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My Favorite Soundtrack: Lost Highway

David Lynch is a wizard of sound design.

David Katz

Fred Madison, a free jazz saxophonist, is sprawled out on the settee in his oddball-custom-designed L.A. mansion. He is dressed in a silk dressing gown. A crackly voice materialises on the intercom, bearing four shivery, dread-laden, forever unexplained words: "Dick Laurent is dead."

Welcome to the cosmic paradoxes and gleeful brain-ache of late-period David Lynch.

I first saw Lost Highway at a National Film and Television School-programmed series at the BFI. It was introduced to me by a professor who—with quite a few Jane Austen Radio 4 adaps on his CV—described it as a cinematic Möbius-strip which curves and doubles back on itself. This sounded interesting but the plummy and avuncular preface could not have prepared me for the terrifying sensory-musical assault that I was about to witness: the mesmerising and sadly rare spectacle of Lost Highway.

The music hit me first. Lynch is a wizard of sound design; he prepared a special memo for cinema projectionists on Mulholland Dr.'s release, begging them to crank the sound right up. It reminded me of Kevin Shields' demands for My Bloody Valentine live shows, which makes sense, because David Lynch is as much a musical icon as a cinematic one. He may have had the biggest shadow influence on the underground strain of alternative rock; slicing up eyeballs, murky atmospheres, stomach-clenching blasts of aggression—it's all very Lynchian.

The projectionist at the screening of Lost Highway evidently knew what he was doing, because the sound mix was scalp-prickling. First, we encounter a thrilling animated title sequence that would embarrass Saul Bass, David Fincher, and all those James Bond guys; it channels and anticipates the film's atmosphere to come. It was even fairly emotional, seeing the pre-film curtain-raiser for the first time, because it was soundtracked by one of my musical heroes, David Bowie, in a surprising mid-90s industrial-goth guise I scarcely believed lay in him. "I'm Deranged" is one of his best latter-day tracks, wedding the Scott Walker-like trilling of his upper vocal range against a krautrock pulse and dark-cabaret piano soloing. It makes another very welcome, thematically apposite reappearance later in the film.

The next musical yardstick in the film—This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren"—spent 101 weeks as a seven-inch single on the charts. OK, the adorable UK Indie Chart, but still, it caught a devoted fan in David Lunch who, inspired by it, co-wrote two albums for the Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise and aquired the permission from 4AD to use it in onse of his features. It's a sexy, mysterious song, and in Lost Highway he juxtaposes it with lucid nightmare imagery. The watery, opening guitar chords float ethereally in, as Fred engages in tense pillow-talk with his wife (Patricia Arquette), who he suspects is having an affair.

The rest of the soundtrack is mostly state-of-the-90s industrial mook-rock and nu-metal - the sort of stuff that lingers in a cupboard at your parents house alongside a chain-wallet and a collection of Crazy Bones. But, in some ways, that grotty stuff's association with the visionary auteur work of David Lynch goes some way to redeem it. In an apparent, moth-eaten kitsch, Lynch locates the mood-music for a disaffected, Reaganomic-punctured generation. The Trent Reznor and Smashing Pumpkins stuff predicts the current scarcity of popular guitar bands; wracked with pre-millenial tension, rock music was emitting dying croaks; it could only be corroded with electronics, mechanised with slamming industrial percussion to ebb any trace of the human away. In film terms, that connects with the kamikaze-expressionist way that Lynch disposes of classical narrative. A new century needed a new sound, and a new cinema.

Yet all this seems by-the-by when faced with the teutonic crunch of tabloid-bothering era Rammstein, who Lynch—the troll—then labeled as his favourite group in the world. In an abstract hallucination sequence about two-thirds into the film, an L.A. porn-industry rave/party scene meets an unlikely aesthetic ally in the band that all the weird kids at school loved. The severe bass-baritone Germanic vowels, bellowing "Ramm...stein....ramm...stein" always make me want to lock myself in a cupboard and not talk to anyone for hours.

David Lynch is a uniquely musical director, and Lost Highway is so effective as an audio-visual hybrid that it could have played in a continuous loop on prime-era MTV. It's an awesome film, with a slightly lame but still awesome soundtrack.