“Sing Hallelujah, Come On Get Happy!”: Performing Pop in the Worlds of David Lynch

In honor of David Lynch’s release on vinyl of his single “Good Day Today” (and our love of all things Lynch), Noise Narcs is posting on the music of, for, and about David Lynch this week. See our intro post (and claim of Lynch as a Philadelphian) here, and see the rest of the DLW posts here.

When thinking about the music in David Lynch’s works, the first element that comes to mind is, of course, Angelo Badalamenti’s composition. A close second is the director’s fondness for foregrounding his characters’ performances of classic, 1940s-1960s, pop.

“Twin Peaks”

Leland Palmer is the most conspicuous pop performer in the series. Actor Ray Wise’s manic performances of familiar and well-loved pop music brilliantly heightens the comedy and tragedy of Leland’s breakdown. An early and important example is his heart-wrenching dance with Laura’s photograph to the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”

But for a more exuberant performance, we fast-forward to the first episode of the second season, when Leland’s hair turns white. He sings the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats,” made famous by the Merry Macs.

Then later in the episode, at dinner with the Haywards, he makes a request — the Harold Arlen classic, composed in 1929, “Get Happy.” [Sinatra’s version of the tune, from his 1954 album Swing Easy!, is below.]

Blue Velvet

One of the most haunting and indelible performances in Blue Velvet takes place at the end of the scene where Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage pick up beer (“Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) and stop by Ben’s house. This revealing scene, as sexually- and violently-charged as any in the film, culminates in a performance from Ben (Dean Stockwell) who lip-syncs the wonderful, and complex, 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams.” It’s utterly transfixing, for us and for Frank. Here’s the NSFW (unless you use headphones) scene. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, watch the entire scene. Notice how Lynch foregrounds the sound effects of Frank popping in the cassette and Ben clicking on the light. “In Dreams” starts at 5:20.

This is another example, like Leland Palmer playing his “Pennsylvania 6-5000” record, where a character selects and plays their own recorded music. But in this case it’s Frank who starts and stops the recording, giving us another glimpse at the dynamic of his relationship with Ben.

Wild At Heart

Elvis Presley is an important figure in this film, a role model for its protagonist, though the King remains an off-screen presence, unlike in the Tarantino-penned True Romance. After Sailor (Nicolas Cage) gets into a fight at a metal show, he sings to Lula (Laura Dern) Elvis’ version of “Love Me,” the Leiber/Stroller song from 1954, recorded by Elvis in 1956. The amped up screams during Cage’s performance echo Elvis’ live version from his 1972 Madison Square Garden show. I love Sailor’s line to the band:

You fellas have a lot of the same power E had. Do you know this one?

Watch the scene here [embedding disabled]. “Love Me” starts around 2:20.

Afterward, this exchange:

Lula: Sail’, how come you didn’t sing me “Love Me Tender”? You told me that was your favorite love song.

Sailor: I told you I’d only sing “Love Me Tender” to my wife.

And we jump ahead to the end of the film, where — SPOILER ALERT — Sailor does just that, his performance of “Love Me Tender” a proposal.

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive contains two important scenes in which characters’ performances of pop songs are revealed to be illusory lip-sync jobs — as the Club Silencio emcee tells us, “No hay banda, there is no band,” and, “This is all a tape recording. It is an illusion.” This idea helps us to make some sense of the film’s plot, and serves as a main theme, one common to films about filmmaking, acting, and L.A.

First up is the audition scene. The director (Justin Theroux) has been told by sinister forces to cast their girl, or else, so a dark pall covers the scene from the start as we and Adam anticipate Camilla’s audition. This is thrown into stark relief by the bubblegum sound of Connie Stevens’s 1960 hit “Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)” and the bright, wholesome appearance of the actors. Camilla follows with Linda Scott’s 1961 version of the 1932 Kern-Hammerstein song, “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” “This is the girl,” Adam says, as bereft of voice and agency as the lip-synching actresses. [Watch it here to avoid the ads.]

The story hinges on another pop performance, this one at Silencio, where a woman appears to sing in Spanish a moving, a capella version of “Crying,” my favorite Roy Orbison song. In dramatic fashion, Lynch reveals that the singer has been lip-synching, but shows that artifice can indeed induce genuinely emotional responses — we see Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) rapt, with tears streaming down their cheeks. After this scene, the movie suddenly changes and, as in Lost Highway, characters and actors are flipped around.

David Lynch’s conpicious use of familiar pop songs has a disorienting effect on the viewer. Even the most squeaky-clean pop songs cannot come out unstained when performed, either sung or lip-synched, by characters who inhabit frightening worlds where sexual desire, violence, and madness are always bubbling up from below.

The Merry Macs, “Mairzy Doats” [Buy]
Frank Sinatra, “Get Happy” [Buy]
Roy Orbison, “In Dreams” [Buy]
Elvis Presley, “Love Me” (live at Madison Square Garden) [Buy]
Connie Stevens, “Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)” [Buy]
Linda Scott, “I’ve Told Every Little Star” [Buy]

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