Angelo Badalamenti: Composer of Unsettling Film Soundtracks for Shows Such as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks

From a Washington Post obit by Tim Greiving headlined “Angelo Badalamenti, composer of unsettling film soundtracks, dies at 85”:

Angelo Badalamenti, a composer whose penchant for what he called “dark beauty” wooed collaborators such as David Bowie and found its fullest expression in scores for filmmaker David Lynch — especially in the synth-heavy music for “Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive” — died Dec. 11 at 85.

Mr. Badalamenti scored nearly 50 films and worked with directors including Paul Schrader and Danny Boyle. As a songwriter and orchestrator, he collaborated on records and music videos with Bowie and Michael Jackson.

But it was his symbiosis with Lynch that left the most enduring mark. Mr. Badalamenti cast a spell of dreamlike melancholy, dread and jazzy humor in the director’s surreal body of work, epitomized in “Twin Peaks.” Set in a fictional small town in the Northwest, the series mixed elements of murder mystery and bizarro soap opera, and aired for two seasons on ABC in the early 1990s before being resurrected on Showtime in 2017.

The composer’s theme music won a 1990 Grammy Award, and the soundtrack album was an international smash, breaking into the top 25 on the Billboard 200.

“He’s got this musical soul, and melodies are always floating around inside,” Lynch told People magazine in 1990. “I feel the mood of a scene in the music, and one thing helps the other, and they both just start climbing.”

Mr. Badalamenti was a modestly successful songwriter for radio and musical theater when Lynch tapped him. He co-wrote a number of popular songs, including the brassy torch song “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” popularized by Nancy Wilson.

In 1985 Mr. Badalamenti received a phone call from Fred C. Caruso, who was producing “Blue Velvet,” Lynch’s innovative exploration of suburban secrets and murder. Caruso knew of the composer’s experience working with singers, and star Isabella Rossellini needed a vocal coach for her songs.

“I worked some three or four hours with [Rossellini] at the keyboard and recorded her singing the song ‘Blue Velvet,’ ” the composer told the New York Times in 2005. “We went over and played it for David Lynch, who was shooting the last scene. He put his earphones on and said, ‘That’s peachy keen.’ ”

“I said to Fred, ‘What does that mean?’ You know, I’m from Bensonhurst — we don’t use those words,’ ” Mr. Badalamenti later told Rolling Stone. “Fred responded, ‘He adores it.’ ”

The director soon asked Mr. Badalamenti to compose the score. When Lynch was unable to license the Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren,” he also commissioned an original song and advised him, “Make it like the wind, Angelo. It should be a song that floats on the sea of time.”

The resulting score and song, “Mysteries of Love,” became the template for “Lynchian” music. The director’s own lyrics were sung by Julee Cruise — who had been a chorus girl in an off-Broadway musical of Mr. Badalamenti’s — and the composer encouraged her to channel a doo-wop-era, angelic sound over his wispy, sustained synth chords. The three artists enjoyed the effort so much they made a whole album: Cruise’s “Floating Into the Night,” which spent time on the Billboard 200.

Their music helped forge the “dream-pop” subgenre, later influencing such artists as Lana Del Rey. It also informed the sound of “Twin Peaks,” which repurposed an instrumental version of the Cruise song “Falling” as the show’s hit title theme.

Starring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI special agent, the series revolved around the mystery of who killed local high-schooler Laura Palmer. Mr. Badalamenti wrote a slow, heart-tugging elegy that infused the show with tragic romanticism; New York Times music critic John Rockwell once described it as investing everything “with an electronic glow, as if the music were radioactive.”

Mr. Badalamenti wrote the melody in one afternoon, sitting at his Fender Rhodes keyboard with Lynch next to him describing the scene: “It’s the dead of night, we’re in a dark wood, there’s a full moon out. There are sycamore trees that are gently swaying in the soft wind. Now, from behind that tree, there’s a beautiful, troubled, lonely teenage girl.”

The composer scored Lynch’s subsequent movies in much the same fashion, from “Lost Highway” in 1997 — a time-looping noir starring Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman — to the critically lauded “Mulholland Drive” in 2001, a showbiz mystery with Naomi Watts that also featured the composer in a small role as a Mafioso with high standards for espresso.

An unexpected departure for the duo was “The Straight Story,” a 1999 Disney film starring Richard Farnsworth as an old-timer driving cross-country on his riding lawn mower. The composer’s score was appropriately rustic and sweet, a gentle lullaby for guitar and strings.

His scores for other filmmakers, including Joel Schumacher’s “Cousins” (1989) and Jane Campion’s “Holy Smoke” (1999), ditched the Lynchian irony but retained the romance and often the moody darkness. He gave Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers,” a 1990 drama about a young couple that encounters a mysterious Christopher Walken in Venice, an exotic score swelling from arabesques to full-blown opera.

He also wrote the lush theme music for the long-running interview program “Inside the Actors Studio,” hosted by James Lipton on the Bravo cable network. And in the wake of “Twin Peaks” fever, he was invited to write the opening “torch theme” for the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992.

“When I was up on that stage, I felt like Moses parting the sea,” he told Rolling Stone. “And I’m not even Jewish.”

Luck with Nina Simone

Angelo Daniel Badalamenti, whose father owned a fish market, was born in Brooklyn on March 22, 1937. He started taking piano lessons at 8 and soon began writing pieces of his own. “I don’t think that’s a lesson assignment you’re playing,” his older brother Stephen once recalled telling him. “And he’d say, ‘No, I’m just noodling.’ I’d hear these lovely, intelligent, wonderful little sounds.”

At the Manhattan School of Music, Mr. Badalamenti received a bachelor’s degree in French horn in 1958 and a master’s degree in music education in 1959. He worked as a middle school music teacher to make ends meet while aspiring to a songwriting career.

In 1966, he brazenly showed up at pianist and singer Nina Simone’s New York office, which he found in the Yellow Pages, and sang two numbers for her without the aid of a piano.

“On my way out,” he recalled to the magazine Spirit & Flesh in 2015, “the husband says, ‘Come to A&R Studios next Wednesday and you’re gonna hear Nina and the piano with 40 violins and orchestra, and these two songs. I know my wife — she’s gonna record them.’ I thought, ‘My god, what an easy business!’ ”

The songs — “I Hold No Grudge” and “He Ain’t Comin’ Home No More,” with lyrics by John Clifford — appeared on Simone’s acclaimed 1967 album “High Priestess of Soul.”

In 1968 he married Lonny Irgens, a painter. He had a daughter, Danielle Badalamenti, and a son, André Badalamenti, who played clarinet on several of the composer’s recordings before his death in 2012.

Mr. Badalamenti’s name conjured the image of an old-world maestro, but he was in fact a wisecracking, golf-playing grandfather with a rough-hewed Brooklyn burr. On paper, he was a strange match for Lynch, the coifed, Midwestern oddball Mel Brooks once described as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” But somehow they formed a singular artistic mind, and a brotherly bond.

“We just adore each other,” Mr. Badalamenti told a reporter in 2017. “It’s the best marriage of all — never one harsh word between us. Sometimes, as we’re working together, we don’t even have to talk about what’s going on. There’s just a look between us, without words, and we know what we’re thinking and where to go from there. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

Speak Your Mind

*