“People call me a director, but I really think of myself as a sound man.” –David Lynch, quoted in Michael Chion’s David Lynch
David Lynch’s electro-pop album Crazy Clown Time has left a lot of music fans and critics scratching their heads. But, looking back at the filmmaker’s long history of re-purposing pop music in his films and other work, it’s possible that Crazy Clown Time is one of the least strange moves that the veteran film director, meditation guru, coffee entrepreneur, and amateur weatherman has made in his entire career.
This isn’t intended to be a complete list of David Lynch’s musical ventures, as a number of music videos, Lynch-penned compositions, and other collaborations have been left out. Rather, consider it a smattering of some of Lynch’s strangest, presented in chronological order.
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.
“In Heaven” from Eraserhead (1977)
Lynch’s history both as a musician and as a feature filmmaker begin here with Eraserhead. Following several mostly animated short films, Lynch received a small grant from the American Film Institute to begin what would become his first full-length movie. Filmed piecemeal from 1971 to 1976, itwas met with mixed reactions at festivals, but early championing from famous fans including David Bowie and Charles Bukowski helped Eraserhead become one of the midnight circuit’s most popular movies.
The various musical performances in Lynch’s debut come courtesy of the Lady in the Radiator, a charming, tumor-cheeked woman who appears to Henry in visions at several points in the film. The most famous of these is her performance of “In Heaven” (famously covered by The Pixies), a simple, yet creepy, little song written by Peter Ivers at Lynch’s request. (In another segment, The Lady in the Radiator performs a memorably stomach-turning dance where oversized sperm creatures drop from the ceiling and are squished under her feet.)
Sting’s scantily clad space prince in Dune (1984)
“I met David [Lynch] and I loved him. He’s a madman in sheep’s clothing, and I just felt I had to do the movie because I know he’s going to do something extraordinary.” -Sting in Rolling Stone Magazine #403, September 1983
“I didn’t even like the film, I don’t have a clue what it was about, it was very confusing.” – Sting to The Courier Mail, July 1985
Following the cult success of Eraserhead and the critical acclaim of his Academy Award-nominated Hollywood debut, The Elephant Man, Lynch was pegged to direct a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. (Lynch had recently declined George Lucas’s offer to direct Return of the Jedi.) Lynch’s grandiose vision for Dune would have resulted in a three-plus-hour film, which the studio cut down to a still-grueling 137 minutes. While more than a few distinct Lynch-isms survived the chopping block, the film that arrived in theaters was a convoluted mess and wound up being a huge commercial and critical flop.
Sting, fresh off the mega-success of The Police’s Synchronicity, appears in the film as the evil heir of the film’s villain, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. Sting appears in just a limited number of scenes, neon orange-coiffed and delightfully hamming it up in one of the film’s most memorable performances despite having to work with some questionable lines and even more questionable costumes.
“In Dreams” from Blue Velvet (1986)
Lynch bounced back from Dune with the smaller, more personal Blue Velvet. A mystery set against the dark underbelly of small-town America, Blue Velvet earned David Lynch his second best director Academy Award nomination and resurrected Dennis Hopper’s career with his turn as Frank Booth, the movie’s unforgettable gas-huffing villain.
Teenage sleuth Jeffrey Beaumont finds himself in way over his head when the dangerously unpredictable Frank Booth takes him along for a wild ride. Frank takes him to the home of his “suave” drug dealer, Ben, who lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” into an electric light. This sends Frank down an emotional roller coaster and prompts one of the most terrifying scenes in the movie.
“Blue Velvet” from Blue Velvet (1986)
Though far less disturbing than Dean Stockwell’s performance of “In Dreams”, Isabella Rosselini’s nightclub performance of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” has become one of the film’s most iconic scenes. With her sensual allure and an evening of song, beleaguered nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens pulls the young Jeffrey Beaumont irrevocably into her dark world.
David Lynch initially brought in Angelo Badalamenti to serve as Isabella Rosselini’s voice coach for this scene, but wound up finding one of his most frequent collaborators in the composer. (Badalamenti appears as the piano player in this scene.)
Julee Cruise – Floating Into the Night (1989)
Rights issues prevented David Lynch from using a This Mortal Coil cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” in Blue Velvet. Unable to find another song that conveyed the same feelings, Lynch penned the lyrics to “Mysteries of Love”, which composer Angelo Badalamenti set to music. Lynch asked for a singer with an “ethereal” voice. Badalamenti suggested Julee Cruise, whom he had met in a theater workshop. The results play in Blue Velvet over a sweetly emotional dancing scene.
David Lynch and Badalamenti were so impressed by “Mysteries of Love” that they signed on to produce Cruise’s debut album, Floating Into the Night. All of the album’s lyrics were penned by Lynch, with music by Badalamenti. The album (which charted on Billboard in 1990) featured several songs that would later appear in Twin Peaks, including “Falling”, a wordless version of which became that series’s theme song.
Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1989)
Following the success of Blue Velvet, The Brooklyn Academy of Music approached David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti to produce a 45-minute stage production to open their New Wave Music Festival. The pair agreed and put the entire show together in just two weeks, creating imagery to pair with several of the songs they’d written for Julee Cruise.
Presented only twice in November of 1989, the original production starred Cruise, as well as Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, with whom Lynch was currently filming Wild at Heart, and Michael J. Anderson, who would go on to fame as the diminutive, backwards-talking Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks.
“Love Me” / “Love Me Tender” from Wild at Heart (1990)
David Lynch juggled a wide variety of projects in the late 1980s, perhaps the quickest to get off the ground being Wild at Heart. Within six months of being given a copy of the Barry Gifford novel that served as the film’s source material, Lynch had wrapped shooting on an adaptation that strongly showed the filmmaker’s bizarre stamp and contained more than a few less-than-subtle allusions to The Wizard of Oz.
Starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as Sailor and Lula, outlaw lovers on the lam from both law enforcement and a contract killer, Wild at Heart calls back to Elvis Presley’s acting career without once actually vocalizing the singer’s name. Nicolas Cage musically breaks into songs made famous by Presley at two points in the movie: first in a version of “Love Me” that Sailor sings to Lula after pummeling a kid senseless in a bar fight and second (and even more bizarrely) in a rendition of “Love Me Tender” that’s sung under the credits.
“Mairzy Doats” from Twin Peaks (1990)
The TV series Twin Peaks, which ran for only two seasons on ABC, would wind up being one of Lynch’s biggest cult successes. Though initially based around the central mystery of who murdered teenager Laura Palmer, the small logging town of Twin Peaks and its many bizarre inhabitants quickly became the star attraction, week after week. Twin Peaks explored the same weird American underbelly seen before in Blue Velvet, but mixed the extremely dark and often supernatural elements with a surreal and twisted sense of humor.
Leland Palmer, father of the murdered Laura, spends much of the first season a grieving mess. His first appearance in season two, however, is a different (and surprising) matter. “Mairzy Doats” was a vintage World War II-era novelty song based around a seemingly meaningless tongue twister that becomes clear when you speak the lyrics slowly.
“Just You And I” from Twin Peaks (1990)
It’s not surprising that two of the strangest musical moments in Twin Peaks come from David Lynch-directed episodes. Early on in season two, James and Donna, friends and classmates of the late Laura Palmer, and her near-identical cousin, Maddie, gather to record a ’50s-style pop song. The song isn’t mentioned before this moment and isn’t referred to again, making the almost-random, three-minute performance one of the most inexplicable, yet surreally sweet, scenes in the show.
David Bowie in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Ratings for Twin Peaks took a serious plummet in the second season, as a move to a Saturday evening time slot and the resolution of the central “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery caused viewers to lose interest. Following the show’s cancellation, Lynch announced he’d signed a three-picture deal with French company CIBY that would include a spin-off prequel. The world of Twin Peaks would live on for one more feature film, despite several of the show’s lead actors declining to be involved.
David Bowie, an early fan of Lynch’s Eraserhead, appears in a very brief cameo as a disappearing special agent with a laughably terrible Southern accent. Bowie filmed his role in just a few days while rehearsing for his Tin Machine tour, and only this scene survived into the film’s final cut.
“Sycamore Trees” / “Questions in a World of Blue” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was a critical and commercial flop in the United States, perhaps because of its near incomprehensibility, particularly to those who hadn’t invested almost 30 hours in the TV show’s many threaded plotlines. To fans of the director, however, it could be seen as his most hallucinatory and surreal film since Eraserhead.
Many of Lynch’s trademarks are quite visible throughout, including his penchant for including on-screen singing. The first is a short appearance by “Little” Jimmy Scott, a jazz vocalist with a distinctively high voice caused by a rare genetic disorder that prevented him from reaching puberty, singing “Sycamore Trees”, a new song by Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.
The second is an in-film performance by Lynch’s frequent musical collaborator, Julee Cruise, singing the Lynch and Badalamenti composition “Questions in a World of Blue”, which would later appear on her sophomore album, also produced by Lynch.
“The Mr. Peanuts Song” from On the Air (1992)
On the Air was one of two short-lived television shows from David Lynch and his Twin Peaks co-creator, Mark Frost, following the success of that series. Starring several of the smaller-role actors from Twin Peaks in the lead and filmed with much of the same crew, the old-timey throwback to 1950s live variety programming flopped in the ratings with only a handful of episodes making it to air.
While possibly one of the least Lynch-esque projects he’s attached his name to, On the Air played in the same world of innocent nostalgia that was turned on its head in films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Several pieces of music are fit into the show-within-a-show’s variety format, one of the most memorable being “The Mr. Peanuts Song”, sung by one of the show’s leads, coming to the aid of a disgraced puppeteer.
Michael Jackson’s Dangerous teaser (1993)
David Lynch directed the introduction to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous: The Short Films collection, and as far as 90-second pop music commercials go, they don’t get much Lynch-ier than this. Featuring flickering lights, industrial noise, and a dancing dwarf, this little-scene video packs a lot of directorial trademarks into a small amount of time.
This was the only collaboration between the director of The Elephant Man and the rumored purchaser of the Elephant Man’s skeleton.
Bill Pullman’s lunatic jazz saxophone performances in Lost Highway (1997)
“A 21st Century Noir Horror Film” reads the screenplay for Lost Highway, which Lynch co-scripted with Wild at Heart writer Barry Gifford. After spending several post-Peaks years out of the spotlight directing TV, releasing a book of photography, and in various producer roles, Lost Highway was Lynch’s gritty return to form as a feature filmmaker.
Centered around a jazz saxophonist’s delirious breakdown after the murder of his wife, Lynch uses a wide variety of methods to convey the character’s crumbling mental state. One of the most effective is the frantic and claustrophobic way he films the character’s sax performances(though it may be hard now to watch Bill Pullman’s crazed solo without thinking a bit of Ron Burgundy’s jazz flute in Anchorman).
Marilyn Manson and Twiggy Ramirez as porn stars in Lost Highway (1997)
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor had reached out to Lynch previously to direct one of his music videos but was unable to pin down the filmmaker. Impressing producers with his work on the Natural Born Killers companion soundtrack, Reznor was approached to reprise that musical compiler role for Lost Highway as well as composing a few original pieces of music for the movie. The final result was released on CD in advance of the film’s opening and featured tracks by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Rammstein, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Soundtrack contributors Marilyn Manson and bandmate Twiggy Ramirez have brief, almost-background cameos as porn stars in a snuff flick that’s viewed by the characters in one of the movie’s skeezier scenes.
“Llorando” in Mulholland Drive (2001)
“The music has to marry with the picture and enhance it. You can’t just lob something in and think it’s going to work, even if it’s one of your all-time favorite songs. The piece of music may have nothing to do with the scene. When it marries, you can feel it.” –David Lynch in his book, Catching the Big Fish
Initially conceived as a TV pilot that was later rejected by ABC executives, Lynch went back and shot additional scenes to turn it into one of his most critically acclaimed feature films, Mulholland Drive. The unusual production history of the film and the open-ended narrative structure, as well as Lynch’s typically surreal style, make viewing the film a hallucinatory and dreamlike feeling.
In all of the scenes listed here, Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish, a capella performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (retitled “Llorando”) may be the most haunting. Lynch had originally intended to use this song rather than Orbison’s “In Dreams” for Blue Velvet, but used it here instead after hearing Del Rio’s cover. At a critical point in the film, lovers Betty and Rita visit the mysterious and mostly empty Club Silencio. “No hay banda,” a performer announces; there is no band, yet we hear one. Any further description of this scene would be spoiling it for those who haven’t yet experienced it.
BlueBob is the musical collaboration between David Lynch and musician John Neff, Lynch’s sound engineer on several projects. The duo recorded and released a single self-titled album, a rough and dirty rock disc that had Lynch playing guitar upside down and backwards through a chain of effects pedals that could rival Thurston Moore’s.
A music video was released for “Thank You, Judge”, which featured appearances by Naomi Watts and Eli Roth, as well as both Lynch and Neff.
“Sinnerman”, “Imaginary Girl”, and “Ghost of Love” from Inland Empire (2006)
Shot without a script over the course of more than two years with a stable of Lynch regulars, Inland Empire remains Lynch’s most recent film. Here, for the first time since Wild at Heart, the filmmaker saves the weirdest musical moment for the end credits. The film closes with a Lynch-esque dance number set to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Sinnerman”, including a few of the director’s recurring thumbprints, from the blinking lights to a log-sawing lumberjack.
David Lynch makes his singing debut (without heavy distortion filters) for the soundtrack of Inland Empire, singing two original songs: “Ghost of Love” and “Imaginary Girl”.
Moby’s “Shot in the Back of the Head” music video (2009)
It doesn’t seem that unusual that electronic artist Moby and David Lynch would be email pen pals. As Moby describes it, he would occasionally send Lynch pieces of music that he thinks he would like. In the case of “Shot in the Back of the Head” from 2009 album Wait for Me, Lynch sent the song back with visuals attached to it.
Lynch’s animated music video interpreted Moby’s song as a surreal narrative involving a love affair between a man and a woman’s severed head.
Dark Night of the Soul (2010)
Dark Night of the Soul was a collaborative album written by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse and featured a wide cast of indie rock luminaries in guest appearances, including Wayne Coyne, Iggy Pop, Gruff Rhys, Jason Lytle, James Mercer, Black Francis, Julian Casablancas, Suzanne Vega, Nina Persson, Vic Chesnutt, and Scott Spillane. It included some of the last recordings by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt before their respective suicides.
A limited-edition version of the set came with a book that included more than 100 pages of photos taken by David Lynch. The filmmaker sang in two of the songs, including “Star Eyes”, which is below set to his accompanying photographs.
“Sound is almost like a drug. It’s so pure that when it goes in your ears, it instantly does something to you.” -David Lynch
In the end, when put into the context of a long and idiosyncratic career that’s included its fair share of left turns, an electro-pop album from David Lynch really isn’t a surprising move. Popular music has long played such an integral role in Lynch’s creative output that it may just be the logical next step.
Enjoy Crazy Clown Time, and try to have a good day today.