'Big Eyes': The Story Behind Lana Del Rey's Stunning Secret Songs

Will two tracks from the Tim Burton film double her chances for an Oscar nomination?
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Lana Del Rey made several top 10 lists last year with “Summertime Sadness,” and this winter, she’ll be giving a voice to the sadness of Amy Adams’ character in Big Eyes, the Tim Burton film that opens Dec. 25. Her contributions are not just a bit of the old Ultraviolence (to cite the title of her most recent album), but two entirely new tracks, kept secret until the Christmas release started screening for insiders a few days ago.

Whether the languid songstress is doubling her chances for an Oscar nomination by contributing two tunes remains to be seen. A rep from The Weinstein Co. says the studio hasn’t made any Oscar-season determination about whether to emphasize “Big Eyes,” the title tune that prominently appears mid-movie, or “I Can Fly,” which runs over the end credits. Both songs were clearly written from the psychologically evolving viewpoint of the movie’s heroine, Margaret Keane — a possible plus for voters who, as Time magazine put it, “brutally snubbed” Del Rey’s less obviously endemic contribution to The Great Gatsby, “Young and Beautiful,” early this year.

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“Tim showed her the film and she fell in love with it,” says Larry Karaszewski, a producer on Big Eyes, as well as its co-writer. If the film’s tone strikes a tricky balance between comic satire and prototypical “women’s picture,” Del Rey’s contributions are very much in tune with its more dramatic, feminist inclinations. “Women in particular seem to get the movie, and Lana really got the movie,” Karaszewski says. “The whole thing is about a woman who can’t find her voice,” and when the title song — with its “big eyes, big lies” refrain — plays at a critical juncture, “it almost becomes a musical. Lana’s song expresses what Margaret is feeling so perfectly, it’s like a soliloquy of her inner thoughts.”

“Big Eyes” wasn’t originally slated for a prominent mid-movie slot. Del Rey and the song's co-writer, Daniel Heath, had conceived it as an end-credits number, but there was no mistaking that it felt too defeated for a film that means to send audiences out on an upbeat note. Then — sorry, scorer Danny Elfman! — the filmmakers discovered Del Rey’s ballad fit perfectly as what Karaszewski calls “a centerpiece number” over two mostly dialogue-free scenes that in earlier cuts sported Elfman’s orchestration. The number begins as an instrumental when Adams spots her paintings being sold in a supermarket, then turns to a vocal piece with a big, pronounced beat as the character returns home determined to develop a new style of painting; it slips back out of the vocals as Christoph Waltz’s character returns and confronts his artistically straying spouse.

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Not to leave Burton empty-handed in the clinch after “Big Eyes” got bumped up, Del Rey hooked up with co-writer Rick Nowels to come up with “I Can Fly” for the end credits. That finale isn’t quite R. Kelly-level inspirational, but it’s as close as a celebrated melancholist like Del Rey is going to come, celebrating Margaret’s escape from a pre-feminist cage with lines like “I had a dream that I was fine / I wasn’t crazy, I was divine.”

Which piece of work will get the awards push, to avoid vote-splitting? Although “I Can Fly” may sound a bit more airplay-friendly, it seems likelier that The Weinstein Co. will go “Big” and have the boldly spotlighted title song be their designated hitter in this suddenly crowded category, where Del Rey will be competing for a spot amid other big-name contenders ranging from Coldplay (Unbroken) to Common (Selma).

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