Before Twin Peaks redefined television and invented “the water cooler moment”, there was Blue Velvet, a film that turned the murder mystery on its head. There are similarities between the two, both are mysteries set in unassuming surroundings inhabited by extraordinary characters. Both towns possess a seedy underbelly that isn’t immediately obvious, but if you know where to look, it becomes all too apparent. They’re both plucked from the mind of David Lynch and they’re both soundtracked perfectly by Angelo Badalamenti.
Blue Velvet is, in fact, the first time that the pair worked together, with Badalamenti originally employed to be Isabella Rossellini’s vocal coach. After Lynch gave up on his idea of using This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren as the main theme for the film, he wrote the words for Mysteries Of Love and asked Badalamenti to write the music.
The song exists in three forms during the film, as an instrumental, a french horn solo and as a sung version that includes a haunting Julee Cruise vocal (Cruise of course would appear on the Twin Peaks soundtrack too with Falling). All three have a beautiful elegance to them, but there’s also something a little dark and threatening lurking beneath the surface, something that ties in perfectly with the bug infested underworld of the film. It’s hard to imagine just Lynch’s subsequent output would have sounded had Song To The Siren been more affordable. When people talk about something being “Lynchian” it’s not the images or plot they’re referring to, but often the music too and in this regard, there seems little to separate Lynch and Badalamenti, they worked as a team with music and image marrying perfectly.
Badalamenti’s interpretation of Lynch’s requests has always been spot on (it’s worth tracking down the clip of him talking about writing Laura Palmer’s theme under the Lynch’s direction). For Blue Velvet Badalamenti was asked for something beautiful and scary and that was a little like Shostakovich and there are elements of the 15th Symphony referenced in the soundtrack, but there’s plenty more going on here. The film noir menace that accompanies the introduction of Frank (Dennis Hopper’s phenomenally terrifying, gas huffing, ear severing villain) is perfectly judged and manages to reference both Jaws and Psycho. Lumberton USA/Going Down To Lincoln incorporates weird humming sound affects, advert interludes, chainsaws, gumshoe shuffles and menacing washes of sound to create something truly peculiar. By comparison the walking bass and shuffling Akron Meets The Blues seems positively straight-laced by comparison.
What made Blue Velvet so exciting, terrifying and different was its way of exposing the dark underbelly of town life, and its way of perverting almost everything it touched. Blue Velvet was a fairly innocuous song before Lynch put the song into the mouth of Rossellini and the material into the hands of the psychotic Frank; the juxtaposition of song and image conjuring something new from the Bobby Vinton classic.
The same fate awaits In Dreams, to which Dean Stockwell’s Ben lip synchs to the Roy Orbison song as Frank looks on, cycling through a range of emotions (awe, wonder, disgust, anger, hatred – they’re all in there at the same time). Once seen, it’s never forgotten, and the song can never be heard in the same way again. Interestingly, it’s perfect song for a Lynch film as his work so often exists in the realm of dreams, and Blue Velvet most definitely exists in the perimeters of dreamland. Even Ketty Lester’s Love Letters takes on a somewhat sinister edge thanks to Frank’s explanation of what a love letter is earlier in the film. “You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker! You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever. You understand, fuck??”
Now clocking up its 30th year, Blue Velvet still manages to retain a freshness and a vitality that many other films simply don’t possess. I’s weird dialogue, genre twisting plot, and incredible performances are still striking, as is the coming together of Lynch and Badalamenti. Open your ears (or just the single severed one, if you prefer) and let the pair of them crawl inside.