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The Madman and his Muse

Composer Angelo Badalamenti takes another wild ride with director David Lynch for Mulholland Drive

by Daniel Schweiger

Edited for FSD

Sure, David Lynch was pretty wacked before he met Angelo Badalamenti. The scores for Lynch's first three films showed a talent for combining melody with sound effects, as could be heard in Peter Iver's industrial backdrop to Eraserheard, John Morris' elegantly gothic Elephant Man and Toto's surreal sci-fi epic Dune. But it took Angelo Badalamenti to really let Lynch dive down the rabbit hole with his scores. It's been a dark wonderland for them both. This is excepting The Straight Story, a film so movingly normal (in most respects) that you'd think it couldn't possibly have come from them. Mulholland Drive is the latest, and perhaps strangest score that Badalamenti and Lynch have created. Beginning with its Glenn Miller-esque swing dance, Badalamenti's score throws as many acid-trip left turns at Lynch's visuals do. While the film winds its way through L.A.'s boulevard of broken (and very bad) dreams, the music veers from nearly motionless string dread to noir jazz and audio feedback, the rhythms building to an explosion of infinite darkness.

Not that Angelo Badalamenti isn't a sunny guy. In fact, a very funny one, the kind of Brooklyn-bred wisenheimer that would be right at home at the Friar's Lounge. The Bensonhurst native started piano lessons at eight, and was improvising music by 11. After studying at the Eastman School of Music and getting his Master's at the Manhattan School of Music, Badalamenti tried settling into life as a music teacher. But when the last school bell rang, Badalamenti was on the next subway to New York City where he tried to get deals for his original compositions. People finally listened when Badalamenti wrote an original musical based on A Christmas Carol for his students. WNET (Channel 13 on the NYC TV dial) sent a crew down, and the show ended up being broadcast. A music publisher called and offered Badalamenti a job writing songs at the princely sum of $50 a week -- when he could afford to pay him. "I thought about it for a minute and a half, and then I took it," the ex-music teacher chuckles.

Badalamenti would write his first scores under the name of Andy Badale. "You had to use a pen name, especially if you were Jewish or Italian," he remarks. Now with such diverse scores as Cousins, Parents, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Holy Smoke, The Beach and The City of Lost Children under his belt, Andy is proud to be known as Angelo Badalamenti, a composer who's done his time and can call the shots. But it's probably his work for David Lynch that has produced Badalamenti's most remarkable work, a film noir sound that became wildly popular when it was heard on Lynch's television show Twin Peaks. As Mulholland Drive continues Badalamenti's experiments with sound and melody, the composer reflects on what it's like to dabble in music's wildest extremes for a director who seems to know none. And if Mulholland Drive's music wasn't enough to make you afraid, just wait until you see Badalamenti's appearance as Luigi Castigliani, a power broker whom you don't want to screw on his espresso order.

FSM: How did you break into composing for film?

Badalamenti: I spent a lot of time at Palomar Pictures because I had a friend who was on staff there as a lyric writer. I was scoring some television shows for them when I met a Czechoslovakian director named Ivan Passer. He'd just finished Law and Disorder for them, a cop movie starring Carroll O'Connor and Ernest Borgnine. I'd read the script, which was floating around the office, and was inspired enough to write some music for it on spec. So I caught Ivan as he was about to go out the door and told him how much I loved the script. Then I said "Ivan, I'd like to play something for you." And he said "Oh, I've got to go down and mail a letter. But I tell you what. Why don't you play me this music before I go?" So I played the themes for Carrol and Ernest, then showed Ivan how I could make the themes work together. Ivan really flipped over the music, and asked me to score the film. I'd never done a movie before, and immediately said yes. Then Ivan said "You're lucky I didn't mail this letter." I asked him why, and Ivan took the letter out of his coat pocket. It was addressed to a composer he wanted named Aaron Copland! Ivan ripped the letter up and threw it in the garbage. The next movie I did was for Ossie Davis, who'd directed a black exploitation film called Gordon's War. I was into writing a lot of pop and soul at the time. And once again, I wrote the music on spec. Ossie loved it, and said "You know, this is an all-black film, and I'm thinking about using a brother to score it. Maybe Barry White. But I love what you're playing for me." And I said, "Ossie, you know I'm Sicilian. I may not be your brother, but I certainly am your cousin!" So that's how my film career began.

FSM: How did you meet David Lynch?

AB: It all started with Blue Velvet. Peter Runfolo and Fred Caruso were producer friends of mine who worked for Dino De Laurentiis, whose company was making the film. Peter and Fred asked me to coach Isabella Rossellini on her vocals for her club scene. So I sat down at a piano with her, and we recorded the song. Then we walked over the set, where David Lynch was shooting the very last scene of the film. David couldn't believe how well the song came out, especially because he was having so much trouble getting Isabella's vocals right. No one was able to work with her to his satisfaction. Now David had total creative control on Blue Velvet. He took very short dollars from Dino for it, and he wanted this other song called "Song of the Siren" in the worst way. But it cost $50,000 for the synch rights, so Fred asked me if I could write an original song to replace it. I said I could, but since I only wrote music, I asked if David could write the title and a few lines. That would be enough for me to get a handle on the song. And it made sense that David would know what this new song would be about, since he lived with Blue Velvet for so long. Besides, it's not a bad idea for a music writer to make the director your partner! David thought the idea was preposterous, but reluctantly agreed to do it to pacify Dino. He'd have the option to turn it down and use the song he wanted in the first place. A little later, Isabella handed me a piece of yellow paper that had David's lyrics on it. On the top of it was the title "Mysteries of Love." I read it through. There was no rhyme scheme or hook to latch on to like songs were supposed to have. I said, "My God, what the heck am I going to do with this? There's no song here!" I was sorry I asked David to write the lyrics. But I did the smart thing that any street-wise kid from Brooklyn would do. I called him and said "David, what a great lyric!" Then I followed it up by asking David what kind of music he wanted. He said, "Oh, just make it like the wind, Angelo. It should be a song that floats on the sea of time. Make it cosmic!" And the only thing I could respond with was, "Oh..."

FSM: Your music for David often seems caught between melody and sound effects, particularly in Mulholland Drive.

AB: You can use sound effects and music separately, or together. It all depends on the need of the film. David loves to play and experiment with music and sound. He worked very closely on his sound design with the late Alan Splet. Together, they created a remarkable and innovate aural experience. They'd play tracks at half- and quarter-speed. or even in reverse. Lost Highway required a lot of sound design. But when David did The Straight Story, there was very limited use of "effecty" kinds of things. On both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, I gave David multiple music tracks, which we call "firewood." I'd go into the studio, and record these long 10- to 12-minute cues with a full orchestra. Sometimes I'd add synthesizers to them. I'd vary the range of the notes, then layer these musical pieces together. All would be at a slow tempo. Then David would take this stuff like it was firewood, and he'd experiment with it. So that's what a lot of the "musical" sound design stuff is that you're hearing. David really creates beautiful things with it.

FSM: I was struck by how many musical styles you used in Mulholland Drive. It's got Bebop, [different styles of] jazz and these dark, menacing atmospheres. What was David looking for in your score?

AB: David loves music that sounds Russian, the whole Eastern European melodic thing. He wanted me to do that for the main title, but for it to be beautiful at the same time. David asked for it to be used at different places and in different ways in the film, to come back like a good old friend.. He wanted the audience to relate to the main theme, whether they'd realize it or not. He also asked me to write specific themes for the main characters. The whole opening is like a '40s big-band swing thing, but it isn't done like "In the Mood." It's recorded in an abstract way. So you don't know what the heck's going on, even though the rhythm's got this Glen Miller feeling to it. Then David needed a rather strange and off-center blues piece for the theater magician scene. I was always writing a score that was very close to me, music that was off-center and a little jazzy. And Mulholland Drive is just about a wall-to-wall combination of music and sound design. It's a terrific example of that kind of approach.

FSM: Besides scoring Mulholland Drive, you've got a major part in it as an actor. How did that happen?

AB: David called me on the phone and told me he wanted me to be in the movie. When I thanked him for letting me do the music, David said "You're not only going to do the music Angelo, but I want you to be in the movie." I told David that he had to be kidding! But David told me that he had a cameo role that he thought I'd be perfect for. All he wanted me to do was to act like "the story you once told me about that man you once met in New Jersey." And I remembered that years ago I was playing piano for this singer, and she invited me to her home. She wanted me to have dinner with her husband. So I go to this place, which has a two-mile driveway up to this mansion, with all of these Rolls Royces parked outside of it. I go inside, and there's this long dinner table that's only set for four people. Butlers and maids are around it. So the singer introduces me to her husband. Let's just call him "Joey." That's not his real name, but you know what I'm getting at. I went to shake his hand, and he didn't want to. He had the sternest look about him. We're sitting at the dinner table, and he doesn't say a single word for the first half hour. So to break the ice, I said to him "Joey, you've got a fantastic home. What kind of work do you do?' He doesn't answer. Then I said "Are you a builder?" He looks up at me with these eyes, with the same stare I have in the film, and he says "Sort of." A half hour later, I said "I've never been in a home that had waterfalls before. And look at the masonry! Are you a mason?" And he stared at me with those eyes and said "Kind of." I told David this story three years ago, and David never forgot the story or the way I told it. And he wrote this part in Mulholland Drive based on that character. It was a ball, and I loved acting in the film.

FSM: What's your favorite score that you've done for David?

AB: I don't really have a favorite. Each new score is your favorite. I know that sounds kind of stock, but it's really true. If you're working on a score, it's your favorite because you're inspired to create something new. But in terms of success, there's no question that it's my score for the Twin Peaks television show. It was just mind-boggling experience, because Twin Peaks put me on the map on a worldwide level. I was called on to write the "Torch Theme" for the Summer Barcelona Olympics, and I know that was mainly because of the worldwide success of Twin Peaks and its music.

FSM: Would you describe yourself as an experimental composer?

AB: Well, if you would interpret "experimental" as constantly composing new melodies, rhythms and harmonies, then you can bet I'm experimental.

FSM: David's more personal films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive seem to have gotten progressively weirder. Do you understand the images that you're scoring to?

AB: Of course I do. David calls on me before he starts shooting the film, so I know what I've written before he's edited the picture. A lot of his stuff is abstract, and people watch his films because they're so surreal. You could take the meaning of his images in a million different ways. They're like good lyrics. The only time I couldn't understand them was when I was reading Lost Highway. There's a great storyline that's going on, and all of a sudden this guy in jail transforms into another person. I started scratching my head and saying, "Oh boy, here we go again!" I'd say Lost Highway was the most abstract film David has ever done. But then he surprised the world by directing the beautiful, real life Straight Story with Richard Farnsworth. There was nothing abstract about that. I think David has done Mulholland Drive with a tremendous amount of confidence. He's just going with the film, and not backing off in any sense. Maybe it's more abstract and surreal than his other films. But the bottom line is that it's a beautiful ride.

Check out FSM Vol. 6, No. 8, available now, for the full Angelo Badalamenti interview...

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