Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Popular Music in Cinema: Velvet Dreams

To improve or transcend a film scene using popular music is a difficult task - it often comes across as a cheap trick to manipulate or inject a specific emotion into the audience and rarely feels organic or true to the film's essence. David Lynch is a master of sound and the majority of his work includes a musical scene of some sense. Even if you regard or dismiss Lynch's general output as pretentious or over indulgent, it would be difficult to argue against his creative sound abilities.

Blue Velvet (1986) represents a moment of how popular music can be presented from a new angle to create deeper shadings within cinema and the music itself, as we are subjected to supposedly innocent sixties sounds and charmers, which are subsequently turned upside down to reveal a sinister edge.

Following our curious protagonist, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and his journey into the twisted existence of Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) led and controlled by Frank (Dennis Hooper) has been a series of wickedly surreal experiences and another one is ready to begin: Frank has gathered his gang of outsiders, plus Jeffrey & Dorothy to watch entertainer, Ben (sometimes playfully referred to as the Candy Colored Clown and portrayed by Quantum Leap's very own Dean Stockwell) perform his presentation of Roy Orbison's In Dreams. Below is an embedded video depicting the scene in question and whilst it surely cannot create the same impact as viewing the film as a whole, it will allow you a small taster of it's beautifully strange nature or alternatively (if you've seen the film before) an opportunity to re-examine this short musical moment.

As the song progresses, reflecting upon dreams, lust and the painful sense of the unattainable, the sadist Frank struggles with his inabilities to control such complex emotions. Frank is ashamed of the nude emotion which has briefly overpowered his projected persona - he cannot fathom or handle the exposure of such a public transcendental moment infused by a song's atmosphere. Consequently, despite our previous knowledge that this film is often bewildering, we are yet again (and further) caught off-guard, as we assess what exactly we have just witnessed - why has such an event had this effect on Frank?

Gentleman, Orbison admitted he was initially perplexed by the song's use and understandably protective of it's original intent. Thankfully after further viewings in the Travelling Wilburys tourbus, he appreciated the new lease of life Lynch had given his song. Roy Orbison's ernest vocal performances on the aforementioned In Dreams, Running Scared (a song which so perfectly describes the ultimate fear of rejection), Only the Lonely, Crying and You Got It are for this author, amongst some of the technically greatest and soulfully sung pieces of popular music. Few artists can take previously revered material and propel it to a higher or alternative yet great level and here, David Lynch achieves just that.

For further reading, check out non-Lynch devotee, My Floating Red Couch's largely favourable take on Blue Velvet.

Coming Up: Other than his splendid contribution to Danger Mouse and the late great Mark Linkous' music project, Dark Night of the Soul and other little tidbits, we (hopefully) await another David Lynch feature.
Roy Orbison died in 1988 from a heart attack, aged 52 - a fascinating life including his ability to overcome two tragic events, which killed his first wife and two eldest sons. His humility, vocal range and experimentation with popular song structure were and still are greatly appreciated.

Any thoughts on this iconic moment?
Any favourite uses of popular music within cinema?


  1. I'm so glad someone wrote a pice on this subject. I find myself enjoying almost every scene that features a popular song but I rarely respect it because of what you described. It's usually cheap and manipulative.

    I think the best use of popular songs (though not in their original form) can be found in Moulin Rouge.

    It's the same thing with classical music. It's difficult for a scene not to be elevated by a Mozart etc piece and not feel pretentious at the same time. Kubrick was very good at employing classiacl music.

  2. I haven't yet seen Blue Velvet, but I watched the embedded clip with Roy Orbison's song... It is truly fascinating. I enjoy watching a character's facial expressions and body language to really get a feel for what it is they are thinking/feeling/experiencing. The clip is strangely theatric and surreal while at the same moment showing something very grounded and real in the face of that Frank character. His mouthing along in the beginning of it shows how it really connects to something within him.

    I find myself disagreeing with James. I don't think using songs in cinema are cheap or manipulative at all. If cinema is truly supposed to be a reflection of ourselves, of society or what we dream we could be, etc, doesn't it make sense to use songs like the one in the above scene to connect to the characters, thus connecting with the audience?

    Favorite uses of well known songs within cinema? The only ones I can think of off the top of my head would be:
    "Buffalo Gals" in "It's a Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.."I Say a Little Prayer" in "My Best Friends Wedding" (please don't hate me! ha) or "Under Pressure" in Grosse Point Blanke.
    Oh, yes, and "Walk like a Man" in Heart & Souls is my favorite. If I had to choose, I would choose that one. Yes, I like music in cinema very much. I find it moving, honest and sometimes more reflective of a character's motivations than any dialogue available.

  3. "I Say a Little Prayer" in "My Best Friends Wedding"

    Totally agree!

  4. James...I take it back, in terms of My Best Friends Wedding, this is the best moment with a song:


    Forgive me for taking over the comment section talking about a movie we all aren't supposed to enjoy...but secretly do!

  5. I think James was agreeing that often filmakers use popular songs as a cheap ploy to buy emotion from the audience (and not for the films overall needs - yes I think it's important to connect to the audience but not if it disrupts a film's flow or ethos) and agreed, Kubrick was amazing with classical music.

    Be interesting to see what you'd think of Lynch Wild Celtic, it's an interesting journey to take!

    I'm considering making a series of this - depends if I feel any great urge to write about some more of my favorite uses of popular music.

  6. If the urge does indeed inspire you, it would be an interesting series to read! I see what James and you mean now.

    I'm always up for an interesting journey into the depth of cinema or the mind of a director. It looks like watching a Lynch film would be an educational endeavor. Looking at his list on imdb, I don't see any I've seen but then again that's not a huge shock to anyone! Ha.

  7. I'd say watch his feature films (not counting his Twins Peaks film and Dune) in this order:

    Elephant Man
    Blue Velvet
    Wild at Heart
    Lost Highway
    Mulholland Drive
    Inland Empire
    The Straight Story

    Anyone agree/disagree on such an order?