Angelo Badalamenti was a master composer who created theme music history with Twin Peaks
The composer had an esteemed career working with David Bowie and Nina Simone, but it was his unique partnership with David Lynch that set a benchmark for dramatic scores
‘It’s incredible what comes out of Angelo,” David Lynch once said. “He is a master of heart and beauty.” Those qualities, as well moments of droning dread and subtle jazz grooves, oozed out of Angelo Badalamenti’s fingertips when he touched his piano and shaped Lynch’s cinematic worlds. Badalamenti’s music was not simply a sonic accompaniment to his images but something that pulsed, swelled and swayed through Lynch’s surreal terrain, almost a character in its own right.
Badalamenti had an esteemed and varied career writing music on and off screen, working with everyone from David Bowie to Nina Simone, but his ability to construct engulfing worlds, with palpable, tactile sonic landscapes was at its absolute best with Lynch. Especially on Twin Peaks – a score that exists as an unimpeachable benchmark for modern television that has been sampled by Moby, DJ Shadow and the KLF.
The pair first worked together on 1986’s Blue Velvet, with Badalamenti initially being asked to mimic This Mortal Coil’s cover of Song to the Siren after they couldn’t clear the rights. Badalamenti encouraged Lynch to write the lyrics, Lynch directed Badalmenti to “let the music float like the ocean tides” and Mysteries of Love was born. “I don’t know how that happened,” Badalamenti told me in 2016. “I sat down and there it was. David loved it and said: ‘Find us a singer who sings like an angel.’ In walked Julee Cruise and the rest is history.” It proved such a momentous turning point that decades later Badalamenti still had the little scrap of paper with Lynch’s lyrics framed on his wall. It birthed the lifelong relationship between Lynch and Badalamenti – and for a period, Cruise, with the three creating the landmark dream pop record Floating Into the Night.
Badalamenti and Lynch had a unique partnership in that they never scored to picture, with Lynch preferring to describe moods, scenes and stories, often in abstract language, while Badalamenti responded in real time. “I listen to their stuff and I don’t know how he did it,” Lynch’s then-studio manager Dean Hurley told me in 2017. “Angelo has such a talent. A lot of people can really chip away at the ice sculpture and get it down over time but with Angelo, it just happens spontaneously.”
The theme for Twin Peaks, which became Falling when Julee Cruise sang on it, was written in just 20 minutes, with Lynch telling Badalamenti: “It’s the mood of the whole piece. It is Twin Peaks.” It’s a piece of music that wraps up all the show’s complexities and contradictions by being at once wistful, mournful, euphoric, sombre, delicate and dense – both blissfully serene and quietly haunting. Laura Palmer’s Theme is perhaps the most simultaneously beautiful and dread-inducing piece of music to have been composed for television, with piano keys that ring out in perturbingly low tones with echoing ominous clangs, before scaling up to heights of pure, pristine beauty – a tonal shift from funeral march doom to the bliss of walking down the aisle in mere seconds.
Badalamenti and Lynch produced many visceral and beautiful marriages of music and film for the likes of Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive. They even formed an experimental jazz outfit, Thought Gang, which provided tracks for the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. When Lynch decided to reboot Twin Peaks in 2017 “the first thing out of his mouth was: ‘I need to work with Angelo’”, Hurley told me: Badalamenti had become such an invaluable sculptor of Lynch’s narrative world that he was required from the ground up.
Badalamenti’s career is littered with highlights but the enduring brilliance and influence of Twin Peaks positions it as an unquestionable zenith. When I asked if he had a favourite scene he had scored in his near 50-year career of composing for screen, he chose the final scene in Fire Walk With Me. He retold the scene in great detail, growing more animated, enraptured and emotional as he did. His fingers reached for his nearby Fender Rhodes as he re-lived this transcendent moment: “There’s a beautiful and immaculate shot of Laura Palmer’s face,” he said. “It reflects sadness but suddenly an angel appears. Laura looks stunned but her sad face turns into a lovely smile. She’s with Agent Cooper, his hand on her shoulder, as the camera pans towards the angel. Laura has a beautiful smile with tears in her eyes – all of a sudden it’s an image of happiness as the angel looks down on her in prayer and then, very slowly, Laura bows her head as the angel fades away …”
He stopped himself for a brief moment before concluding, rather emotionally, “the theme I wrote for that … what can I tell you … that marriage is just … if it doesn’t bring you to tears then I don’t know what to say.” It neatly embodied the special alchemy between Lynch and Badalamenti: a deeply emotive approach to music that can induce tears even in moments of pure terror.