Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch’s Composer on ‘Blue Velvet,’ ‘Twin Peaks’ and More, Dies at 85

Angelo Badalamenti, the acclaimed David Lynch composer who went from teaching in junior high school in Brooklyn to creating haunting, ethereal music for the filmmaker’s Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, has died. He was 85. 

Badalamenti died Sunday at his home in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, his niece Frances Badalamenti told The Hollywood Reporter.

The classically trained composer also collaborated with an eclectic mix of singers in virtually every genre during his long career, from Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Bassey, Patti Austin, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Liza Minnelli, Mel Tillis and Roberta Flack to Pet Shop Boys, Anthrax, Dolores O’Riordan, Tim Booth and LL Cool J.

Badalamenti composed the theme music for ABC’s Twin Peaks, NBC’s Profiler and Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, and for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, his “Torch Theme” during the opening ceremony accompanied an archer’s flaming arrow that ignited the Olympic cauldron.

When Lynch needed a vocal coach for actress Isabella Rossellini on Blue Velvet (1986), then filming in North Carolina, he turned to Badalamenti, who had developed a reputation for working with singers.

“I met with Isabella and after a couple of hours with a piano and a little cassette recorder, we got a decent vocal [on the Bobby Vinton song ‘Blue Velvet’],” he recalled in a 2015 interview for Spirit & Flesh magazine. “So we go over to the set where David is shooting the last scene. … He puts on the earphones, listens to the recording and says, ‘Peachy keen. That’s the ticket!’”

Badalamenti was tasked to write another tune — Lynch told him, “Oh, just let it float like the tides of the ocean, make it collect space and time, timeless and endless” — and that became the memorable torch song “Mysteries of Love,” performed by Julee Cruise, who was recruited by the composer.

Lynch turned over all the music for Blue Velvet to Badalamenti, who went on to collaborate with the filmmaker on Twin Peaks — he created themes for several characters in the 1989-91 drama — Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

“I sit with Angelo and talk to him about a scene and he begins to play those words on the piano,” Lynch told The New York Times in 2005 in explaining how the duo made music. “Sometimes we would even get together and make stuff up on the piano, and before you know it that leads to the idea for a scene or a character.

“When we started working together, we had an instant kind of a rapport — me not knowing anything about music but real interested in mood and sound effects. I realized a lot of things about sound effects and music working with Angelo, how close they are to one another.”

Added Badalamenti: “David’s visuals are very influenced by the music. The tempo of music helps him set the tempo of the actors and their dialogue and how they move. He would sit next to me at a keyboard describing what he was thinking as I would improvise the score. Almost all of Twin Peaks was written without me seeing a single frame, at least in the pilot.”

Badalamenti said he would often come to Lynch’s set and play live music during filming so the actors “could feel the mood.”

In 1990, Badalamenti received a Grammy Award for his evocative Twin Peaks theme and three Emmy nominations for his work on the series. The show’s soundtrack album went gold in 25 countries.

About that Twin Peaks music — which Badalamenti composed on an old Fender Rhodes electric piano — Michael Tedder wrote in 2017 in Esquire: “Together they created a score that was often as serene and beautiful as the images of the waterfall that we see in the opening credits — but one that could quickly go to a macabre place. Music oozed out of every pore of the show, whether we were watching The Man From Another Place dance, checking out a performance at the Roadhouse or discovering Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic.”

Badalamenti was born in Brooklyn on March 22, 1937, and raised in the Bensonhurst section of the borough. His father, from Sicily, owned a fish market. An uncle, Vinnie Badale, played trumpet with bandleaders Benny Goodman and Harry James.

When Badalamenti was young, there was one song, Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” that always brought him to tears, and he played it over and over.

As a teenager, he played piano and French horn in the Lafayette High School orchestra before attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, on a full scholarship. After two years there, he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1960.

During summers in his college years, he accompanied singers at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. “I had to play a lot of the standards, so I learned quite a wide range of music,” he said in a 2019 interview with his niece. “I had to learn them very quickly, and learning so many different types of music was a tremendous help later on in my career.”

Angelo Badalamenti (at the piano) and Isabella Rossellini in 1986’s ‘Blue Velvet’

De Laurentis Group/Courtesy Everett Collection

While teaching music to seventh-graders during his fifth year at Dyker Heights Junior High in Brooklyn, he composed a Christmas musical for his students that wound up being telecast in 1964 by PBS station WNET.

That led to a job at a music publisher, and Badalamenti (then going by the pen name Andy Badale) would arrange and write songs for artists including Bassey.

He advertised for a lyricist in magazines and newspapers and connected with John Clifford, and they wrote the songs “Hold No Grudge” and “He Ain’t Comin’ Home No More,” which he blindly pitched and then sold to Simone. She recorded both as well as 1969’s “Another Spring,” which one critic noted is “as rousing and moving a song as you’ll find in the singer’s repertoire.”

Badalamenti also wrote with Frank Stanton “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” recorded by Wilson in 1968, and collaborated with French electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey on tracks including 1970’s “E.V.A.,” which would be sampled by Fatboy Slim, A Tribe Called Quest and others.

He even wrote a country song — with Norman Mailer, no less — “You’ll Come Back (You Always Do),” recorded by Tillis for the 1987 film Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

His first job in the movies was composing the score for the Harlem-set Gordon’s War (1973), directed by Ossie Davis. Badalamenti said Davis was all set to hire Barry White before he listened to his music.

He then scored the crime drama Law and Disorder (1974), directed by the Czech-born Ivan Passer, but wouldn’t work on another film until Blue Velvet.

Badalamenti, Lynch and Cruise also collaborated on two albums, 1989’s Floating Into the Night (the unofficial soundtrack to Twin Peaks) and 1993’s The Voice of Love, and a 1990 avant-garde concert piece called Industrial Symphony No. 1, which featured Wild at Heart stars Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern. He and Lynch also recorded a jazz album, Thought Gang, in the early ’90s.

Lynch fans also know Badalamenti as the espresso-obsessed gangster Luigi Castigliane in Mulholland Drive. (He also was seen at the piano during Rossellini’s “Blue Velvet” performance.)

The composer worked with other top-notch directors, including Paul Schrader on The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Forever Mine (1999), Auto Focus (2002) and Dominion (2005); Jean-Pierre Jeunet on The City of Lost Children (1995) and A Very Long Engagement (2004); Jane Campion on Holy Smoke (1999); Danny Boyle on The Beach (2000); Eli Roth on Cabin Fever (2002); Walter Salles on Dark Water (2005); and Fedor Bondarchuk on Stalingrad (2014).

His music also is heard on Weeds (1987), A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Cousins (1989), Naked in New York (1993), Arlington Road (1999), Secretary (2002), The Wicker Man (2006) and A Late Quartet (2012).

Badalamenti was honored for lifetime achievement at the 2008 World Soundtrack Awards, then received the prestigious Henry Mancini Award from ASCAP, presented by Lynch, three years later.

In addition to his niece, survivors include his wife, Lonny, an artist whom he married in 1968, and his daughter, Danielle.

In his Spirit & Flesh interview (and in this great 2018 video), Badalamenti describes how he and Lynch came up with “Laura Palmer’s Theme”:

“David came to my little office across from Carnegie Hall and said, ‘I have this idea for a show, ‘Northwest Passage.’ … He sat next to me at the keyboard and said, ‘I haven’t shot anything, but it’s like you are in a dark woods with an owl in the background and a cloud over the moon and sycamore trees are blowing very gently …’

“I started to press the keys for the opening chord to ‘Twin Peaks Love Theme,’ because it was the sound of that darkness. He said, ‘A beautiful troubled girl is coming out of the woods, walking toward the camera …’ I played the sounds he inspired. ‘And she comes closer and it reaches a climax and …’ I continued with the music as he continued the story. ‘And from this, we let her go back into the dark woods.’

“The notes just came out. David was stunned, as was I. The hair on his arms was up and he had tears in his eyes: ‘I see Twin Peaks. I got it.’ I said, ‘I’ll go home and work on it.’ ‘Work on it?! Don’t change a note.’ And of course I never did.”

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