As a sidelight to the main idea of "mondo musicals" I'd like to briefly discuss non-musicals which have a musical number that comes out of nowhere, and seems to push the film into the realms of the surreal. And where better to start than with Blue Velvet? It's a film that is fairly surreal anyway, even for an ostensibly realistic crime drama, but the "In Dreams" sequence stands out after all these years as a milestone of creepy musical strangeness. Click through to read more.
David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece is a landmark of film noir, a film of multiple layers and ambiguities, about which much has been written elsewhere. In the celebrated sequence below, the psychotic Frank (Dennis Hopper) has caught the hapless voyeur Jeffrey (Kyle McLaughlin) hanging around his tragic moll, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). (Ironic that for these three accomplished actors, this one low-budget art film would provide them all with their most memorable and definitive roles.) He takes them both for a ride, with a stop off to see the disturbingly fey Ben (Dean Stockwell) along the way.
Frank obviously thinks Ben is a riot - not to mention "suave" - and Ben, while he seems to find Frank a bit much, condescends to indulge him. Who is Ben, and why does he seem to be the only person who can talk sense to the twitchy, edgy Frank? Is he a pimp, drug dealer, white slaver, or what? Who are the fat old women surrounding him? Why is Ben the one holding Dorothy's son hostage? Who knows...and who cares, when there's ice-cold PBR for all? (Hopper's line "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" was single-handedly responsible for making PBR the swill of choice for your modern hipster.)
Before Frank's rage gets out of control, Ben calms his nerves with a lip-synched rendition of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," using a shop-light as a microphone. This is obviously Ben's favorite party piece, and it prompts Frank into a reverie in which he mutters "Now it's dark" (an incantation to be repeated ad mysterium in Lynch's later Twin Peaks). Frank gets emotional, then agitated (bad memories?) and finally stops the song in the middle. Ben looks piqued, but resigned. He is obviously used to, and wary of, Frank's rages.
This sequence (which does not appear in the screenplay; or rather, the scene is there, sans music) is justly famous, and helped revive Roy Orbison's popularity in the 1980s. David Lynch has always had a canny ear for pop music, and always chooses songs which seem haunted by sinister, melancholy undertones. The film itself is named after the Bobby Vinton song, which is performed by Isabella Rossellini's tortured torch singer. Intriguingly, Frank is seen weeping during her performance. Apparently there's a heart - weird and twisted though it may be - inside him after all.