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Soundtracking: "Mulholland Drive"

by Chris Feil

I’ve talked a good deal in this column about filmmakers whose music is an essential piece of their cinematic identity, but seldom are they as elusively so as David Lynch. Blue Velvet took a classic sound to mirror the rot underneath the suburban American veneer. Eraserhead’s lady in the radiator. The immaculately perfect, “but-of-course” match of song and content of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” to Wild at Heart. And then of course, perhaps most definitive for Lynch, the polluted Americana of his magnum opus Mulholland Drive.

Drive’s musical landscape is rooted in a twisting of 1950s American perfectionist optimism, a staple of the Lynchian top to bottom aesthetic. Aided by the original score by Lynch’s frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, its music is drowning in an innocuous wrongness, critiquing the American “ideal” as it plays as something just left of center of that very image. It turns the uplift of midcentury doowop pop and polka sensibility into something vaguely sinister before its underpinnings, and with it the fallacy of the American dream, swallow us whole. We’re meant to feel uneasy that we sing along.

Lynch’s catchiest musical diversion comes in the form of Mulholland’s echoing starlet refrain, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”. Lynch always sparks to this brand of chasteness, making us stare into it until its rigid and performative femininity becomes a void that stares back into us. It’s a persona projected by Hollywood and reinforced in the home, an uberfemme of pristine upbeat girlishness. An unfettered image of perfection sold to teen girls and housewives as the goal, and Naomi Watts’ would-be starlet Betty and/or Diane bears the reckoning of reality. The touch of the sinister that Lynch reveals in the melody suggests the cruel psychosis that demands the unattainable from women to certify their value.

The use of the song centers around the search for an actress to fill the lead of some knockoff Peggy Lee biopic. “This is the girl”, the film’s enigmatic and iconic quote proclaims, both as a demand and christening. A search has ended and we’re about to be force-fed something into normalcy. She’ll be sweet and she’ll make the people dance. Or else. Dada dada dadadada dum.

The oddness becomes less veiled at Club Silencio, a freakshow nightclub that exists somewhere between the real world and Drive’s heroine’s nightmares. Here performance is more abstract, finding a core emotional truth unspoken between them that we won’t understand until the film’s close (if at all). But as torch singer Rebekah Del Rio takes the stage for a Spanish language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, we forget all subtext by sheer force of the musical emotion. Few directors can silence their film’s intellectual moving parts as resoundly as Lynch does here.

The tunnel vision of feeling here gives way to hidden layers beneath language, feeling, and history. It’s a bit of a mind maze to catch that it’s an Orbison track, a labyrinth that leads you back to the 50s sound (and Lynch’s fascinations) where we started. The awe Lynch creates hides the moebius strip of its two narratives, with music being the primary tool - if we’re not singing along, we find ourselves surprised to be crying.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (4)

Great piece Chris.

Hoping you can do some orchestral score retrospectives for us film score buffs.

August 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

I was literally just reading the chapters about Mulholland Dr in the Lynch auto/biography Room to Dream last night, and the best stuff was about the music and score. The story about being introduced to Del Rio and using her in the film is one of those great anecdotes about how the universe delivers. The book is great, and a must-read for Lynch fans.

August 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

Every time I watch that scene of "Crying", I fucking cry my eyes out. It is just so fucking powerful.

August 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

This is really powerful writing on one of my very favorite movies. Thank you.

August 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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