The musical mistress of ‘Mulholland Drive’ hits Philadelphia Film Center

Candice Ghai

David Lynch’s modern-day noir mystery, Mulholland Drive, is ripe with richly haunting imagery as it ensnares two women in its net of amnesia, desire and identity. Yet, there is no image, in sound or vision, more piercing, dreamlike and pure than that of Californian vocalist Rebekah Del Rio burrowing deep down into her lower octaves and up through her highest operatic highs on “Llorando,” a Spanish a cappella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” live from Lynch’s fictitious Club Silencio.

This weekend, to accompany a screening of Lynch’s sinister 2001 noir epic, Del Rio will turn Chestnut Street’s Philadelphia Film Center into her own private Club Silencio with a pre-screening live set of her own klatch of cinematic classics, on April 16 at 7 p.m.

Without having taken a lesson, Del Rio self-developed her voice starting at age 3, through writing songs on her own, through singing at family events such as weddings, local talent shows and area conventions. “At 11, I had my first gig when a man who owned an RV company took part in a convention and asked how much I’d charge to perform one song,” says Del Rio. “I told him $75 because that’s how much my mother’s phone bill was that month. She wasn’t going to be able to pay that much, so that’s how I came to that amount. That’s how I knew that my voice could be my business.”

 Basing her style on singers she loved (Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline) and trying to snare a record deal tied to country music at that time, Del Rio began singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” as a showcase for her three-octave range as well as the more dramatic qualities of her voice.  Around this time, Selena – the toast of young Mexican-American singers – was murdered, and Del Rio’s manager suggested singing that same Orbison classic in Spanish as a tribute to her fallen contemporary.

“That’s how I found my true voice,” says Del Rio. “That allowed me to incorporate the mariachi that listened to growing up, as well as Christian music such as Mahalia Jackson, the Patsy Cline vibe, put it all together and develop my signature sound – a deep operatic tome, but in a country way.”

The power of that single song not only snagged her a record deal; it brought Del Rio to the attention of David Lynch (with whom she shared an agent), a musician himself, who immediately brought the vocalist to a studio to sing into his priceless Telefunken tube microphone.

“That was incredible, there are so few made, and he wanted to try it out on me,” she says. “Lynch recorded that session… next thing I know, I heard that he was obsessed with that recording, and wanted to make me part of his next project.”

At that point, Lynch’s next project was the further serial adventures of Twin Peaks, whose cliff hanger was to include Del Rio. Yet, after changing his mind on where he wanted to take the Peaks, he used what he had recorded with Del Rio to entice Canal Studios to fund a full-blown film: ‘Mulholland Drive.’

“And rather than lip synch, which he had originally I wanted to do, I came in and sang ‘Llorando’ on film in David’s imaginary club setting,” states Del Rio. “From there, we became collaborators with me becoming part of his family of singers such as Julee Cruise, Crysta Bell, and of course, Isabella Rossellini.”

That Del Rio was such a stunning visual centerpiece of ‘Mulholland Drive’ as well as Lynch’s short film, ‘Rabbits’, the singer has become, too, part of the director-writer’s narrative and cinematic dynamic.

“On Mulholland Drive, he knew what he wanted me to do, and I followed his lead. You’re going to faint, fall, and these gentlemen are going to pull you out, so be full-weighted,” says Del Rio, with a laugh, doing her best Lynch impersonation. “All of my size 2 weight. For ‘Rabbits’, I had to dress up like a bunny and sit on a couch. On other, more impromptu things, there is more of a collaboration, like some of the songs we’ve worked on (for tracks that wound up on ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’). You never know what is coming, but you know it’s going to be amazing.”

Considering that she and her songs have appeared in films such as ‘Sin City’, ‘Streets of Legend’, ‘Man on Fire’, and ‘Mia Sarah’ – beyond all things Lynch  – Rebekah Del Rio’s operatic, cinematic presence is the soul of the silver screen.