“Wake Up”: Questioning Reality and Absurdity in the Musical Bang Bang Baby (2014)

“Hardly seems real from here, like it’s so strange and evil. It can’t be real”

Have you ever wanted to see a musical by David Lynch? May I present Bang Bang Baby. OK, so technically Lynch never made a musical, even though his films often feature musical scenes, but his style and influence are certainly apparent in this Canadian science fiction/horror musical. I came across Jeffrey St. Jules’ film a few summers back, and it remains one of my favourite movie theater experiences. I arrived for a matinee with no idea what the film was about, other than it was a 50s style musical. I was the only person in the huge cineplex theater, which made the film seem even more out of place and jarring. The film utilizes the dream-logic found in many Lynch projects, in addition to a 50s B-movie aesthetic and a strong Cold War anxiety. The result is a strange film where you are never sure exactly what is real and what is in the protagonist’s head. I admire the way reality collapses and then reinstalls in the film, and for that reason, I would argue this is the most underappreciated horror musical there is.

“Once Upon a Time There Was A Girl”

The film centers on an aspiring singer named Stepphy, who is stuck in a small Canadian town with her alcoholic father. Her dream is to travel to New York and compete at an international singing competition and become a star. After her father discovers that Stepphy has been accepted to the competition, he burns her acceptance letter so she cannot leave him behind. This leads Stepphy into a dark twist and she begins drinking at prom. She is discovered by a man named Fabian, who takes advantage of her intoxication and drives her to the local chemical plant and rapes her. Everything after this point grows increasingly bizarre, as while escaping from Fabian, she is rescued by her TV crush, the Elvis-like singer Bobby Shore. He stays with Stepphy and her father while waiting for his car to be repaired, and the two fall in love.

Meanwhile, the town is becoming more disturbed and deformed, as a toxic gas from the factory has swept across the townspeople. Things go from bad to horrendous when Stepphy discovers she’s pregnant with a monstrous baby, then Bobby Shore abandons her at the alter, and the entire town is put on lockdown by the government. Stepphy is forced to marry Fabian and give birth to their Eraserhead-like baby. In the background of all of this, the town has decided to kill themselves in a mass death pact, rather than living in quarantine with their deformities.

“Have You Noticed Somethings Lately?”

This brings me to the end of the film, my favourite twist in recent memory. Upon giving birth, Stepphy’s baby can speak full sentences. She constantly screams for Stepphy (her “Momma”) and its deeply disturbing. We are initially asked to read the baby as a product of rape and a symbol for everything Stepphy has lost. That is until Stepphy asks the baby why she’s crying and why she looks so monstrous.

The baby looks at her, confused, and says she has no idea why Stepphy sees her that way, or why anything is going on. She’s just a baby, why should she know? And that’s when reality reappears in Stepphy’s bizarre world. The baby is no longer a Lynch nightmare, just a baby with a birth mark. Stepphy realizes that everything we experienced in the film was a mixture of her personal trauma and mob mentality. There are monsters in the film, but these monsters reflect people’s choices and the protagonist’s perception.

There’s also an incredible scene where Bobby Shore and Stepphy perform at a local tiki club, which adds a dose of 60’s counterculture and modernist aesthetic to the film. They sing the title number of the film – “Bang Bang Baby” – but there is something strange going on in the club. Things are going too well for Stepphy, it is completely unrealistic. But, like any other Elvis-esque romantic comedy, we just go along with this format. However, during one of the choruses, Bobby and Stepphy pretend to shoot everyone in the club, and everyone falls to the ground and seems dead. Neither Stepphy nor Bobby seem upset about this, and so its unclear if everyone is playing along or if they are actually injured. It one of several moments in the film where reality and dream-logic cross and things become more confusing. These crossover incidents become even more unclear upon second viewing, after the twist, because you are never sure if this is just Stepphy’s experience with the world or if the world itself has become altered.

The deformities in the town are all connected to sin, at least the way Stepphy sees it. Her father absorbs an empty liquor bottle, which jets out from his stomach and will not budge, even when he tries to cut it out. Fabian grows an extra mouth on his cheek, a symbol for being two faced. In fact, he later sings a duet with himself to Stepphy, during which one mouth tries to convince her to marry him, and the other threatens her. The only deformity Stepphy develops is pregnancy, albeit a freaky version. The baby presses out of her stomach in an inhuman fashion, suggesting that Stepphy views herself as a monster because she contains a monster. When Stepphy realizes that her trauma has influenced her experience, we see these growths differently, but it is left unclear if the townspeople experienced the same level of distortions or if everything in the film was part of Stepphy’s coping mechanism.  

“Don’t Mind My Daughter, She Grew Up Without Many People Around”

Bang Bang Baby reintroduces genre characters in a contemporary sense. We return to familiar figures from cinema, the starry-eyed girl next door, her silly father, the Elvis dreamboat, and a mysterious chemical leak. Each of these features appear in a few B-movies, but their appearance here is slightly wrong. Our leading lady doesn’t end up with the person she is supposed to marry. She is also raped, an event which coincides with the chemical plant leak. There is also the chemical itself, as the factory makes purple mist without explaining what that does or why. It is almost like the film is drawing our attention to movies like The Blob (1958) and The Deadly Mantis (1957) but only by appearance. Bang Bang Baby might look like a few other films, and it relies on our recognition of these features, but these aspects act completely different.

Another example of this trend is that Bobby Shore isn’t charming or kind, he is a selfish douche who keeps finding women in small towns and replaying the cheesy romance plots from his movies. It is no coincidence that before she meets him, Stepphy watches a film where Bobby treats a woman the same way he later treats her. Like the viewer, Stepphy buys in to these science fiction and romantic comedy trends only for the film to complicate these aspects. The film continues to do this with its other features. The mist, for instance, isn’t deadly or threatening. It does create monsters, but they don’t act like monsters. They just sort of mill about and then decide to kill themselves. So, all the elements of a classic B-movie are there, but none of the outcomes.

As another example, there’s a scene where Stepphy and Bobby are hunting on what is clearly a set and fake backdrop. They shoot something down and it makes a horrible noise. When Stepphy investigates, she realizes it’s a half eagle half donkey mutant, which looks more like a stuffy than an actual animal. She throws it away before Bobby walks over, as he hates the idea of mutants and ugliness. This moment signals that Stepphy is unconsciously interrupting her own glamourous narrative. Her scene with Bobby is straight out of an Elvis Presley film, but its suddenly disrupted by this Lynch-ian creature. This out-of-place creature reminds her that she is hiding something from Bobby, and that something else is going on which could jeopardize this narrative.

“We Are All Lost and Alone in a Mad Fever Dream”

Stepphy is a more refreshing take on the leading lady character from early science fiction/horror films. She eventually escapes this dream-logic nightmare by killing Fabian and escaping with her daughter. She overcomes this world, and ultimately becomes a singer without Bobby’s help. This means that she essentially escapes her own mind, and her preconceptions about the world. Stepphy realizes that some boy is not going to save her from this horror, she must save herself and reconsider her placement in the world from victim to participant. Although she initially tries to make sense of what is happening to her using these 50s tropes, like the mist, dream boy, and villain, these tropes lead her away from what she wants. Only by breaking away from this narrative can she enter a new one, one where her dreams and reality are in tandem rather than oppositional.