Legendary is often overused when it comes to film directors, but David Lynch may be one of a select few who can boast his title with well-deserved pride. From The Elephant Man to Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s body of work carries a mythos of its own making, leading many, including famed author Pauline Kael, to recognise the director as a true visionary. Sure, he’s also directed the original Dune, but that goes to show that everyone has an off day.
Blue Velvet is one of his more popular works, and like many of the films in his canon, it defies pigeonholing and genre classification. In one almost cabalistic scene, audiences are invited to sing beside the smoothing tones of Roy Orbison. The tune unites two generations of people, with the doe-eyed Kyle MacLachan and shabbier Dennis Hopper standing in amazement to the voice of the great performer. The song helped re-ignite interest in Orbison’s work -the singer had been experiencing dwindling numbers since the 1970s — and it may have been an influence on Orbison’s decision to join The Travelling Wilburys.
That said, Orbison was a little concerned by the depiction in the film, not least because it was used without his knowledge. “It is a beautiful song and it was written by Roy,” Lynch admitted, before conceding, “But I can see why Roy was upset because for him it meant a third thing.”
Nonetheless, it helped to introduce Orbison to a younger, trendier audience and ones who didn’t typically listen to schmaltzy 1960s rock. Decades later, Lynch was asked about Orbison’s influence on his work, and his answer demonstrates a genuine level of admiration for the songwriter. “I loved Roy Orbison from the first time I heard his music,” admitted Lynch, “And I kind of grew up with Roy Orbison.”
Driving in a taxi with MacLachlan (who would star in Blue Velvet), Lynch was reminded of the power that cements ‘Crying’, Orbison’s lovelorn fable and heart-wrenching vocal. “That could go in Blue Velvet,” Lynch mused, before electing to revisit a series of Orbison cuts. When he heard ‘In Dreams’, he felt duty-bound to use that track in the footage.
Considering the personal nature of the tune, Orbison was unsure how he felt, but opted to re-watch the film again under a different lens. To Lynch’s astonishment, Orbison agreed to meet up with him. “Such a gracious, kind,” stutters Lynch, clearly lost for words. “Everybody loved Roy Orbison”.
Clearly uncomfortable in committing his feelings to words, Lynch instead decides to change course and to describe an anecdote he enjoyed with Barbara Orbison. While attending the re-recording of ‘In Dreams’, Lynch discovered that Orbison also practised transcendental meditation. Before he knew it, he found himself in a private room in a recording studio, meditating with the star from the 1960s.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine the scene without ‘In Dreams’, and although ‘Crying’ would have been a strong alternative, Lynch was wise to go with his gut, especially since he got to use ‘Crying’ in Mulholland Drive. Orbison died in 1988, having just completed the rock heavy Mystery Girl set. Bono contributed to Mystery Girl, as did Elvis Costello, who declared, “My favourite cover is Roy Orbison doing ‘The Comedians’ live at the Cocoanut Grove [in Los Angeles]. I was the rhythm guitarist in the band and when you met this lovely gentleman you’d never imagine he had that power of voice.”
Like Lynch, Costello was blown away by the power, persuasion, passion and animal energy that emanated from a bespectacled man wearing dark clothes. But like it did in the 1980s, Roy Orbison’s voice continues to inspire millions of artists all over the world.