Lost Highway (1997)

Director: David Lynch
Composer: Angelo Badalamenti

“Half the film is picture, the other half is sound. They’ve got to work together.” – David Lynch

Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. Stephen Spielberg and John Williams. Nino Rota and Federico Fellini. There are some directors and composers who have managed to forge a long working relationship that has led to a wonderful convergence of sound and image. It is particularly vital to the auteur that a strong connection is made with a composer with a complimenting musical aesthetic in order to maintain the idiosyncrasies of a unique cinematic vision. The partnership of director David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti is one that has continued for almost 30 years, with Badalamenti’s music perfectly mirroring the juxtaposition of romantic innocence and malevolence so often found in the work of Lynch.

The pair first worked together on Blue Velvet in 1985, where Badalamenti was employed as a vocal coach for the actress Isabella Rosselini. Here they began to forge a unique collaborative process that would come to fruition particularly when working on the soundtrack for the cult television series, Twin Peaks in 1990. Often the pair would work with Badalamenti at the keyboard and Lynch conveying words and ideas or a particular mood. From Badalamenti’s improvisations to Lynch’s abstract instructions would come unique melodies and motifs that would later be utilized in the score.

Musical Firewood

When it came to working on Lost Highway, Badalamenti and Lynch began to explore further the sound worlds they had created in previous projects. Badalamenti joined other composers and musicians such as Trent Reznor, Barry Adamson and Marilyn Manson, and the resultant ‘industrial jazz’ soundtrack proved the perfect accompaniment to Lynch’s abstract neo-noir.

Lost Highway (1)

In the first half of the film Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a jazz saxophonist who is accused of the murder of his wife Renée (Patricia Arquette). In the scene that precedes her death/disappearance, Fred is shown performing at a nightclub. The bombastic cue by Badalamenti, “Red Bats with Teeth”, underscores the frenetic nightclub atmosphere and foreshadows the psychosexual violence that is to come.

Other jazz-influenced cues by Badalamenti such as “Fats Revisited” and by Barry Adamson (“Mr Eddy’s Theme 1 & 2”) also help in reinforcing the ‘noir’ feel of the film, as the music has traditionally been used to connote the seaminess of urban nocturnal life. (See: Crimejazz)

Along with his compositions for smaller ensembles on the Lost Highway score, Badalamenti also wrote for a large-scale orchestra. Working with the Film Symphony Orchestra in Prague, Badalamenti found the atmosphere of the European studio to be ideal in inspiring the mood for his orchestrations. Here he worked with Lynch and engineer John Ross, recording in unique ways in order to create a particular sound. Microphones would be placed in bottles and tubes of different sizes in order to vary sound and generate distortion. Later Badalamenti and Lynch would further tamper with the recordings:

“On both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, I gave David multiple music tracks, which we call ‘firewood’. I’d go into the studio and record these long 10- to 12-minute cues with a full orchestra. Sometimes I’d add synthesizers to them. I’d vary the range of the notes, then layer these musical pieces together. All would be at a slow tempo. Then David would take this stuff like it was firewood, and he’d experiment with it. So that’s’ what a lot of the ‘musical’ sound design stuff is that you’re hearing. David really creates beautiful things with it.” (Angelo Badalamenti)


This ‘firewood’ experimentation permeates much of the Lost Highway‘s soundtrack. When Fred recounts a nightmare to Renée early in the film we hear the string cacophony slowly rise up from the film’s soundtrack, building in intensity and fusing with Renée’s scream. The same technique can also be heard whenever one of the voyeuristic, disturbing videotapes that arrives on the couple’s doorstep are viewed.

The string writing is reminiscent of the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, whose compositions – with their use of unusual instrumental techniques and tonality – have been utilised in horror films such as The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) and The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1974). Interestingly enough Lynch had used Penderecki previously in Wild at Heart (1990) and would do so again on the soundtrack of Inland Empire in 2006.

Badalamenti’s score, coupled with Lynch’s unique approach to sound design, is almost more ‘sound art’ that transcends conventional film score practice in parts, and its jarring disharmony adds much to the film’s overwhelming atmosphere of dread.


The Complete Lynch: David Hughes (2001)
Lynch on Lynch: Edited by Chris Rodley (2005)


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