinery relentlessly working toward an unknown objective. As the camera follows Henry through this world of cosmic machinery, the droning gets progressively louder, creating an atmosphere that feels borderline suffocating. When Henry finally reaches his apartment building, and heads inside, we are now greeted with silence, which does absolutely nothing to alleviate the sense of anxiety that Lynch’s outside world instilled – quite the opposite actually. The rest of the film continues to follow Henry in his daily life. Periods of silence are broken by dogs barking viciously, a woman who may be suffering (in shrieks and moans) from a mental breakdown at the dinner table, and more droning machines in the background. In typical Lynch fashion, Henry also experiences several hallucinations sparked by the click-clack sounds of his apartment radiator – complete with one of the most bizarre song and dance routines that will be sure to plant itself firmly in your memory forever. Although one of his most puzzling films, Lynch definitely knew how to manipulate sound and silence to create one of the most anxiety-inducing environments on film.

Blue Velvet

This film is said to have  launched David Lynch’s career as a darkly surreal filmmaker, and established one of his most defining “Lynchian” motifs- the idea of the quintessential American small town with the dark underbelly. Although there are more than enough scenes in this film that truly get under your skin, there is one musical scene that never fails to give me chills. Lynch employs one notably popular song from the early sixties in this movie, and he uses it beautifully to underscore some truly awful events that are taking place just under the surface of this small town. Quite possibly one of the most memorable David Lynch scenes, has to be that in which Dennis Hopper’s drug dealer lip syncs and dances along to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Hopper’s drug dealer, with a makeup job that resembles a cracked porcelain doll, and an eerily calm demeanor, swaying back and forth to Orbison’s bittersweet voice, creates a truly dream-like (or nightmarish) vibe of an innocent world flipped on it’s head to reveal a world pregnant with thoughts of violence and disturbing secrets. Actually, you don’t even need to watch the scene in the context of the movie for the effect (although I would recommend the movie  to anyone), but the scene on it’s own is especially intense mostly for reasons I can’t even explain. And that is the beauty of Lynch’s work, combining elements of sound and visuals to create such a powerful reaction in his audience, for inexplicable reasons.

Twin Peaks

David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s dark soap opera of a quirky, Pacific Northwestern town turned upside down by the murder of a teenage girl, might be one of the best examples of how to perfect the marriage of sound and visuals on screen. One only needs to watch the opening credits of the show, which sets the tone for the rest of the series, to hear just how important music and sound is to Lynch’s art. Angelo Badalamenti’s 50’s inspired theme song, coupled with exterior shots of the Pacific Northwest and interior shots of saws cutting lumber (more industrial machinery), works beautifully to convey a very specific sense of time and place – one that can only exist within the fishbowl that is Twin Peaks. Brief moments of slinky jazz help to create a campy noirish vibe when being introduced to many of the town’s strange inhabitants. The campy jazzy feel works well throughout the entire run of the show, but nothing quite captures the true vibe of Twin Peaks like the sight of Audrey Horne when she is overtaken by some mysterious desire to dance, hypnotically to Badalamenti’s slinky jazz bells. Of course, the show has it’s dark side as well, and the music changes accordingly, creating some of the most sinister, downright evil pieces of music I have ever heard. And I have never seen the combination of music and dancing conveyed in such a way as it is throughout this show. These two elements, best embodied in the character of Leland Palmer, come together to express such a powerful feeling of loss, grief, and the numbness that can sometimes follow a traumatic experience. And we simply cannot forget singer Julee Cruise’s recurring cameo as the singer in Twin Peaks’ pub, where in one memorable scene, many of the major characters simultaneously break down in tears, all seemingly in tune with each other’s sense of overwhelming grief, as the music takes hold.

Mulholland Drive

This film starts off with a sequence in which Naomi Watts competes in a Jitterbug contest, complete with a swingin’ tune and quick glimpses of people dancing – only to segue into a much darker space, the Hollywood hills, the outskirts of the city of dreams. Now the movie really starts to take shape with Lynch’s ominous depiction of a lone black car winding its way down Mulholland Drive in the blackest of nights, with the addition of Badalamenti’s signature drone alerting the audience to the threat of impending doom. Just like Twin Peaks, this film is filled with various moments of shady character interactions, all done under the shade of mystery and intrigue. The highlight of this film comes much later, in the dead of night at Club Silencio. Again, Lynch employs the brilliant pop sensibilities of Roy Orbison, only this time sung by contemporary singer/songwriter, Rebekah Del Rio. The whole scene surrounding her performance is one brimming over with dread of the most intense nature. Del Rio’s performance brings such an arresting emotional quality to the entirety of it. Her rendition of Orbison’s “Crying,” with no musical accompaniment, is so raw and  heartbreaking, you cannot help but become transfixed. Her beautiful performance is cut short however, when she collapses on stage, revealing that she was lip syncing the entire time, and that it was all an illusion. Throughout this scene, Lynch intermittently cuts between scenes of Del Rio belting out notes and the two main characters crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason. Although there does not seem to be a clear reason behind this display of raw emotion, the audience cannot help but feel a powerful sadness welling over them, even if it is for reasons that lie just beyond understanding. Again, Lynch finds his sweet spot by utilizing particular visuals coupled with sound in order to convey these gorgeous moments that reflect universal human emotion.

Inland Empire

Lastly, we have Lynch’s last feature film, 2006’s Inland Empire. All I can say is that, to me, this is Lynch in his most raw form. Like music that can make you sad or nostalgic for no reason at all, this film evokes emotions in the same fashion. If you’ve ever noticed how emotions are heightened in dreams, then you have a good idea of what to expect from this film. Lynch works primarily from the subconscious here, and although the film goes off on so many tangents, it still feels like a cohesive whole. Lynch uses music here as a catalyst for human emotion. To be honest, there are scenes in this movie that are so emotionally overwhelming, yet I’m not remotely sure what is happening in terms of the narrative. The musical choices he makes, although puzzling when you first see the film, seem to meld themselves to the movie in such a way that you start to think the music does the primary job of telling the story rather than the actors. With his arsenal of sound and surreal imagery, Lynch gives the audience just enough context to form some kind of loose interpretation of what may or may not be taking place at any given moment, and the rest is up to us.

Although David Lynch’s work is probably not for everyone, in my opinion, it functions as the highest form of art. It may be a bit all over the place. It may be frustrating. It may be abrasive. However, in Lynch and company’s gifted hands, moments of beauty and truth are made clear through the power of sound and imagery.





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