An approach to the relevance of music in David Lynch’s masterpiece about the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula
*** This is an edited and extended version of an unpublished essay made for the University of Helsinki-Helsingin yliopisto, created for the professor Erkki Pekkilä and his subjet “Music in Films” (2014).
Fiction through music
Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?, says Sailor Ripley; the protagonist of Wild at Heart (1990), fifth movie in the filmography of this American auteur, and one of his most remembered stories. Actually, it is a pretty accurate quote if we consider the universe of David Lynch (Montana, 1946): among it, we can find examples of sound or image tracks that reflects elements which are important in their movies, and this one is quite a good one. Lynch is well known for his surreal and twisted stories or his particular vision of human relations, its inner world and emotions that are usually a plethora of references to the past, violence and dream-like scenarios. His style has become unique and easy to recognize, due to the many leitmotifs you can find not only in the visual aspect but also in the sound. The relevance of the music and the sound itself in this movie is crucial for the narration, as in any other lynchian motion picture. And this fact would not be possible without the talent of Angelo Badalamenti (New York, 1937), the American composer who has made the score of almost all of his movies, including Wild at Heart.
Actually, music has, when it comes to filmmaking, a very special role. It can lead the narration by becoming one with the image, synchronizing with every shot. Music can communicate with the audience, one can know what to expect –or cannot, if the intention is to surprise you- and express feelings, thoughts. It can suggest a possible action or make reference to the past –sometimes even without any image, any flashback-. Although dialogues and the visual aspect are as important as music and sounds, the audience can receive almost unconsciously essential information about the story and its development, even faster than with the other elements.
Following this main idea of musical scores as an inner and primal guide to tell a story, Wild at Heart can be consider indeed really sensitive to the analysis. Therefore, we will begin by now a brief but intense interpretation of the music through its diegesis, where Lynch’s cinematic imagery and Badalamenti’s particular style get together –one more time- to give us crude, disturbing, magical and beautiful experiences. But before that, in order to have a better idea of how the music affects this story in particular, we will talk a little about the plot.
This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top
This is one of the quotes of Lula Fortune, the female protagonist. Certainly, Wild at Heart is a story about love and death. Even though it is not difficult to define this movie between some genres like thriller, crime or even comedy (as for its black humor or irony), it is more accurate to consider it as a road movie. We see the two main characters, the cursed lovers Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) escaping to California in their car throughout the whole movie. As a matter of fact, it is an example of the “new” road movies that appeared in years before the Millennium Wave, such as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) or Ariel (Aki Kaurismäki, 1988): stories about antiheroes, outsiders or crazy couples that try to get through their issues in a living hell. This depiction of an unfair and self-destructive American society is also presented in older road movies like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) or Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). Besides, one relevant detail about the film is its many references to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), a fantasy/road movie story which references are not included in Barry Gifford’s pulp novel from 1990 of the same name, that Lynch adapted into a movie. Some of these allusions are the image of Lula’s mother as the Wicked Witch -which repeats several times through the film-, Lula putting her red heels together, the apparition of Glinda the Good Witch in a bubble or the mention of Toto the dog and the yellow brick by secondary characters.
The story starts with a short but crucial event: after years, Sailor is released from jail, where he ended up for killing the man that Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd) hired to eliminate him. Lula meets him outside the prison and gives him back his most precious belonging: the snakeskin jacket. Despite of the fact that they know Lula’s mother will seek them using his boyfriend, the detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), they decide to break Sailor’s parole leaving North Carolina and running away to California. What they do not know is that Marietta also hires Santos (J. E.nFreeman) -a dangerous hitman who is mysteriously involved in Lula’s father death- to kill Sailor, and he will use all his strange and sinister partners to help him fulfilling the job.
Sailor, Lula and the music on the road
In order to analyze the use and presence of the music in this feature film, it is needed to go through the whole story, so that we can have the chance to understand with more accuracy how the music affects each scene. The following tour will show us how Lynch and Badalamenti have accomplished an outstanding symbiosis of what we see and what we hear.
With this purpose in mind, it is indeed necessary to remember the subjectivity of this task, as music can be felt or interpreted in many ways depending of the individual who is experiencing it.
. Powermad’s “Slaughthouse”, the main song in the movie.
In the very beginning of the movie we have and element pretty frequent and always important in Lynch’s movies: the fire. While we see the fire in the credits, we also listen to “I’m Abendrot”. After the burning credits, we are introduced to the bar-restaurant Cape Fear, somewhere near the border between North and South Carolina. We see the place, a really fancy, stylish old bar, with people wearing dresses and suits. The music is the one who transport us to this atmosphere of a vintage, classy party. To be more precise, it is an intense trumpet, of a song that reminds us of the bohemian world of the 50’s (a decade certainly very loved by Lynch). It is Glenn’s Miller’s “In the Mood”. Even though what we see looks old, we are not sure if the music comes from the party or if it is part of the background music, because we see no source, but then comes the audio dissolve which makes the song non-diegetic and starts the dialogue between Sailor and Bobby Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge), the guy hired for Marietta to kill him. The music goes down slowly until it stops completely and in the same moment Bobby Ray tries to stab Sailor with his knife and Lula scream in desperation. Here it starts the rock music, “Slaughterhouse” of Powermad, a powerful and violent song that only appears in the moment of the fight until Sailor kills his murderer. After that, with the killer’s corpse in the ground and everyone staring at it with surprise and fear, the first song comes back, and we can enjoy the 50’s feeling again. After this, Sailor is sent to jail.
The next shot is a totally different scene, pretty lynchian: a crystal ball were we have Sailor inside, behind bars, and a woman hand with black nails, we could call her a witch, that pass her hand through the ball, as sort kind of spell casting. There we can read 22 months and 18 days later while a weird and disturbing music invade the image track, suggesting something bad or uncertain.
Upon Sailor’s release, he and Lula meet outside the prison, despite of the total refusal of the mother, who cannot conceive the possibility of her daughter being with Sailor. Lula arrives to the meeting and hands her beloved the snakeskin jacket, his “symbol of individuality and belief in personal freedom”. There, they talk and arrange going to Cape Fear again and attend to a Powermad’s concert in Hurricane. When they get into the car, we listen again to the same song, “Slaughterhouse”, just when they are determined, totally sure about their lives. The song continues while they are having sexual relations in a hotel, where the filter turns red and the image track a little blurry.
Immediately next to that song we have another one, a pretty quiet and nice diegetic song played from the radio that Sailor is holding with his feet, while he is doing exercise, this song stops in the flashback when Lula remembers she being raped by her uncle Poochi, years ago. Then, the dialogue with Sailor continues and the radio song, soft but clear, comes back. She has another flashback of Poochi’s death in a car accident and the song stops again. After that, Lula feels a laugh in her head, a crazy, feminine, evil laugh and felt awkward and confuse. We see here for the first time in the movie the fire in Lula’s head, and its particular sound that summons evil and death. While she kisses Sailor trying to forget, we perceive how the song in the radio gets louder as Sailor gets closer, then he takes it off his feet and she hears the vicious laugh again.
Now we have two flashbacks that come almost simultaneously and talk about the same moment: the day of the party in Cape Fear, before Bobby Ray tries to kill Sailor. First is Marietta’s thought. We listen again to the non-diegetic 50’s old song of the party that dissolves when Lula’s mother enters to the men’s toilet looking for Sailor and asks him to perform sexual intercourse together, which he refuses. That is followed by a scene of Sailor and Lula, where is his turn to remember and he continues Marietta’s memory. In the flashbacks, every time they are in the bathroom arguing, the music of the party stops.
When he proposes Lula to go dance at the Powermad’s concert, she starts to stamp on the mattress really fast, excited and “Slaughterhouse”, the speed metal song, begins while we see her naked feet moving on the bed. The image track then changes and the feet in the bed transforms into shoes of people dancing at the song –which now we can hear almost completely, because in the other cases was just the beginning-, in Powermad’s concert. It is worth mentioning that the real band is there as part of the story and such fact intesifies the relevance of that song. Now that they show us its origin, it has become part of the diegesis. As the music and dance continues, we witness something quite strange: after he sees someone approaching to Lula, Sailor stops the band from playing just by raising his hand. Then, he asks them if they know Elvis Presley and starts performing the famous “Love Me” with Powermad: he sings while the band plays the music and the sing as a chorus, and everyone applauds. It is unquestionably one of the most surreal situations in the film.
An accurate observation by this time of the movie is the palpable homage it pays to the “King of Rock and Roll” through Sailor. Nicolas Cage’s way of talking, moving or even dressing resembles a lot to the King, particularly in the Jailhouse Rock times, and in the aforementioned scene we can tell that even Cage’s singing sounds like Presley’s. After all, showing a preference or longing for the 50’s has always been a trademark in Lynch’s work.
Then we have another sex scene with a colored filter, this time yellow and with a dream-like score that creates an oneiric atmosphere. An audio dissolve ends the scene to introduce us to the sound of fire and Sailor’s cigarette. The music is important also when it comes to alert or scare us, like in the flashback they share, the one of the fire in Lula’s house, were her father dies. There, we listen a frightening music that only belongs to the flashback, while we see Lula’s father running all over the house on fire. It is indeed weird and awful at the same time: the dark soundtrack intensifies that presence of a bad feeling, and also we can hear the sounds of the fire and the house falling to pieces.
After that, in Marietta’s flashback, we see again Sailor the day of the murder in Cape Fear and listen to the beginning of the non-diegetic “Slaughterhouse” again. It is the third time we see this and it is confirmed here the leitmotif between Sailor, Lula and this song.
Later on, we have another alternate sequence of scenes. One is of the couple driving. They have decided to ignore Sailor’s probation and drive straight ahead to California. We listen to a happy and upbeat piano that is diegetic because of the car’s radio. On the other hand, we have Marietta and the contract-killer Santos negotiating the murder of Sailor and the capture of Lula. Each time they appear, a constant and dark sound joins them, one of a terrifying depth, like from beneath the earth: it is Penderecki’s “Kosmogonia”, performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which switches to jazz piano every time the scene turns to the protagonists, the pair of lovers.
We have also one secondary character, Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard), a wealthy criminal who’s always immerse in luxury. We see him having a phone conversation with Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie), one of Santo’s partners. Again another character that comes with an specific song. As soon as Juana hang up the phone and we see him in the frame, this classic melody arrives, a nice violin that make us think of high class or wealth. Detective Johnnie owns a tune as well. Every time we see him on his car driving, chasing the lovers, we listen to “Baby please don’t go”, performed by Them. He seems to be constantly in a rush, following Marietta’s orders, his beloved. The lyrics of the song -which probably comes from the radio of the car and is therefore diegetic-, if we pay attention to it, may reflect the anguish of this weak and gentle character.
. Badalamenti’s “Dark Spanish Symphony”.
Music also creates a perfect atmosphere when it comes to context. For example, when we see Sailor and Lula sharing their sex experiences. We have there a concert, where we see Koko Taylor, the artist herself, making a cameo, singing “Up in flames” (another theme created by Lynch and Badalamenti and of course, fire related): I fell for you like a bomb. Now my love’s gone up in flames… It is a scene where lust and passion awaits. This is followed by a shot from the highway with “Slaughterhouse”. They are going back to the hotel. There takes place another sex scene between the couple, again with purple/pink/yellow filters but this time with “Be-Bop A Lula” by Gene Vincent.
One relevant purpose for the music in film is the unexpected: its pact with the story in order to surprise us scare us. We see this through the few times we see Marietta invaded by chaos, struggling to accept the responsibility of the future dead of detective Johnnie, his boyfriend, by Santos. We listen to a powerful and short -as the scene itself- music while Marietta is full of red make-up in her face, resembling blood, screaming in despair. The scene is full of suspense and surprise, with a background music that breaks the previous atmosphere, like a lightning.
The music on the scene of the gas station is also interesting. It is a source music that comes from the radio of the Afro-American man who is listening to it happily and stares at Lula with tenderness. It is a song that pleases you, a relaxing afternoon mood that adds levity, like the one we see on image track: “Smoke Rings”, performed by Glen Grey.
. Penderecki’s “Kosmogonia”.
One more time, we have Powermad’s “Slaughterhouse” in the middle of the highway, where Sailor plays it in the car’s radio and they stop the trip to star dancing and kissing, but it turns to another song when they hug tenderly, a score more soft and romantic.
Certainly, most of the time, the scenes that alternate important parts of the movie, have a specific dialogue underscoring. The scene of Sailor and Lula driving at night, when he reveals he was present in the fire that killed his father years ago, has “Wicked Game” in the background, a beautiful song by Chris Isaak. Its lyrics talk about love and its issues, just in the moment when this confession starts to make Lula quite insecure about their relationship. We see a short flashback of the fire again, this time with the evil laugh of the The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch as a non-diegetic sound. While this is happening, Santos capture detective Johnnie and plots with his twisted minions to arrange his death. Here we have again “Kosmogonia”, now as a shocking score. Then, we go back to the couple driving at night, with “Wicked Game” still as background, but this stops when they find a girl who is seriously wounded after a car accident. There are clothes, blood and corpses on the highway. They try to help her but the girl died in their arms, which upsets Lula, who considers this as an omen of bad luck, of an uncertain, future pain. After they are back to the car, we listen to “Wicked Game” again, once they are inside. There is indeed a connection: after the dark incident, they go back to their thoughts, about themselves and what is right or not, with the car and “Wicked Game” as visual and sound leitmotifs, respectively. It is worth noting that this famous song -along with another one later on also from Isaak, “Blue Spanish Sky”- are played without voice, only instrumental, as Lynch considered the lyrics would be in conflict with the dialogue.
Before detective Johnnie’s demise, we have Santos’s partners in crime, Juana and her lover Reggie (Calvin Lockhart), torturing him. The scene starts with a mad scream of Juana, followed by a dialogue underscoring full of madness, a weird melody that makes us think of tribal music or a spell casting, something dark and unknown: it is “Far Away Chant”, performed by African Head Charge. Juana’s sister, Perdita (Isabella Rossellini), also has her own tune, “Perdita”, by Rubber City, in the scene where Sailor meets her to ask her about his suspicions of people hunting him. It is a slow and soft song that brings some romantic mystery, just like Perdita, who is as beautiful as enigmatic: we do not know if she is really saying the truth, and her face is as uncertain as her words. Only she knows.
. Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”.
Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), one of the most horrifying and disturbing characters of the movie, appears along other twisted creatures with a non-diegetic intro song that takes us back to a classic western genre, as if something dangerous is about to start. It settle us to expect the action.
In the hotel’s room, where the couple is staying, Lula remembers the time she was raped and reveals Sailor she is pregnant. She is afraid of the entire situation they are into and has doubt about having the baby. While she thinks, we hear again the evil laugh of the Wicked Witch, always as a meta-diegetic sound, only for Lula.
Even though Sailor does not trust Bobby Peru, he convinces him to go and steal the feed store in Lobo, but this turns up in a big failure: Peru tries to shoot Sailor revealing himself as one of Santos’s men, then kills some cops and commits suicide by accident. Sailor goes to jail again. Five years, ten months and twenty-one days later, he is released from prison and meets Lula and his son, Pace, who he has never seen. “Dark Spanish Symphony (50’s version)” performed by Rubber City starts as dialogue underscoring, suggesting a calm atmosphere, hope after hell, but goes down until it stops when Lula starts feeling awkward and doubtful. A non-diegetic jazz song starts when Sailor walks alone, after leaving her thinking he is not good enough for her, and it is surrounded by a gang who beat him up.
Then, through his unconsciousness, he receives the visit of the The Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) in a bubble, who appears in quite a deus ex machina situation, with dream-like music that intensifies the feeling of oneiric magic. It is indeed like if Sailor in dreaming now. She brings Sailor a revelation of hope and freedom: Don’t turn away from love, Sailor. If you are truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams. Sailor walks up and screams Lula’s name. Now he is totally sure about himself and about what he wants. The fear is gone, so as the Wicked Witch’s curse. We listen to “Dark Spanish Symphony (String version)” while he walks through the cars in the traffic looking for Lula and Marietta screams in her room, lonely and defeated. Her picture in Lula’s house vanishes, suggesting her failure and the end of the spell. While all this happens, we keep listening to the beginning of this background score, hopeful music that brings the possibility of a happy ending. It makes us have no doubt about Sailor’s finding Lula and their son. When they finally meet, he stand into the car -the same they have used in their failed road trip- and start singing “Love Me Tender” of Elvis Presley -earlier in the story he told Lula that he would only sing that song to his wife-. Lula stays next to him, happy while the credits start to roll. Here the song seems pseudo-diegetic: it is singed by Sailor but we also listen to the chorus and the instruments. And after all, it all turned out well for our apparently doomed protagonists. Fin.
. Nicolas Cage performing “Love Me Tender” at the end of the film.
Sing. Don’t cry.
We have talked about some of the most relevant examples of Wild at Heart where the movie seems to work specially supported by the music. The film indeed has an intense use of image track but they would never be as strong as they are without the music.
Although we have important visual leitmotifs as Sailor’s snakeskin jacket -which he never had when he is doing or feeling wrong or unease- or the car itself, it is important for example to comment one leitmotif that could be considered as essential: the strong beginning of “Slaughterhouse”, the speed metal song played by Powermad. We listen to it in moments that define the couple -particularly Sailor- stability and spirit: when they are in the car, when Sailor proves to be a man and defends him or Lula, when they are together dancing freely and being one. Like the jacket, this song is for Sailor -but also for Lula- a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom. It is really interesting and meaningful for the diegesis of the movie how this song becomes part of the identity of the protagonists.
On the other hand, one relevant element, maybe not as recurrent as “Slaughterhouse”, is the laugh of the Wicked Witch, which really suggests bad omens and transmits confusion and fear.
Such is the music in Wild at Heart, one of the best works in Lynch’s filmography. Whereas is a background music in the landscape, with the mad couple singing, or a diegetic music that comes from a source or is singed or played by someone; it is always the core of the scene. It leads the way, because it prepares us for what is coming, or intensifies the mood of certain scenes to predict our feelings. Whatever we feel, it is always influenced first for the impression that music generates on us.
In this twisted, tragic, dark but also funny story, the significance of the soundtrack and its score have no comparison: every single song adds to what we see on screen. This movie would not exist without its music. Its significance becomes one with the scenes, and they develop perfectly together. Wild at Heart is the music.
The Soundtrack (Produced by David Lynch, Peter Afterman, Diane DeLouise Wessel):
- Richard Strauss: Im Abendrot (excerpt) 1:47
- Powermad: Slaughterhouse 5:22
- Angelo Badalamenti: Cool Cat Walk 3:27
- Nicolas Cage: Love Me 2:56
- Them: Baby Please Don’t Go
- Koko Taylor: Up in Flames (lyric by D. Lynch, music by A. Badalamenti) 6:16
- Chris Isaak: Wicked Game 4:07
- Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps: Be-Bop a Lula
- Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra: Smoke Rings 3:03
- Rubber City: Perdita (music by D. Slusser and D. Lynch) 4:13
- Chris Isaak: Blue Spanish Sky 3:59
- Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Spanish Symphony (edited, String Version) 2:36
- Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Spanish Symphony (50’s Version) 2:43
- Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Lolita 2:16
- Nicolas Cage: Love Me Tender 3:00
. CARYN JAMES. The New York Times Archives: Film View. Wild at Heart. 1990.
. The British Film Resource – The Films of David Lynch – Chapter 4: Wild at Heart.
. JAMES WIERZBICKI. Film Music: A History (Routledge, 2009).
. DANIEL GOLDMARK, LAWRENCE KRAMER and RICHARD LEPPERT. Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (University of California Press, 2007).
. The City of Absurdity: Wild at Heart Soundtrack.