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The fantasia of Angelo Badalamenti, veil-piercing composer

Angelo Badalamenti in a portrait taken Feb. 9, 1990. The composer, best known for his work with director David Lynch, died Dec. 11, 2022.
ABC Photo Archives
Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
Angelo Badalamenti in a portrait taken Feb. 9, 1990. The composer, best known for his work with director David Lynch, died Dec. 11, 2022.

A girl walks into a diner and goes straight for the jukebox, and the song she puts on is a strange one: a wordless, off-centered jazz number that slinks around, snapping its fingers and occasionally erupting in fits of woodwind and brass. "God, I love this music," the girl sighs. "Isn't it too dreamy?" In the middle of the restaurant she begins to sway — eyes closed, head back, arms out like airplane wings, lost in a mesmerizing and vaguely concerning trance. At other times the girl's air of mystery is cannily performed; here it is plain to all witnesses that the song has taken her somewhere else. At this moment, in this scene, I and presumably millions of others fell obsessively in love with the television series Twin Peaks and, without then knowing, the music of Angelo Badalamenti, the conductor and composer who died last week at 85 and whose partnership with David Lynch was intrinsic to the director's famous sensibility — the terror, the absurdity, the wild pain and sublime beauty and distinctly American ambient psychosis, the sincerity beneath it all. That part of the scene was unrehearsed, a pure reaction to the sounds; Lynch had given no warning to the actress, Sherilyn Fenn, that she'd be dancing to "this really cool, sexy, jazzy thing that Angelo and I just wrote!"

Seeing Badalamenti's name flicker elegantly across a Lynch film's opening credits — over blue velvet curtains, billowing flames, headlights on a two-lane highway or the glow of television static — you might envision a stately Italian maestro with an impressive scarf collection and discerning taste for espresso, not unlike the bit part he played hysterically in Mulholland Drive. In fact he was a cheerful, paunchy fellow for whom inspiration sometimes struck during a round of golf at the North Jersey Country Club, a Brooklyn-born son of a fishmonger who initially needed a translator for Lynch's gee-whiz lingo. ("This is peachy keen!" Lynch yelped upon hearing Badalamenti's demo work with actress Isabella Rossellini for her haunted rendition of Blue Velvet's namesake song, the filmmaker and composer's first encounter. "You know, I'm from Bensonhurst — we don't use those words," Badalamenti laughed decades later.) As a child, Sunday nights meant gathering around the Victrola as his grandfather worked himself to tears narrating the storylines of Italian operas, early evidence of music's capacity to make someone weep. Angelo spent his teenage summers accompanying Catskills resort singers on piano, earned a bachelor's degree in French horn from the Manhattan School of Music and taught music to junior high students in Brooklyn; meanwhile he wrote jingles and torch songs under the pen name Andy Badale. (Two of them, "I Hold No Grudge" and "He Ain't Comin' Home No More," appear on Nina Simone's 1967 album High Priestess of Soul.) Badalamenti had scored a few films before stepping onto Blue Velvet's set, but his soundtrack for the 1986 classic marked his big break and the start of a 30-plus-year mind-meld with one of America's great auteurs.

There's a serendipity to so many of Badalamenti's arrangements for Lynch, which serve as our emotional compass for navigating the director's uncanny worlds. So impressed was Lynch with Badalamenti's vocal coaching he invited the musician to collaborate on an original theme for Blue Velvet, offering no more guidance than this: "Make it like the wind, Angelo. It should be a song that floats on the sea of time." (With them, it was always this way; sometimes Lynch would instruct his friend, "I'm gonna need some music that's gonna tear the hearts out of people!" and at other times, a shared glance over coffee and turkey sandwiches was all it took.) Badalamenti sat down at the keyboard and out came "Mysteries of Love," a liturgical-sounding synth arrangement I like to think of as the composer's "blinding light of love" mode, to borrow a line from the film — startlingly hopeful music for piercing through the darkness. For its vocals he recruited a chorus girl he'd met off-Broadway by the name of Julee Cruise, whose belting musical theater voice he coaxed to sound like an angel who'd awoken on earth on the back of a stranger's motorcycle.

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That full-immersion feeling of Lynch's work is in part because its characters are witness to the same otherworldly Badalamenti music we are, in any number of moody dives: the ghostly "banda" of Mulholland Drive's Silencio, Lost Highway's sax freak-out at Club Luna or jazz legend Jimmy Scott's breathtaking performance of "Sycamore Trees," live from the strobe-lit Black Lodge. (Lately I've been returning to "A Real Indication," where Badalamenti raps so weirdly it made Lynch laugh until he got a hernia — a rare moment of levity in the brutal Fire Walk With Me.) But there's nothing quite like Julee Cruise onstage at Twin Peaks' Roadhouse, bringing a room of bikers, loggers and rockabilly teens to hysterical tears with her rendition of "The World Spins" while awful things happen outside. The song first appeared on Cruise's 1989 debut Floating into the Night, a Badalamenti-produced collection of heavenly dream pop. A year later another instrumental from that album would become the most gorgeous theme song in television history, the opening notes of which function like that sycamore-shrouded portal to Twin Peak's stylish underworld.

Badalamenti, bottom right, with the cast of <em>Twin Peaks</em> in a photo taken July 7, 1990.
ABC Photo Archives / Disney General Entertainment Con
Disney General Entertainment Con
Badalamenti, bottom right, with the cast of Twin Peaks in a photo taken July 7, 1990.

The day after Badalamenti's death, my Twitter timeline was mercifully bombarded with a video of the composer from 2018, the most moving account of creative collaboration I have ever seen. The 81-year-old sits at the aged Fender Rhodes, where he composed all Twin Peaks' major themes, pointing happily to the spot where Lynch would sit beside him and dictate the images in his mind (before a single scene of Twin Peaks had been shot). "And David would say, 'Okay, Angelo, we're in a dark woods now, and there's a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees, and there's a moon out, and there's some animal sounds in the background, and you can hear the hoot of an owl...' And I started playing..." Badalamenti plays the minor introductory chords of "Laura Palmer's Theme," in whose spare elements the essence of Twin Peaks is contained — the persistence of love in the face of supernatural tragedy. "Then he would say, 'Okay, Angelo, now we gotta make a change, because from behind the tree in the back of the woods, there's this very lonely girl, her name is Laura Palmer..." In his Brooklyn accent it comes out "Laura Palma," and as he changes keys and builds to a crescendo, he shuts his eyes and goes on in Lynch's voice: "'Oh, that's it! Angelo, oh, that's tearin' my heart out! Now she's starting to leave, so fall down — keep falling — go back into the dark woods. That's it. Keep going.' " He releases the song's final chord and opens his eyes, and they shine with love and pride. "David got up, he gave me a big hug, and he said, 'Angelo, that's Twin Peaks.' " That's the way Lynch and Badalamenti worked: a mystic connection through pure instinct and feeling, building off one another until they'd summoned a universe.

A still from the pilot episode of <em>Twin Peaks</em>, featuring Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S. Truman (left) and Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper.
CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
A still from the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, featuring Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S. Truman (left) and Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper.

Tuning into the return of Twin Peaks 25 years after the original cliffhanger, I remember it feeling wrong: Why were we in a cold New York City warehouse? Who were these horrible doppelgängers? Where were the rustic wood interiors? What happened to the world I loved? Of course we're meant to think this — it's a deliberate play against our nostalgia — and it isn't until the new season's fourth hour that the slow chords of "Laura Palmer's Theme" crescendo into the background, instantly triggering 25 years of memories. In the moment, it felt like home, and today it seems like a miracle, the chance to let Badalamenti tear our hearts out one last time.

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Meaghan Garvey
[Copyright 2024 NPR]