Interview with Angelo Badalamenti

(Photo by Fabian Cevallos)

Amid the legendary campaigns of World War 2, perhaps no fight took such a horrendous toll on both soldiers and civilians, while ensuring the overall survival of freedom over fascism, like the Battle of Stalingrad. For the five horrific months between August 1942 and February 1943, the German army tried to conquer one of Russia’s most strategically important cities, and the country along with it. What they’d end up with was the frozen, bitter taste of defeat, one that would poison the entirety of Hitler’s war effort – but not before costing over a million lives among Stalingrad’s populace and its Red Army defenders. It’s an event that’s the stuff of valor, sacrifice and lost love in the face of impossible odds, exactly the kind of human struggle that brings out the best in musicians throughout time who’ve been tasked with trying to convey the weight of a history-making battle, and the ultimate patriotic triumph of good over evil.

Perhaps no medium has allowed “war” music to come to life like the widescreen cinema, especially when a country salutes its own soldiers with all the epic filmmaking forces that money can buy. Such is the Russian might behind “Stalingrad,” which stands as one of the country’s most formidable productions. Overseeing a cinematic army of hundreds of actors and technicians is by director Fedor Bondarchuk, who’d last chronicled the far less victorious Soviet battle for Afghanistan in 2005s “9th Company.” Given a far nobler cause here, Bondarchuck sees the massive fight through the intimacy of a love story, while also taking pains to uncover the humanity of the Germans as well. Needless to say, this is the kind of scope that just a few strings aren’t going to begin to cover. Tasked therewith to fielding the full orchestral force of Russia’s best players is the Italian-American composer Angelo Badalamenti. Best known among our film-going civilians for helping David Lynch re-invent film noir into a nightmarish wonderland with such scores as “Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive,” Badalamenti has also traveled far outside of that crime-ridden underbelly with dozens of emotionally and stylistically diverse scores, including the lush fantasia for “City of Lost Children,” elegantly menacing suspense “In the Company of Strangers” and the ghostly fear of “Dark Water.”

But perhaps it’s “A Very Long Engagement’s” tale of war-torn lovers that hearkens back the most to a whole other level of symphonic engagement that Badalamenti unleashes in his formidable score to “Stalingrad” (on KMovie Score Media / Kronos Records). There’s no doubt that a Russian film composer named Sergei Prokofiev would’ve approved of the Soviet-inflected rhythms, valiant marches and full-blast brass section that conveys the heroic struggle against percussive, crushing darkness – all while intimately lush strings become the far more personal battle of war-torn lovers to stay alive. Yet Badalamenti is also sure to bring a level of control and intelligence to a score that could’ve been Stalin-approved jingoism in lesser hands. It’s a “Stalingrad” made of the universally affecting harmonies of courage under fire, tapping into the singular language of epic military scoring that’s driven such composers-in- arms as Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and Ron Goodwin. Now fresh from the fight, Badalamenti talks about the challenges of facing a powerhouse score soaringly fueled by equal parts love, war, tragedy and patriotism.

Do you think there were any previous scores of yours that led to “Stalingrad?”

I’ve wondered that myself. Often, when I’m approached with a new project, I’ll ask the filmmakers, “What music of mine made you feel that I should score your film?” That will at least provide a reference point to start from. But I didn’t ask that question on “Stalingrad.” Perhaps they were looking at “A Very Long Engagement,” which was a love story in wartime France that I scored for Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I don’t know. At first I thought, Fedor may have been drawn to the Russian flavor of my themes for “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.”

How do you think you developed as a composer to the point where you could take on such a symphonically epic score as “Stalingrad?”

I’ve had a long career as a composer thus far, and I’d like to think that I’ve developed along the way. Writing for the orchestra is nothing new for me, if that’s what you meant by “symphonic.” My scores for “Blue Velvet,” “The City of Lost Children,” “The Beach” and “A Very Long Engagement” were all orchestral, along with many other films. It’s always a real pleasure to work with a full orchestra. And that was the right choice for this film. I really looked forward to the challenge of “Stalingrad.” The sheer amount of score that we spotted and the number of cues was a bit daunting. There’s 1hr15min of score and 36 cues in the final film. But I probably wrote 30min more than that during the process. Fortunately, I began writing themes early on and Fedor fell in love with them. And so I had the opportunity to sort of get a bit ahead of the production in that sense.

Did you do any historical research for the project? And if so, what were some of the things that struck you about the Battle of Stalingrad?

I did some very basic research on the topic after reading the script. It was a strategic and symbolic campaign by the Germans to capture the city of Russia. The destitute conditions that the Soviets endured were remarkable. The soldiers and residents were surrounded by Germans with very little food or supplies in the fall and winter of 1942-43. Enormous casualties were inflicted on both sides – both military and civilian. Somehow they managed to hold on to their city despite the overwhelming opposing force. But the film is really not just about the war. It’s about the tragedy of war and the lives of these people.

“Stalingrad” is your first full-on “war” score. Did any movies, or soundtracks in that genre influence you? And what do you think makes for a great war movie, and score, to begin with, no matter the nation?

There are so many: “Patton,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” etc. But most traditional war films that I can recall are from an American perspective. And so there’s this Americana-type sound that is so often drawn upon. Either that or it’s a different more psychological and troubling sound that evokes the horrors of the war experience. Sometimes even the popular music of the time is used as source. “Stalingrad” needed something different.

What’s the added psychological pressure of trying to capture such an all-important episode in Russian, and world history?

This film is a drama – it’s not a documentary. But, it’s true that we wanted to give the story weight and legitimacy. Much of that was done on the production side. Fedor aimed to keep the story historically accurate in every regard. For the music, I didn’t want to use electronics because that might take you out of the time period. So, it’s an all-orchestral score. Also, we wanted the audience to feel the scale of the event and I think that’s where music can help.

Could you talk about your collaboration with director Fedor. How do you think being the son of an epic director like Sergey Bondarchuk (“War and Peace,” “Waterloo”) influenced his taste in both visuals, and music?

Angelo Badalamenti and Fedor Bondarchuk

Fedor knows filmmaking. He’s truly an accomplished director with great confidence and endless energy with an innate sense for music. He’s following in his father’s footsteps but he’s an artist in his own right. He already has a history of successful films in Russia, both as a director and an actor. And he’s developing some very smart business relationships all the while. Both he and Alexander Rodyansky (one of the producers) came to my studio to discuss the scope of the project and make a general plan. We got along like old friends but I was surprised that neither of them drinks vodka (Can you imagine a Russian that doesn’t drink vodka?) Eventually Fedor returned to have a final spotting session with me before the recording sessions in Moscow. As I wrote, much of our work was collaborating over the internet. I would constantly be sending themes and mockups. And then of course, we were re-united at the recording sessions in Moscow.

Tell us about your central themes.

In the opening of the film we hear the Universal Theme, which is a broadly stated overture with a beautiful sadness – and there are several other intimate scenes where we hear subtle variations of this music. The heroic Russian Theme, with its minor modal harmony, was the very first theme I wrote for the film. This piece accompanies the epic battles (“Men of Fire” and “Execution and Attack”) and the motif is referenced in cues throughout the movie. It’s probably the most Russian sounding piece I composed. Katya’s Theme is a beautifully tender theme for her character and for the five Russian soldiers who are central to the story. This music is heard as Katya emerges from the apartment house and visits the grave of her parents and looks after the little mementos of their life at the site. The scene is quite beautiful. There’s a theme for the conflicted character of Hauptmann Kahn, and a theme for his relationship with Masha. And there’s an odd-meter Panzer Battle Theme as well. One of my favorite themes, the Stalingrad Theme, is introduced towards the end of the film as Sergei and Katya peer at the night sky, seeing the lights from the air battle above as a thing of beauty. This theme is heard again at the very end of the film (also on the track “Goodbye Brothers”).

One can also sense Russian composers like Prokofiev in “Stalingrad.” What kind of influence did they play in your own formation as a composer, let alone this score?

When I was in junior high school, I would go to Manhattan and buy LPs of the various works of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. I wore out those recordings. For “Stalingrad,” I began by re-listening to Russian music in preparation for this score. But Fedor and I intentionally wanted the music to have a more universal appeal and not sound too Russian.

Talk about the “Russian” quality of the music that you did want to use.

The minor, modal harmony of the Battle theme (“Men of Fire” and “Execution and Attack”) is probably the most Russian, at least in principal. Once again though, we tried to avoid making the music sound exactly Russian in flavor. We wanted a more modern, universal sound. No Balalaika here.

Russian movies about the state definitely were propagandistic back in the day. How important was it for you to capture patriotism without going over the top in that fashion?

Well, I write for the film that’s in front of me. It’s not my place to comment on the politics of the film with the music. I have to be “all-in” and embrace the director’s vision.

How did you want to capture the civilian toll of “Stalingrad?”

The film depicts an enormous number of Soviet casualties during an attempt to take the Volga River. But it also shows that horrible suffering on both sides during this failed campaign by the Germans. I wouldn’t say that the story directly asks the music to confront that deadly toll directly. Rather, the audience feels it through the prism of each character and the story. And I feel that the music illustrates a forlorn sadness in that way.

How did you want to play the Germans? And was it important for you music to reflect them as human beings?

Fedor did not want to depict the German characters as “cartoons”. I think that meant he didn’t feel that presenting these men as evil incarnate was respecting the history or serving the film. Not to diminish the horrible atrocities and mindset one bit. By presenting them as real human beings who actually existed, it’s a far more troubling, and complicated vision.

Tell us about the importance of the brass and percussion sections in “Stalingrad.”

Sure, I love writing for the French horn – that was my instrument. So, there were many melodic phrases and counter-lines written for the horn. But I also used the section in a brighter more aggressive way; on “Desperate Search for Masha,” you’ll hear these clusters in the horns that helped create some tension. And of course, the biggest, boldest statements often involved the tutti trumpets and trombones as well (in “Tragic Killing”). “Kahn’s Theme” has a solo trumpet melody – which was meant to show his conflicted character – that is bookended by brass section statements. Brass played an important role in this score.

Doomed romance also plays a big part in war movies set on the home front. How did you want to reflect the musical intimacy of people torn apart within a far larger and tragic context of the battle for Stalingrad?

Sure, there are two love stories happening in “Stalingrad,” one on the Russian side and one on the German side. Of course, the music has an opportunity to help convey those hopeful, loving feelings even while the entire world is collapsing around these young people.

Did you want to use choral voices in the score?

There wasn’t meant to be any choral music for “Stalingrad. “Adding a full mixed choir has been overused in this genre; and I didn’t include it in the score for that reason. We did intend to have Anna Netrebko join us to sing a solo however. And we were honored to record her in New York after the orchestral dates were finished. It was really only one piece that we had for Anna to sing but we thought it might be nice to overdub her a few times on an 8 bar section of another cue. And so, she sings 3 parts as a chorus at the very end of “Execution and Attack.”

Can you talk about “Stalingrad’s” song “Legenda?”

The Russian pop star Zemfira performs the song Legenda that was written by Viktor Tsoi – who was an iconic Russian singer/songwriter. I met her in the studio while in Moscow and she performed the song for me. She’s a great talent.

What were the recording sessions like in Russia?

We recorded at MosFilm Studios that is a sprawling campus of older buildings in Moscow. It was established in 1920 which I believe makes it one of the largest and oldest proper film studios in the world. It has played a large part in the history of Russian film. We recorded there in a large studio on the campus for 5 days with full orchestra.

Your score for “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” has just been released by Music Box Records. What was the experience like of working with Norman Mailer on his one “Hollywood” movie, and how important was it to making you a favorite “film noir” composer?

I don’t think that “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” registered on the radar for most people. Of course, it was an honor to work with Norman Mailer. But it had nothing near the impact of “Twin Peaks.”

Not only did David Lynch help make you a go-to “mystery” musician, but how do you think his more offbeat movies like “The Straight Story” show people your versatility beyond the genre?

“The Straight Story” is a beautiful film that truly showed David Lynch’s versatility. He can do anything. Of course, I started out as a songwriter and so I had experience in so many genres including a bit of country (Can you imagine; a kid from Brooklyn?). So, this wasn’t much of a stretch for me. But of course, it probably helped people recognize my versatility in film scoring. I am grateful for the opportunity and I am really proud of that score.

“Stalingrad” has been a huge hit in Russia. What was it like going there to do publicity for the film, and seeing the audience’s reaction?

The premiere was very exciting – it was like a national event. And I had a tremendous time with everyone involved. I did so many TV, live radio and print interviews. If you can believe it, there’s a three-page spread about yours truly in Esquire UKRAINE.

Russians have become the go-to villains in Hollywood today. Do you think “Stalingrad” will show them in a different light?

I don’t know that this film will change public perceptions. But it’s always good to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Most Americans probably aren’t even aware of that one of the most crucial battles of the Second World War didn’t involve us. The world could be a different place today if the Soviets hadn’t defeated the German army. The people I met on both of my trips to Moscow were gracious, giving and warm.

Do you think “Stalingrad” puts you in a new arena as an “international” composer, and are there any historical events that you’d like to compose for?

Well, I guess you write for the film that is offered to you. Of course, most people don’t think of hiring me for a big budget action film. Perhaps I’ve been pigeonholed as a composer for more independent, art-film type projects!

Are there any other historical events that I’d like to compose for?

Hmmm. Mel Brooks already did The Spanish Inquisition, right?

Do you think it’s sweeping films like “Stalingrad” that helps keep massive, electronics-free orchestral scores alive?

Good question. It’s a shame that today, it often takes a fairly big budget film in order to support a decent score with live musicians, not to mention a full orchestra. It has to be a priority for the producers and the composer for it to all come together.

After doing such a gigantic score, are you looking do more a more intimate film next?

Perhaps. I look at each film as it’s own unique piece of art and the music has to serve the film. So, if the film appeals to me, and peaks my interest, that’s a good start, whether it’s large or small.

“Stalingrad” opens in theaters and on Imax 3D screens later in February. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is now available on Movie Score Media HERE

Get the newly released score to “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” HERE

Visit Angelo Badalamenti’s website HERE