Angelo Badalamenti Was the Beating Heart of David Lynch’s Films

The late Angelo Badalamenti, playing the pianist behind Isabella Rossellini, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Angelo Badalamenti helped audiences get David Lynch. The late composer began his relationship with the filmmaker on Blue Velvet, and right out of the gate, you can see and hear the former’s effect on the latter’s movie: Badalamenti’s music confirmed the sincerity of Lynch’s belief that there is good and evil in all of us, that the very good people are indeed very good and the evil people deeply evil, and that, for all his droll and sometimes perverse humor, Lynch is not kidding about anything, much less mocking his characters. How appropriate that their association was unveiled with an image of curtains and a drum roll — an old-fashioned image coupled with an old-fashioned sound, simultaneously evoking Bernard Herrmann’s work with Alfred Hitchcock and the scores of handsomely produced mid-century melodramas by the likes of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.

But the brilliance of Lynch and Badalamenti’s partnership is just as apparent in the traditionally scored parts as in the overtly “Lynchian” passages of menacing borderline noise. Watch and hear the moment after Jeffrey’s father has his stroke, when the camera pushes down through green suburban grass to reveal beetles writhing beneath, amounting to cutting commentary on the apple-pie fantasies of the Reagan years and the darkness that hides just beneath the surface of everyday life. Badalamenti scores it with a continuous subwoofer-trembling note that could be the first stirrings of the horrors about to descend on small-town innocents Jeffrey and his girlfriend Sandy as they investigate the town’s criminal underworld. Lynch jokingly summarized Blue Velvet’s plot as “The Hardy Boys go to hell,” and the finished film has a sense of humor that ranges from sardonic to silly (cue the “chicken walk” scene) to seemingly counterintuitive (Lynch makes no attempt to hide the fact that the robin Sandy describes as a harbinger of hope is a dead, recently stuffed bird being puppeted off-screen by the director).

The two would work together on every major Lynch project after that from Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks through Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and the monumental, 18-hour Twin Peaks: The Return. (Badalamenti did not work on the super-low budget Inland Empire, which Lynch composed and performed himself.) Despite Lynch’s increasingly daring and (for mainstream audiences) alienating embrace of abstraction and ambiguity, you could always hear the unchanging heart of Lynch’s vision beating in Badalamenti’s music: an audible surge of raw sincerity.

The thing is, Badalamenti never applied for the job of Blue Velvet composer. He’d been hired as the film’s music supervisor as well as a pianist and vocal coach for co-star Isabella Rossellini. (He played the pianist in the club where Rossellini’s character, Dorothy Vallens, performs.) Then Lynch and Badalamenti ended up collaborating on the original song “Mysteries of Love,” performed by Julee Cruise (Lynch wrote the lyrics). Lynch’s only note to Badalamenti was, “Make it like the wind, Angelo. It should be a song that floats on the sea of time.”

One of the key motifs in Lynch’s movies, and one of his own beliefs as a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, is that one must always be open to new possibilities, especially those that contradict plans previously made. Indeed, Lynch’s preceding three features had been scored with, respectively, ambient music by Lynch plus industrial noise by sound designer Alan Splet (Eraserhead), “circus dream” music interpolated with fragments of melancholia and a few horror film–ish cues by John Morris (The Elephant Man), and a synth-pop version of an Lawrence of Arabia–style epic score (Dune). With Blue Velvet, Badalamenti did what Herrmann did for Hitchcock and John Williams did for Steven Spielberg: he created a recognizable musical character to go along with Lynch’s already keenly developed ear for sound design.

It helped that they shared a musical idiom: when Lynch was falling in love with a particular 1950s sound as a teenager, the slightly older Badalamenti was performing as a professional musician. Badalamenti, born in Brooklyn in 1937, was the son of a Sicilian-American fish market owner. He started doing paid gigs as a teenager, when his keyboard skills earned him work accompanying veteran singers in Catskills resorts. To blunt the impact of discrimination, he worked for a while under the less-obviously-Italian nom-de-plume Andy Badale, wrote songs for Nina Simone, and worked with the French electronic music groundbreaker Jean-Jacques Perry. Badalamenti had done two motion picture scores prior to meeting Lynch (Gordon’s War and Law and Disorder), but he wasn’t known for movie music. That changed after Blue Velvet.

The mix of then-modern and 1950s-vintage production design, costume, and lighting elements in Lynch’s movies would thereafter be reflected, to varying degrees, by Badalamenti’s scoring and incidental music, which alternated between (and often blended) Old Hollywood melodrama and thriller scoring, post-1970s synth-driven soundscapes, and retro-hipster Eisenhower-era pop, rockabilly, and jazz. You can hear this peculiar musical energy field buzzing through most of Lynch’s 1997 Lost Highway but especially in “Bats With Teeth,” a neo-noir jazz cocktail with falling-icicle piano riffs (by Badalamenti) and brass instruments so lustfully agitated that — rather like Lynch’s tonal shifts as a director — they initially present as a parody of brass parts, then push through into earnestness before imploding. (Veteran session saxophonist Bob Sheppard, the actual performer of the music mimed onscreen by star Bill Pullman’s jazz-musician character, sounds as if he’s trying to finish his solo despite being zapped with cattle prods.)

Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark ABC series Twin Peaks marks the point when Badalamenti and Lynch mind-melded to forge the aesthetic that has been associated with Lynch ever since. Although it uses real instruments, its backbone is synthesized soundscapes and hepcat jazz-rockabilly-neo-noir particles. Yet Badalementi keeps it simple, typically choosing just a few notes and staying on them as long as he feels is necessary, often arranging them in spaced-out rising-and-falling configurations that give aural form to that free-floating, dreamlike feeling Lynch and his production team conjure on the show. The iconic opening credits are an appropriately meditative entry into Lynch and Frost’s small town, which is like a supernaturally inflected cousin of Blue Velvet’s Lumberton: a place where soap-opera melodrama and retro-Hollywood domestic tragedy get tangled up with tabloid perversity, pulp-fiction plotlines, trips to other planes of existence, and encounters with vile, murderous demons.

Lynch is so skilled at summoning feelings of dread that it’s easy to forget how much sheer beauty his films contain and how honest he can be when presenting naïve, innocent, or simply good characters as luminous beings who need to be cherished and protected. Badalamenti communicates this through his music in a way that’s often more straightforward than Lynch’s presentation of it through drama. When Sandy talks about her dream of the robins in Blue Velvet, we have to sort through our conditioning as knowing, cynical art-film viewers to decide whether we think the film is teasing us or deriding Sandy and Jeffrey. The actors have poker faces, and the dialogue is aware of its own corniness, but Badalamenti’s underscoring (church organ predominates) takes its cue from the stained-glass church windows behind Sandy’s head, telling us we’re witnessing a sacred moment: a declaration of faith.

Without Badalamenti’s music, the scene wouldn’t be as tonally complex. There would be no contradictory feelings for the audience to parse; it would seem more of a piece with ‘80s and ‘90s art films that congratulated viewers for being misanthropic enough to know that evil runs the world and good is for suckers.

You can see a similar magic at play in Badalamenti’s music behind the Julee Cruise song “The World Spins” (lyrics by Lynch) in the Twin Peaks episode “Double Play,” where the demon Bob claims another victim. She sings simple, repetitive lyrics and a chorus (“Love/Don’t go away/Come back this way/Come back and stay/Forever and ever/Please stay”) over music with a vaguely waltz-y feel. The plotting of Twin Peaks is filled with doubled characters (including cousins played by the same actress), mirrored plotlines, and events that seem to recur again and again over time with details changed. Lynch, Badalamenti, and Cruise draw that all together into three minutes, summoning the singular Twin Peaks feeling of floating in a dream that is difficult if not impossible to steer through.

From the mid-’80s on, Badalamenti worked steadily as a film composer for a variety of directors — including Joel Schumacher, who had him do an American variant of a swoony-cute French farce score for his 1989 remake of Cousins; Paul Schrader, who drew on the ominous and perverse Old Hollywood aspects of Badalamenti’s Lynch music (see: Badalamenti’s opening-title music for Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers); and the French filmmakers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, who steered the composer in more of a Felliniesque, “The world is a circus and the score is the ringmaster” direction. (The opening passages of Badalamenti’s score for City of Lost Children answer the question, “What would it sound like if Brian de Palma had directed A Christmas Story?”)

By the time Lynch and Mark Frost finally got to make a follow-up to Twin Peaks, 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, the director and the composer were so in tune with each other that Badalamenti started working on the music before even Lynch knew what the series would be. According to a Pitchfork article, “As per their long-standing working arrangement, Badalamenti would improvise based not on filmed footage but rather gnomic descriptions and words that Lynch gave him — such as ‘Russian beauty’ or, simply, ‘Texas’ — until the music complemented whatever was running through the director’s mind. ‘I closed my eyes, put my fingers on the keyboard, and started to play,’ said Badalamenti.” Such a deep level of understanding between artists is rare. Lynch is the director with whom Badalamenti’s music will be most strongly linked, for as long as films are watched and discussed, and their soundtracks analyzed and appreciated as works of art in themselves.

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