Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Angelo Badalamenti: The Sound of David Lynch (and so much more)
Dressed to the Euro-style nines as he strides into an Italian trattoria on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Angelo Badalamenti could easily be mistaken for a Continental banker or suave Mafioso instead of the composer of the most uncannily gorgeous music for some of the most disturbing films of the last quarter century.
But after seating himself me, handing me the lunch menu, pointing out the best dishes, ordering me a coffee, and insisting he pay for lunch, it rapidly becomes clear that the truth is that Badalamenti’s a delightful sort of automatic mensch, one who talks like a Catskills comedian on double espressos. One who gladly, often gleefully, answers questions about his thirty-plus year career in epic Hollywood tall tales that have the value-added aspect of being true.
Although capable of the stylistic variety required of any working film composer, Badalamenti is also the owner of one of the most instantly recognizable sonic signatures in the soundtrack business, with the word ‘dark’ inevitably showing up next to aligned adjectives such as ‘lush’ and ‘melancholic’ when describing his work.
“It was always with me,” he says of the lovely gloom in his music’s heart. “I looked back at material I wrote as a young person, 13, 14, 15 years old. At songs or instrumentals—I was always at a keyboard writing, I had a need. And I said, ‘God! I can’t believe it! It’s got the same sound! That same kind of beautiful darkness.’”
And filmmakers just can’t resist that singular beautiful darkness and all its manifold manifestations—from the melancholic overtures, ethereal tone poems and sleazy big band struts that characterize his twenty-two year-long continuing collaboration with David Lynch, to the vast, Romantic minimalist strings that mirror of lonely ache of Jennifer Connelly’s ghost-marred isolate in Walter Salles’ Dark Water to the genre-appropriate aggression accompanying outright slashers like Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Suspended Animation or Cabin Fever.
Then there’s his theme for Twin Peaks, whose first three notes of gothic surf guitar (actually sampled guitar blended with digital synthesizer) are probably among the most instantly recognizable in Western culture. It’s music that both soothes and unnerves—usually simultaneously.
And while other score writers may include the occasional pop song into a score with the hope of later Academy Award consideration, Badalamenti—whose early life goal was to be a staff songwriter--regularly integrates pop tunes—albeit very odd pop tunes--into his work, with said songs usually sung by women. “Even in my early days as a songwriter,” he recalls, “all my favorite artists were female. My songs just seemed to gravitate towards women. I don’t know what it is.” (Among women who’ve since sung his melodies are Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Melba Moore. Della Reese and Patti Austin.)
A waiter takes our order as Badalamenti proudly begins a biographical voyage by describing himself as “a Brooklyn boy, born and raised!” that “grew up in a household with musicians coming over and playing" (his brother is a jazz trumpet player.) After a scholarship and subsequent schooling at the Eastman Scholl of Music in Rochester and the Manhattan School of Music, Badalamenti received master's degrees in composition, French horn and piano. Soon, he was playing “piano in nightclubs and weddings and”—-a hearty chuckle-—“and divorces.”
But his dream? To write pop songs. Normal pop songs written assembly line style in song factories like New York’s fabled Brill Building, and that could later be sold to singers who, up until Bob Dylan and The Beatles, seldom wrote their own material.
At one point in the 60s he even managed to get some tunes to then-teen idol Bobby Darin (of “Mack the Knife” fame). “After Bobby heard three songs, he said, ‘You can come to my home on any Sunday afternoon, Angelo. I’ll have my family there, and I’d love for you to play your songs for everybody. I mean, this is my kind of thing. But these are not street songs—I can’t get any do-wop records out of these melodies!”
Badalamenti laughs and accepts from the waiter a single-person bay-leaf-and-tomato pizza, carefully cuts out a bite, and munches thoughtfully before continuing. “As hard as I tried to hide the darkness [in the songs]…it still came through. There was something kind of off-center about them…there’s a darkness to the beauty.”
It never occurred to Badalamenti that that his music’s off-center beauty might work well in films. “I was hoping just to be a successful songwriter. I mean, how do you break into films?”
Fate answered in the early 70s in the form of small Palomar Pictures, where Badalamenti had a job “working on a TV show” and in the person of Ossie Davis, the actor, director and civil rights activist perhaps best known for his late career turn as an African American JFK in Bubba Ho-Tep.
“It was the time of Superfly. Ossie Davis was doing Gordon’s War, a black exploitation movie. I read this script. Some themes came to mind. I call Ossie, “Can I play these for you?” He says, "Well, uh, um, this is an all black film and we were going to get Barry White to do the score.”
“I said, ‘Well, just come over to the piano so I can play you a couple of themes that I’ve written.’”
Davis, who Badalamenti recalls as having been a “very nice, very classy guy” sat next to the composer who said, “Here’s the theme for the girl.”
And then, to a catchy R&B melody, Badalamenti sings, “I was a child of tomorrow, born in the world yesterday”. He follows that with an impassioned melody for the film’s featured pimp, the crooning of which garners some of the restaurant’s diners’ stares. “Dream, dream about paradise…grab a little happiness tonight!”
Badalamenti grins as he recalls Davis’ reaction. “He says, ‘That’s exactly right! It’s perfect for the movie. But there’s a problem…
“And I say, ‘Ossie, I’m Sicilian. Look at the map. You can swim from the bottom of Sicily to Africa in like 15 minutes. I may not be a brother, but I’m certainly a cousin.” Badalamenti takes a bite of pizza. “And he said, ‘Okay. Do the movie.’”
He did—with the resultant score for Gordon’s War being credited to “Andy Badale.” He went about the work of learning about timing cues, SMPTE code and the other arcana of film scoring “on my own”. More small film work followed, but we can thank Isabelle Rosselini’s need for singing lessons for the career-long association with one David Lynch, matched only in fecundity and brilliance by Howard Shore and that other David (Cronenberg).
Badalamenti—now done with his pizza—tucks into his life-changing tale. “Isabelle Rosselini had to sing ‘Blue Velvet’, the standard” he recalls. “But David wasn’t happy with the way she was singing it, just backed with piano.”
And so a friend of a friend who was working for producer Dino DeLaurentiis’ called Badalamenti and asked if he could pop down to North Carolina where Velvet was shooting and help Rosselini with her vocals.
Not entirely sure why he should do the coaching when so many qualified folks were available, Badalamenti metaphorically shrugged his shoulders flew to the set. “I worked with Isabella and made a cassette after three hours or so of work. David heard the tape, and said, ‘I could take this cassette and put it in the movie right now and all she’d have to do is sync up and it would be perfect.’
Something he couldn’t sync up were the rights to use the Dead Can Dance’s “Song of the Siren”, one of the UK combo’s typically heavenly weaves of sonic gossamer. “That was David’s favorite song. He just loved it with a passion. But Dino DeLaurentis didn’t want to spend $15K on the rights.”
Badalamenti suggested that Lynch write some lines and although leery of some New York guy’s ability to create something that would replace the treasured Dead tune, Lynch wrote some words. These were in turn dutifully delivered to Badalamenti by Rosselini during a recording session.
Although the title was evocative-- “Mysteries of Love”—the words themselves lacked the rhyme and meter needed for normal songs.
Badalamenti recalls thinking, “What am I going to do with this? How do you write a song from what’s more poetry than anything? I’m a songwriter—I have to have some kind of a hook, you know, like [sings snippet of Four Seasons hit] ‘Walk like a man!’ “
Meanwhile, the only direction given him by his director was a Yoda-like suggestion that the composer “’Make it slow. Make it endless like the waves in the ocean. Go thorough time and space.’”
Badalamenti did just that. And with the film’s release, the world would heard the first clear iteration of the inimitable Badalamenti sound—those sad yet transcendent cloud banks of chords, crafted by blending old analog synthesizers, string samples and real orchestra. The whispering melodies that both resolve and retain their dissonance while a female singer—in this instance, the angelically voiced Julee Cruise— sings an angelically conversational melody.
Extraordinary stuff. Badalamenti smiles. “Bottom line is the joke really turned out to be on me. Because I wrote [the song] and never changed a single word David had written. And he loved it.”
Lynch then asked if Badalamenti could write a score “like Shostakovich?’ I said, ‘I’m not half as good, but I know what you’re talking about. Like “Symphony #5?”” [The hauntingly beautiful work by the persecuted Russian composer combining avant-garde and Romantic techniques.]
The resulting score secured for Badalamenti the career he’d never sought out. Soon he was adding his many flavors of melancholic oddness to films both in, out and straddling the horror and dark fantasy genres.
For Chuck Russell’s Nightmare on Elm Street 3, he went for sonic stealth, ”to start most cues very calm and serene, and then slowly add and layer dissonant notes, which would build into mental frenzy.” Bob Balaban’s quirky suburban cannibal horror film, Parents offered Badalamenti a chance to really stretch as he used “over the top 50's style music” to get across a sense of “the perfect heart of American family, listening and constantly dancing, to music of the rumba, mambo, and Cha-Cha” and “then intertwine it with flesh eating…weirdness.”
After over seventy films, Badalamenti has streamlined his process of creation. These days, his work is often created at a home studio in a quiet New Jersey suburb not unlike that of Blue Velvet’s bucolic Lumberton. “I live in a home where adjacent to mine I purchased a studio. So I can come out of my home, put on my robe and work. I haven’t built an underground tunnel yet, but”—a theatrical cackle dissolves into laughter—“but that’s next! [For you gearheads out there, Badalamenti uses Macs, a Windows XP Pentium 4 and Pro Tools system. Fave synthesizers and samplers include a Roland V-Synth, Korg Triton, Kurzweil K2600R and a MOTU MachFive soft sampler.)
When it’s possible, Badalamenti utilizes a downright chatty compositional process evolved from his working style with Lynch, who will sometimes describe to him ideas before a script is even written, and to which Badalamenti will then compose themes. “Most directors have their films edited and then they put their music to it. David will even cut scenes to fit the music or based on ideas he finds there.”
“Now I’ve got enough confidence and have worked on so many films where I tell directors, ‘Okay, I’ve seen your films, I like it, Come sit next to me at the keyboard. Just talk to me.
“I did that with Walter Salles with Dark Water. He came to my home, spent three or four days. In fact, I don’t think he had the film with him! “ He laughs, recalling the odd assignments the film, which moodily detailed the downward spiral of an unhappy woman and her daughter stuck in a haunted apartment on New York’s Roosevelt Island. “I recorded about an hour’s worth of music just from his descriptions—Jennifer Connelly’s going to go up the steps…She’s going to the water tower…
“And I needed a theme for the dripping of the water, and for the little girl. I literally wrote the whole score in four days with Salles sitting next to me.” The goal of his score was to add emotional texture to Connelly’s character, “to understand her emotional journey and her relationship with her daughter. And create a beautiful strangeness.” He chuckles. “And then there was, you know, some genre stuff. The big [makes a startled ‘surprise!’ noise] ack!”
Badalamenti’s combination of regular Brooklyn guy accessibility and Old World grace have earned him repeat business from not only Lynch, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (scores for City of Lost Children and A Very Long Engagement) but also Paul Schrader, for whom he scored Witch Hunt (1994), The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and Auto Focus (2002) and for whose work he paid back with a massive mitzvah.
As every genre fan not living in a remote cave over the last decade knows, Schrader shot a meditative take on faith, lost and re-found, under the franchise’s banner, only to have his film exnayed and re-shot by Renny Harlin as a dumb action-horror film called Exorcist: The Beginning. Or as Badalamenti recalls, still aghast, “Paul said to me, 'It’s like you’re driving along in a car and you open up the driver’s window and you take ten million dollars and just go [makes fluttering greenbacks sound].”
After the failure of Harlin’s bad film, “the producer came back to Paul, and said ‘I can’t do too much more, but maybe we can do a DVD [of Paul’s cut] and a limited theatrical release.’
Schrader went for it, but there was scant money for a score appropriate to his original film. “So Paul says, ‘I’d like to come out and just talk to you--but Angelo, there’s very little money!’ But Paul’s such a good friend, almost like a David Lynch to me. So I said, 'Don’t worry about it.' Bring your film and we’ll talk.
“So Paul comes out, brings his video. I sat down and played twenty, twenty-five minutes of music [mainly recorded samples of strings and percussion]. And he says, ‘My God—you’ve got it!…but I don’t know what to do! I don’t have…I’m so embarrassed!’
“And I said, ‘Paul, don’t worry about it. This is from me to you.’
A few days later, Schrader showed up bearing a gift in appreciation for Badalamenti’s gratis score (with additional bits from metal band Dog Fashion Disco) for what would eventually be released as Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, “a beautiful refurbished Rolex watch, inscribed, To Angelo. Thanks, Paul.”
Really, if there’s such a thing as ‘karma’, Badalamenti’s must be in extraordinarily good shape. Aside from the Schrader gift, there’s the musical present he graced on one Eli Roth, a longtime co-worker and friend of both Badalamenti and Lynch.
“’One of these days, Angelo,’” the composer recalls the fledgling auteur saying, “ ‘I’m gonna make a movie. When I do, will you do music for me?’” To which Badalamenti responded, “‘Eli, you get to that point, not only will I do it, but it’ll be on the house.’”
Which is just what happened when Roth finished Cabin Fever. “I did three or four themes,” Badalamenti recalls. “Among them a love theme, a blood-on-the-thing theme”--Badalamenti laughs--“I don’t know! But Eli loved it. And then he had a composer [Nathan Barr] do a wonderful score.”
While Badalamenti has spent a goodly portion of his career playing the field—from the romantic comedy Cousins, mafia mini-series The Last Don, to the James Spader-starring S&M truffle Secretary--there’s also no denying the call of the darkside in his filmography--including Neal LaBute’s regretable remake of The Wicker Man. Do the horror and dark fantasy genres hold a special attraction to Badalamenti?
A sip of post-pizza coffee. “Yes. I think I like the undertones of horror—the implications. Like the scariest thing about Blue Velvet—was the intended violence—you never really saw mutilation—yet you knew it was all around you.”
The composer becomes almost poetic when asked to describe the strange thing he’s been compelled to do with music since he was a boy—that weird element X that makes a Badalamenti score, well, a Badalamenti score. “You know what it is? It’s a dissonance that you feel. It’s the middle voice. Like, you have the top of your head and the bottom of your toes and there’s something in the middle and we don’t know what the hell that is—and there’s where the uncomfortable thing is—it doesn’t come from the melodies or the chords or the bassline.
“There’s that middle voice that’s there that’s constantly interweaving and intertwining that’s constantly rubbing. The chords aren’t so weird, but the inner voices that rub wrong against each other--it’s almost like they don’t belong. And yet it’s the most beautiful dissonance in the world.”