His Haunting Mood Music Makes Composer Angelo Badalamenti the Lynch-Pin of Twin Peaks's Success

UPDATED 09/10/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/10/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

In an early episode of David Lynch's prime-time phenomenon, Twin Peaks, Sherilyn Fenn, who plays resident space cadet Audrey Home, sits perched on a stool at the Double R Diner. Chatting with a friend, Audrey begins to drift into her familiar quasi-hypnotic state, sliding off the stool to head for an imaginary dance floor. She starts swaying to the cool, finger-popping jazz riffs floating around the diner, her eyelids barely open. "God, I love this music," she moans to the eerily sensuous beat. "Isn't it too dreamy?"

You said it, Aud. Rarely in the history of television has a hit show owed so much to the music. Those dark, eerie themes give Peaks much of its quirky, uneasy and unmistakable atmosphere. Yet the maestro behind the music is not some angst-filled new-age artiste: Angelo Badalamenti is a 53-year-old classically trained composer from New Jersey. He used to play the piano along the Borscht Belt in the '50s, he carries a comfortable paunch above his waist, and he often likes to slip out for a round of golf. In other words he's the perfect counterpoint to the eccentric Lynch, his musical collaborator of the past four years.

The pairing may seem odd, yet it has proved quite fruitful. The album Twin Peaks is due out Sept. 11, featuring those beautifully synthesized melodies, and Lynch and Badalamenti are busy concocting music for the show's new season, which starts Sept. 30. Of Peaks's 14 Emmy nominations, Badalamenti copped three for his musical contributions. He also collaborated on the scores for Lynch's violent road flick, the current Wild at Heart, and Lynch's new series of commercials for Calvin Klein's Obsession. In addition there's an hour-long performance piece, Industrial Symphony No. 1, recently released on video.

Lynch gets rhapsodic when discussing his songwriting partner's abilities. "He's got this musical soul, and melodies are always floating around inside," says the director. "I feel the mood of a scene in the music, and one thing helps the other, and they both just start climbing." Badalamenti calls their relationship "the second-best marriage in the world." (The first is the one he shares with his wife, Lonny.) "David doesn't vacillate," he says. "He just describes what he wants, and before he's finished I'm tuned in and I've already got my hands on the keyboards."

When they sat down to write the Peaks score early last year, Badalamenti assumed some of Lynch's peculiar working rituals. They headed for the same Manhattan deli across from Badalamenti's studio apartment, and each ordered the same thing every day: turkey sandwich, fries, a side of "cremated" bacon and lots of "damn good coffee." Then they got down to work. "He'd say, 'Try and come up with something that's beautiful and dark," says Badalamenti, imitating his musical better half in a soft whisper. " 'Then it should build to a climax that just years your heart out." So I'm looking at him strangely, but as he's talking my eyes start going somewhere, and I start hearing melodies." Badalamenti knew when Lynch was pleased. "He would go into this stare, and I realized he was seeing what he was going to shoot."

Music has always been Badalamenti's greatest passion. The son of a fish-market owner and a housewife, Badalamenti took piano lessons at 8 and grew up listening to classical music. As a teenager he accompanied singers on the piano at Catskill resorts during the summer, eventually enrolling at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. In 1960 he got a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music and taught music at Brooklyn's Dyker Heights Junior High, writing songs in his spare time. Badalamenti was hired by a music-publishing company in the early '70s and soon began to earn a decent living arranging, writing commercial jingles and composing songs for a range of singers that stretched from Shirley Bassey to country legend Mel Tillis. "I always managed to make things work," says Badalamenti.

Movie scores—for films like 1973's Gordon's War and Law and Disorder the following year—were also in the mix. but it wasn't until 1986 that Badalamenti's career really took off. Filming Blue Velvet, Lynch needed a vocal coach for his then star, now girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini, and Badalamenti, who was well-known for working with singers, was recommended. When a new song was needed for the score, Lynch asked his future collaborator for a tune. Together they wrote one of the film's memorable songs, "Mysteries of Love." From that point on, says Badalamenti, "I felt we had an instant communication."

Away from Peaks's frenzy, the low-key composer leads a decidedly unassuming life. After 22 years of marriage, he and Lonny have just moved into a modest four-bedroom house in suburban New Jersey, where the only extravagance is a whirlpool bath off the master bedroom. Their children-Danielle, 21, an art student in Philadelphia, and Andre, 19, a clarinetist at Dad's old haunt, the Manhattan School of Music—are Peaks devotees and follow along with the original scripts in hand. The Badalamenti household in general is surprised at the show's success. "Lonny was the only one who thought it would be a hit," confesses Badalamenti. "I didn't expect the show to do what it's done. But I hope it never ends!"

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