A few weeks back we did a feature on the 50 best film soundtracks ever. Our number one? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s 1992 movie spin-off of the cult TV show.
A flop at the time, the film has never been as well-loved as the show – though it’s currently enjoying something of a critical rehabilitation (Mark Kermode has called it a “masterpiece”) – but its soundtrack is something else.
Though it has much in common with the TV soundtrack, it’s darker and more eccentric, featuring not just the plangent synth atmospheres that everyone associates with Twin Peaks, but also a scabrous strain of clanking evil jazz (‘The Pink Room’) - as well as a truly unearthly vocal performance from the jazz singer Jimmy Scott, on ‘Sycamore Trees’.
As with almost all David Lynch’s films, the soundtrack was composed by Brooklyn-based Angelo Badalamenti. A garrulous Italian-American with a rich and resonant speaking voice – a legacy from his days as an opera student and singing coach - I called him up to discuss the legacy of Twin Peaks.
You wrote the best film soundtrack ever! How does that feel?
Wow. It’s a total knockout. More than flattering. When I found out I was absolutely stunned – I immediately emailed David [Lynch] and he couldn’t believe it. It’s so thrilling to know that other people get the same feeling from your work that you do.
What is it about the Twin Peaks soundtrack that resonates with people?
It’s twenty years since I scored that show, and the fact people are still talking about it is a tribute to my great friend David Lynch. The music was such an important part of that show, almost as if it was a major character. So when it came to the film it was just a question of developing and expanding the music.
Both film and TV show have such a distinctive mood. How did you create that musically?
There are a lot of off-centre things going on. Like any composer I have the melody on top and the bass on the bottom – but what it makes it distinctively Angelo Badalamenti is the middle stuff, beautiful dissonant things that kind of rub you wrong. Sometimes they resolve, sometimes they don’t. It’s beautiful but never saccharine.
Presumably it helped that you worked so closely with David Lynch? As in, literally side by side at the piano.
Absolutely. Most soundtracks are composed after the film is made and edited. And we did that once, on Blue Velvet, the first film we worked on together. After that we worked in a very unusual way, in that David would sit next to me at the keyboard and just talk. His words would inspire me.
Paint me a visual picture, then, of how that soundtrack was written.
We recorded it at Excalibur Sound in New York, a small, funky studio, really dusty and unkempt and dark. It wasn’t clean, lights would flick on and off – but we loved it because it created a mood for us. We wrote pretty much the whole thing sat together at an old Fender Rhodes keyboard – which I later gave to Tim Booth of the band James, though I’ve got it back now, thankfully [Booth and Badalamenti recorded an album together in 1996, under the name Booth And The Bad Angel].
Any standout memories?
There’s one song on there that I did the vocal for, ‘A Real Indication’. It’s based on a poem that David wrote. He came in to the studio one day and said, ‘Why don’t you do the vocal?’ So I went in and started having a ball with it. I could see David getting hysterical – he actually laughed so hard he had a hernia. He had to get surgery the next day.
Twin Peaks continues to have an influence on pop culture. The Raveonettes say the show inspired them to form a band. Bright Light Bright Light covered the theme tune recently…
You know it’s been amazing through the years. I was at a film festival recently and these kids came up to me and said they’d just started watching the show. All around the world, each new generation of kids get into it. David Lynch said to me once: “It’s amazing. Twin Peaks just will not die.” You want to hear a funny story?
Go on then…
Back when Twin Peaks was kicking off around the world, I flew by Concorde to London, to work with Paul McCartney at Abbey Road. He said, ‘Let me tell you a story’. Not long before we met, he’d been asked to perform for the Queen for her birthday celebrations. And when he met her, he started to say, ‘I’m honoured to be here tonight your Majesty, and I’m going to play some music for you.’ And the Queen says, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t stay, it’s five to eight and I have to go and watch Twin Peaks!’
Wow. OK then - what’s your secret? What makes a great soundtrack?
It depends on the nature of the film. Sometimes you want the music to go along with what's happening on screen. Other times I love the idea of the music going against what’s happening – that’s often a cooler way to do things.
Like Julee Cruise, with her ethereal, angelic voice… to have her singing in a rough redneck bar, as she does in Fire Walk With Me. I mean, there’s no way in hell that would really happen. It’s the contrast that makes it work.
So I always have one major question for a director when I compose a soundtrack: what do you want your audience to feel? Do you want to scare the shit out of them? Squirm in their seat? Feel beautiful? And how they answer that question gives me cues to work on. I translate their words into music.