'Blue Velvet Revisited': Film Review | London Film Festival 2016
Peter Braatz’s unorthodox documentary brings to light long-buried archive footage shot behind the scenes on David Lynch's career-making psycho-thriller.
In 1985, German film student Peter Braatz contacted David Lynch requesting permission to document the director’s upcoming movie shoot in sleepy Wilmington, North Carolina. Lynch replied positively. “We are making an extremely low-budget film,” he warned Braatz, “so bring lots of money and help us out.”
The movie was Blue Velvet, a neo-noir fever dream that became a controversial cult classic, earning Lynch an Oscar nomination and cementing his reputation as a major new voice in American auteur cinema. Meanwhile, Braatz shelved his documentary project for decades, only recycling a fraction of the material for a short film. Now, decades later, he has finally assembled an audiovisual collage from six hours of Super-8 film and over 1,000 photographs taken on the shoot, most never published before.
Featuring an all-new soundtrack by veteran experimental rockers Tuxedomoon, among others, and stylish screen titles by David Bowie’s favorite album sleeve designer Jonathan Barnbrook, Blue Velvet Revisited is far from a conventional making-of documentary. Screening at the London Film Festival this week, Braatz’s impressionistic “meditation on a movie” would arguably play better in art galleries than movie theaters. But festival programmers and Lynchophiles will savor a spellbinding visual poem that takes us right inside the director’s most influential masterwork without unlocking its impenetrable secrets.
In sunny Wilmington, Braatz finds Lynch intensely engaged in the smallest artistic detail on set, but characteristically elusive about his film’s literal meaning. A boyish 40-year-old at the time, the director’s general manner is open and helpful and less self-consciously “Lynchian” than he would later become. He muses on his love of industrial landscapes, his youthful travels across Europe, his enthusiasm for meditation. Lightweight chatter, mostly, but his most striking rumination looks forward to a high-tech future in which filmmaking will be quicker and easier thanks to small portable cameras and computerized lighting effects. Three decades later, his dream sounds more like prophecy.
Braatz also grabs backstage soundbites from Blue Velvet castmembers including Dennis Hopper, Jack Nance and Isabella Rossellini, who would become Lynch’s partner for the next few years. On the cusp of a career-reviving comeback after a long battle with drink and drugs, Hopper is the most expansive, arguing that the young director is more of a surrealist than a cineaste. “David is dealing with his own subconscious,” he says, “his own way of looking at things, and it’s not emulative of anybody.”
Once again, these are not formal interviews conducted and edited with documentary rigor. Mostly they just serve as another layer of texture, small details on a wider canvas. In many cases, visuals and sounds are not even in sync, so interviews float over unrelated footage with a disembodied, dreamlike air. Music features much more prominently than speech, with Tuxedomoon’s woozy, jazzy, ambient soundtrack wafting the film along in place of any coherent narrative drive.
While Blue Velvet Revisited does not throw much fresh light on Lynch’s breakthrough film, it is a charmingly offbeat time capsule of the 1980s, and a disarmingly sweet backstage snapshot of a dark cult classic in the making. It is also a quietly mesmerizing sensory experience, with a distinctive rhythm and look that makes it a stand-alone artwork rather than a mimetic mirror of its subject. The real treasure here is Braatz’s rich archive of monochrome photographs, whose crisp formal beauty puts his scrappy Super-8 footage to shame. Damn fine pictures.