David Lynch is an artistic multi-talent: he started his career as a painter, then made a truckload of films, and is also a writer. In addition, Lynch maintains a close relationship with music. He opened a club in Paris, is the organizer of the Festival of Disruption and has released several albums himself. Moreover, he uses the soundtracks of his films to express the themes that run through all his art: the eternal joust between good and evil.
Written by: Mabel Zwaan
Illustration: Bart Zwart
From slumbering scores that are woven through his films to bombastic arrangements: Lynch uses a wide musical spectrum to make that common denominator audible. But what exactly is the common thread that runs through the soundtracks of his films? An important part of that thread is the 82-year-old composer Angelo Badalamenti. His name rightly shines with that of Lynch on the albums on which the soundtracks of series such as Twin Peaks are immortalized. Lynch and Badalamenti are a dynamic duo, conjoined twins. One cannot function without the other.
Badalamenti grew up in a musical Sicilian family in Brooklyn. He has been composing his own work since he was ten, especially from behind the piano. Over the past few decades, he's worked with Nina Simone and a big list of directors you'll love, but the partnership with Lynch remained the crowning glory of his career. In addition to his contribution to Twin Peaks, Badalamenti made the soundtracks for Lynch projects such as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Rabbits. His fascination for darkness and its beauty can be recognized in all those compositions, a fascination that still characterizes his work and inspires other musicians to this day.
For example, the Dutch duo Donna Blue, who played in the dim cinema of LAB111 in Amsterdam last January. Blue Velvet is screened afterwards and it is hard to imagine a better support act for a Lynch film: Danique van Kesteren and Bart van Dalen effortlessly capture the dreamy essence of Lynch and Badalamenti. Their first single 'Baby' and accompanying video are even completely inspired by a scene from Twin Peaks: the characters James, Donna (for whom the band is named) and Maddy sit on the floor and play a sweet, romantic song in a warm red light. “That is such a bland and romantic song, wonderful,” Danique looks back. Bart nods. “Originally that song was in a really low key, but David Lynch kept pushing the actor who plays James to sing higher. The actor is now being bullied for it, but it works so well.”
The music video for 'Baby' releases just before the third season of Twin Peaks, which returns on TV in 2017, 25 years after the last season. “When I think of music from David Lynch's movies, I think of mystery,” Danique says. “And timelessness. It's bizarre how Lynch always manages to create a 50s vibe, which is very 80s, 90s and contemporary at the same time. For example, look at Blue Velvet: the decor is classic 50s but the rest screams 80s. That appeals to us in everything.” “And I really like that warm synthesizer from Twin Peaks,” Bart adds. “It is very recognizable, in combination with the double bass, the quiet drum… Very jazzy.”
The golden bond of trust
It's 1989 and David Lynch is sitting next to Angelo Badalamenti at the keyboard of a Fender Rhodes in his Manhattan office. Lynch and screenwriter Mark Frost are about to create Twin Peaks, a soap opera in which a murder changes the secret lives of a small Pacific town in the US Northwest. Lynch and Frost need a soundtrack. The birth of the second track from that soundtrack - "Laura Palmer's Theme" - is a legendary example of how Badalamenti and Lynch usually work together. “What do you see?”, the composer asks the director, in whose head music, images and stories are inextricably intertwined. Then Lynch describes an image. A dark forest, a full moon in the sky, an owl. “Just lead me into that beautiful darkness with the soft wind.”
Badalamenti chooses an ominous, low motif. Slower, says Lynch. "Just slow things down and it gets more beautiful." Now, he says, imagine a distressed teenage girl emerging from the darkness and approaching. Badalamenti steadily climbs the keyboard, dissolving the melody to an ecstatic height, before diving back into the darkness. In twenty minutes the 'Laura Palmer's Theme' is done. Badalamenti suggests developing it further, but Lynch is resolute. “Don't change a single note. I see Twin Peaks.” Afterwards, the duo hugs: their intimate collaboration has once again reached a climax.
Thus Badalamenti and Lynch become the dream couple of the film music, a duo who love each other like brothers. Badalamenti's greatest quality, according to Lynch, is that he writes music that rips your heart out. In many cases, his music is at least as important to the end result as the images Lynch directs. In fact, the two often start writing the music before filming. In a very short time Badalamenti then writes the music that connects to the images Lynch has in his head, the music that makes such images even clearer and directs them towards the screen. That's how it was with Blue Velvet, that's how it was with Twin Peaks, and that's how it was with Fire Walk With Me, Wild At Heart and Mulholland Drive.
“In Blue Velvet, Badalamenti is even playing the piano when the singer sings the theme song. Lynch and he really are thick as thieves,” Danique smiles. “That's a relationship that you build, I think, a way of collaboration that is completely based on feeling,” Bart continues. “In any case, we work in such a way. We are married, so we know each other through and through. I can't put my finger on it, but we also feel each other flawlessly. When she makes something, I usually immediately understand what she means.” “We've known each other for a long time, but we also respect each other as an artist,” Danique adds. “Lynch is not someone who explains what he wants to say with something, but Badalamenti feels that. They have a relationship of trust.”
The unique method
Music often plays a guiding role in Lynch's filmography: it does not follow the images, but shapes them. For example, the aforementioned Blue Velvet is based entirely on a single song, and surprisingly not on the eponymous title song. “Lynch had written the lyrics for Mysteries of Love, eventually sung by Julee Cruise, with the characters shuffling in the film's climax. He said to Badalamenti, "I have the lyrics, you make up the song." The whole movie lives up to that moment, that song. That is a way of working that is so unique. He thinks very much in music. It's the other way around with other directors. He also always has the music on during filming, which is often written before the plot is complete. He tinkers with the atmosphere, the images, until it clicks with the song that is already running on a loop on the set.”
And the role of music is not over once Lynch's films are finished. Music also occupies an important position in the end result. “Music not only plays an important role in Lynch's life, but also in that of his main characters,” says Bart. “I also like how you see Lynch's musical development reflected in his productions. You can hear exactly in which films he preferred metal and when he was into jazz. He is now very openly expressing his passion for transcendental meditation. You can hear that in Inland Empire and the new season of Twin Peaks, the music is very meditative. You are tied to such an entire series, especially by that ominous music that lies underneath. Very long synth lines, very heavy, very dark, very low. And it's so subtle that you often don't even notice it."
Lynch's soundtracks take many forms: they are mysterious, romantic, sinister, sinister, surreal and sometimes even absurd. As a viewer, as a listener, you stand with one leg in a meadow full of daisies where the sunlight falls on your toes, while the other is sucked into pitch black quicksand. Lynch knows how to reconcile it in such a unique way with the images he has in his head that the total picture is dizzyingly compelling. The soundtracks feel like a coalmine of intensely black, claustrophobic creepiness, where a colorful canary leads you through to the light, past heartbreaking melodies that slither into your ears like larvae. The music may differ per film as day and night, the atmosphere is always more or less the same: even the most beautiful musical notes in Lynch's universe have unpredictable barbs that don't know how to let go. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.