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33 at 33: Angelo Badalamenti’s weird and wonderful soundtrack for Blue Velvet

As if often the way in art, the iconic soundtrack to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet came about in part by accident, when the eccentric director of The Elephant Man was looking for a vocal coach for Isabella Rossellini. The result was the first fruits of a coruscating creative partnership: not only had Lynch found himself a composer par excellence, but as the haunting work weaves through the narrative, accentuating the noir mood of the film, we’re reminded that it was this fledgling 1986 collaboration  which introduced Angelo Badalamenti and the ethereal beauty of singer Julee Cruise to the wider world. Pronto! 

David Lynch is often credited as being really fucking Fellini-on-acid weird, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, what gets lost in chopped-off ears, homeless demons, and lipstick-smearing Diane Ladds is the beauty of his wayward vision. 

Take the soundtrack to the 1986’s narcotic murder mystery Blue Velvet, for instance.

A textural genius, Lynch uses sound design better than almost any director on the planet, so, naturally, had an opinion on the music, something composers generally dread. Instead, it marked the start of a fruitful long-term collaboration, as the auteur worked with the New York composer Angelo Badalamenti for the first time on this film and asked him to write a score that had to be “like Shostakovich, be very Russian, but make it the most beautiful thing but make it dark and a little bit scary.”

Mirroring the movie’s unsettling neo-noir atmosphere envisioned by the director, the result is as brilliantly eerie as you’d expect. Dense orchestrations float along whispers of dark, unnerving melodies; an astounding sense of menace coils inside even the most reassuring of moments — and that’s despite/because of the unconventional use of vintage chestnuts from the pre-Beatles early ’60s era that pop in now and again, such as Roy Orbison’s sublime In Dreams and the song that gave the film its name, Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet.

Introducing Julee Cruise to a recording career, her shimmering Mysteries Of Love plays as the picture reaches its disturbing denouement, as Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern) dance and confess to each other that they’re in love, in a way that befits awkward teen romance. 

It’s a perfect moment in a picture full of them, and the horror that awaits them just one scene later works as a masterful juxtaposition. 

The climactic scene was actually planned to be soundtracked by This Mortal Coil’s version of Song To The Siren (Tim Buckey write-up here, helpfully), with lead vocal by Elizabeth Fraser, of course. When it proved outrageously expensive to obtain rights to use the song, it was suggested that Badalamenti compose an original track in the same style, with lyrics written by Lynch. 

Though Badalamenti was also as serving as the vocal coach for the film’s female lead, Isabella Rossellini, it was the then-unknown Julee Cruise who bagged the part — chiefly because the composer had remembered the Iowa-born singer’s haunting, ethereal voice back when she’d sung in a New York theatre workshop Badalamenti had produced. 

Happily, Julee Cruise would re-team with Lynch for both the Twin Peaks series and its wonky prequel/sequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, while special mention must go to Dennis Hopper, who passed ten years ago now and who’s so creepily malevolent here that the veteran actor really believed his character and he were one and the same, auditioning for Lynch with the immortal words, “I’ve got to play Frank! I am Frank!”

Rest in pieces, old boy.

Steve Pafford

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