David Lynch has always been obsessed with getting beneath the surface. From the start of his most famous film, Blue Velvet (1986), where the camera dived beneath a lawn to reveal a subterranean world of gigantic insects, reality in Lynch’s works always seems to be a cover for something more evil and monstrous. Mulholland Dr. is perhaps the apotheosis of this, taking the analytical eye to the extreme in its examination of fairy-tale Hollywood and its frightening underbelly. After a car accident, Hollywood actress ‘Rita’ becomes a confused amnesiac, adrift in Los Angeles. Concurrently, a young ingénue, Betty, arrives in Tinseltown keen to make her name. When the two women discover each other, they are drawn into an increasingly-disturbing fantasy, where the glossy veneer of LA is peeled back to reveal a nightmare world of mistaken identity, murder, love affairs and more besides. Can Betty help ‘Rita’ discover who she once was? Is everything as straightforward as it seems?
Inseparable from Lynch is his regular composer Angelo Badalamenti, who gets so little attention (outside his iconic theme for Twin Peaks) simply because his music is so intertwined with both the director’s soundscape and twisted visuals. One is faced with a similar challenge when taking a casual listen to the score for Mulholland Dr. The eerie, sinuous string/synthesiser lines that have earmarked all of the composer’s albums on the surface appear to have little going for them … but, as with Lynch’s own obsession with getting under the skin, there is much more going on than meets the eye.
Indeed, what becomes apparent on listening to this soundtrack is how well it blurs the line between traditional score and piece of sound design. Just as its rumbling sonorities in the film are sometimes barely distinguishable as music, the music on the album functions much the same way. Much of this, of course, is down to the influence of Lynch himself, who frequently describes himself as a ‘sound man’. These contradictions make for a surprisingly hypnotic and fascinating listen away from the film.
And then, of course, there are the cues that are completely off-kilter yet tuned into Lynch’s bizarre world. The first of these is ‘Jitterbug’, a funky jazz number set against the film’s opening mix of live action and animation. It is an oddly appropriate way to begin, hinting at decadence and mischief lurking beneath the surface.
However, tonally at least, it is deceptive; Badalamenti’s more familiar voice comes to dominate in ‘Mulholland Drive’: a brooding series of dark electronically-enhanced string lines, accompanying the credits sequence of ‘Rita’s’ car making its way along the titular road. Accompanied by Peter Deming’s lush night-time photography, Badalamenti and Lynch together set out their stall early in casting LA as a menacing landscape, both physically and psychologically. The theme (if it can be described as such) is the flipside to its more beautiful cousin in The Straight Story (1999).
Post-car-crash with ‘Rita Walks’ – as the character does so, confusedly, into the night – the score becomes even more unnerving: acoustic and electronic elements mirroring her confusion, the strings sinking lower into their registers. ‘Diner’ is quietly terrifying – the growling, rumbling electronics building to the seemingly-disconnected scene of a man coming face to face with the monster of his nightmares in Winkies. The briefest of contrasts comes in ‘Betty’s Theme’, a quietly-uplifting moment as Watt’s character arrives in LA, ironically triumphant in tone prior to the score’s plunge back into darkness, as she and ‘Rita’ come face to face with a Hardy-boys-style mystery.
Lynch though has always had an acute eye for absurdity and a dark sense of humour. The inclusion of Milt Buckner’s ‘The Beast’ should seem out of place but, as with ‘Jitterbug’, it speaks volumes about Lynch’s satirical focus – accompanying the scene where movie director Adam (Justin Theroux), frustrated at having a different actress cast in his movie, returns home to find his wife having an affair with the pool cleaner. The sly choice of song makes an ironically-jaunty mockery of the Hollywood dream, as Adam’s paint-fuelled attempts to ruin his wife’s jewellery result in little more than a bloody nose. Sliding comfortably back into a more mysterious groove is the main theme making a haunting re-appearance towards the end of ‘Dwarfland/ Love Scene’ as things turn increasingly weird. As identities are crossed and characters are confused, the composer, by using the title track to represent a new agenda, adds to the mystery by ‘merging’ Betty and ‘Rita’ during the notorious lesbian love scene.
As Naomi Watts’ formerly apple-pie, blue-eyed Betty performs a startlingly-bitter about-face in the film’s latter half, confusing our perception of her character, so Badalamenti mirrors our confusion with subtly-different musical textures. However, rather than overwhelm the score and film with multiple themes and motifs, it remains monothematic and consistent in its moodiness – from the sleazy noirish trumpet in ‘Silencio’ to the laid-back guitar vibe of ‘Pretty 50s’. ‘Diane and Camilla’ gives full reign to Betty’s identity crisis and is quite moving – the strings toiling with a mystery where the answer lies just beyond our reach.
Elsewhere there is more twisted humour in ‘Llorando’, an acappella version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’, and a grungy, vaguely-apocalyptic rock track, co-written with Lynch, entitled ‘Mountains Falling’: an apt title in mimicking the collapse of reason and logic in the film’s climax where things end on an eerie note, with a reprise of the main theme and its counterpart, the love theme, hinting at the inscrutable mystery we have tried our damndest to work out.
What is most remarkable is how Badalamenti plays the mystery admirably straight in contrast to the incoherent nature of the film, crafting a psychological tone poem and ode to weirdness that allows the listener to make up their own mind, just as the viewing audience is invited to. Deceptively bland, for those who are willing to dig deeper there are subtle delights to be found, but it is highly recommended that one watches the film first to hear the music in its proper context.
Studio/Distributor: Asymmetrical Productions, Studio Canal Universal
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire, Tony Krantz Screenwriter: David Lynch
Cinematographer: Peter Deming, Art Director: Jack Fisk
Composer: Angelo Badalamenti, Editor: Mary Sweeney
Duration: 140 minutes
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.