Blue Velvet

On first seeing Blue Velvet in 1986, David Lynch’s fourth feature became one of those rare movies that I instantly judged as a classic. I once even went to watch it one afternoon a few years later on a double bill with David Cronenberg’s The Fly at the Glasgow Film Theatre and then went back that same night for more. The only time I’ve ever did this.

Many believed my enthusiasm was misplaced. Roger Ebert awarded it a one star review and railed against the onscreen humiliations heaped upon cabaret chanteuse Dorothy Vallens played by Isabella Rossellini. The New York Post branded it as ‘one of the sickest films ever made.’ In Britain, a disgusted Mark Kermode stormed out of the cinema before the film had finished.

It’s still a damn fine watch over thirty years later, albeit not as absolutely batshit crazy as it must have struck me on its initial release. Compared to Mulholland Drive, say, it’s almost mainstream viewing, a pretty much straight story.

Seeing it again this week brought up some interesting what if scenarios?

Recently I spoke on here about a documentary on Harry Dean Stanton called Partly Fiction. Here the actor talked about how David Lynch had originally considered him for the role of Frank Booth.

The part eventually went to Dennis Hopper, a man whose career had seemed to enter a decline due to his drink and drug abuse and subsequent reputation for hellraising. Lynch was warned against hiring Hopper by a number of friends but once he discovered Hopper was sober he had no hesitations in bringing him onboard. Hopper’s Frank went on to become arguably the most grotesquely maniacal villain ever appear on the big screen.

Much as I rated Stanton as an actor, I just can’t imagine how he could have bettered the performance of Hopper. You just can’t imagine him ever reading the script and declaring to Lynch, ‘I have to play Frank because I am Frank.’ And Harry Dean Stanton would have been unlikely to have ever hit on the idea of Frank huffing nitrate oxide.

Blue Velvet - Frank Booth

Next up, David Lynch originally envisaged the part of Dorothy Vallens going to Helen Mirren but she turned it down. Instead, he met Isabella Rossellini for the first time by chance in a restaurant, not knowing who she was. ‘You could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter,’ he reportedly said to her when they were introduced. A matter of days later he decided to opt for Rossellini, who at this point was best known as a top model rather than an actor. She had only a single-acting credit on an American movie, 1985’s White Nights, where coincidentally, she shared screen-time with Helen Mirren.

Over the years, Mirren has won numerous awards for her acting, an Oscar, two Emmys, a Golden Globe and between 1992-1994, she scooped three Baftas in a row. Rossellini, on the other hand, has a couple of Razzie nominations. Okay, to be fair, she’s also bagged a couple of relatively minor awards herself.

So, who would have been better for the part?

Somehow Rossellini is perfect as the dazed and very, very confused Dorothy. She oozes vulnerability and mystery. Where does she come from? We’re never told. In the Mysteries of Love documentary that is included in the Blu-ray package of the film, Lynch noted that in his mind now, Rossellini is the ‘only possible Dorothy’ and while I’m sure Helen Mirren would have excelled too, I have to agree.

Isabella Rossellini - Blue Velvet

Finally, while Blue Velvet was in pre-production, Lynch heard a version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren by The Cocteau Twins (under the name of indie label 4AD’s musical collective This Mortal Coil). He fell in love with it and rates the song as one of the most beautiful ever written, an assessment I wouldn’t disagree with.

According to Jeff Aston in his book on 4AD, Facing The Other Way, as the film was being shot Lynch and Rossellini would always be listening to the song before shooting a scene.

And not only did the director decide he wanted to use the track, he also envisaged Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie miming it on stage during the party scene where Jeffrey and Sandy dance, kiss and avow their love for one other. As a big fan of the band at this point, I don’t think this was Lynch’s best ever idea. In Glasgow they were already playing largish venues like the Pavilion and Barrowlands and why they would end up playing some get-together for the straightest teenagers in the world is beyond me, a notion that’s strange even by Blue Velvet standards.

In the end, lawyers acting on behalf of the Buckley estate demanded $20,000 for the song’s use, a figure that torpedoed Lynch’s idea due to the tightness of the budget. He says this broke his heart.

He was forced to improvise. And he had luck on his side.

Isabella Rossellini was no singer and had to be taught how to perform her icy cabaret take on Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet (a song that Lynch found schmaltzy). Things didn’t go to plan with this idea and producer Fred Caruso suggested bringing in New Jersey based musician Angelo Badalamenti to help out.

Result.

That man Caruso also suggested that Lynch use some of the little sentences that resembled lyrics that he would scribble down while on set and let Badalamenti use them to write a substitute track for Song For The Siren.

The odds of a first-time lyric writer and relatively unknown music composer coming up with a song that could replace one of the finest singles of the 1980s and possibly the greatest ever cover version were huge.

But Lynch was impressed by Badalamenti’s musical idea. Especially when he heard the tune titled Mysteries of Love being sung by Badalamenti’s pal Julee Cruise, who had been influenced herself by Liz Fraser’s puirt-a-beul meets post-punk vocal delivery.

So pleased was Lynch with the resulting music that he utilised it again in the film once Frank has been dispatched and Dorothy reunited with her son and not only that, Lynch also asked Angelo to score the film act as music supervisor and, as Dennis Lim said in his Lynch biography The Man From Another Place: ‘In Badalamenti, Lynch found a partner who could do with music what he so often does in his movies: push cliches to their breaking point and find emotion in artifice.

Imagine no Badalamenti and Cruise in Lynchland. It’s impossible.

The better track for Blue Velvet?

Fraser has been called the ‘Woman With the Most Celestial Voice in Music’ although Julee Cruise’s ethereal croon makes her a serious rival in that department. Both songs would have been equally spellbinding for the scene.

This Mortal Coil’s Song to the Siren went on to feature on Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997 although it didn’t appear on the film’s soundtrack album.

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