Songs in the Key of Cinema is a bi-weekly look at the use of songs in film. We’ll explore how a piece of music fits within the context of a film as a whole, and we’ll cover the moments in cinema that were music to our eyes and ears.
Infamous for his abstract images, enigmatic narratives, and punishing sound design, master auteur David Lynch took a step back and let passion, sadness, and tears do the work in a scene in his iconic Mulholland Drive. “Crying”, as well as emotion in general, transcends the initial barriers of accessibility not only to the film itself, but reveals the indescribable power of the cinema.
Roy Orbison’s legendary song “Crying” was originally written by Orbison and Joe Melson for the album of the same name, released as a single in July 1961. Sounding not unlike much of the pop music of the era (heavily orchestrated, many an instrument sort of undermining the lyrics, in this writer’s personal opinion), it is Orbison’s swoony voice, paradoxically frail and strong that gives the track its power. It has that signature echo of falsetto from Orbison.
But, the blaring quality of its orchestrations seems a bit much. Leave it to Rebekah Del Rio to strip the song down to its purest form in a Capella cover in Spanish (titled “Llorando”) for Lynch’s film to bring out the song’s emotions in a manner Orbison did not.
Waking up from a dream, where the blonde wigged Rita (Laura Elena Herring) and Betty (Naomi Watts) head to the mysterious Club Silencio. “This is all a tape recording,” the emcee announces. “No hay banda… and yet, we here a band. If we want to hear a clarinet…” The emcee begins to introduce sounds and instruments and players performing, but not really performing. “It is an illusion.” And then, as Rita and Betty sit in the balcony, Rebekah Del Rio, wearing deep red lipstick and a tear made out of glitter, walks onto the stage to sing “Llorando”. She collapses towards the end of the song, but the song continues to play as she is dragged away.
David Lynch is no stranger to abstract imagery; his films often feeling like they put emotion to the side for formal experimentation (though, one could argue that many of his films evoke a singular kind of terror, such as the fear of fatherhood in Eraserhead). But, while Mulholland Drive might often be described as his “puzzle box” film (almost literally), Lynch reserves a moment where emotion matters more than playing with semiotics. The significance of “Crying” in Mulholland Drive feels much less symbolically rooted and more emotionally so. Lynch, in adoration of the medium he works, and rarely keen on ever explaining his films, allows this moment to break two kinds of barriers: language and perceived approach.
Del Rio’s a capella cover of “Crying” is emotionally potent, her voice charged with more passion and pathos than all the orchestration Orbison could ever want. The meticulous control of her voice is there, soaring over the balcony area where Rita and Betty sit, weeping. It isn’t only those two that cry: the scene, so mysterious and yet beautifully straightforward, feels lovingly executed, yet incredibly melancholy. Perhaps unlike previous songs I’ve covered, the fervor is palpable. And yet, it’s sung in Spanish. Unless one knows Orbison’s song by heart (or can understand Spanish fluently), the lyrics are foreign. But it doesn’t matter. David Lynch demonstrates the power of both cinema and music together, ephemeral but nonetheless meaningful. While the scene in its whole will certainly raise an eyebrow, it seems like it would be difficult not to acknowledge its power, even if one were not to gravitate towards Lynch’s art house tendencies. Not even that seems to matter, though, as Lynch’s close-ups on Del Rio, and Rita and Bett,y display human emotions that, despite the previous walls, allow a viewer to connect to the film.
Many new to David Lynch, or films of a certain kind in general, are so concerned with “getting” the film that they don’t allow themselves to be swept up merely by the film itself. Lynch himself doesn’t seem to like the idea of having to “get” a film, so he allows this to stun the audience in the only way he can.
Unconcerned with the obsessive need to understand every symbol behind one of his films, David Lynch inserts a moment that is not only pivotal to his work as a director, but perhaps as pivotal to understand the joy of film as watching Gene Kelly dance down the street in Singin’ in the Rain. “Llorando” transcends the barriers that would normally alienate an audience: language and aesthetic approach. It exists purely as naked, enthralling performance, demonstrating the entrancing power of emotion in film.