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THE STRAIGHT STORY – Angelo Badalamenti

October 15, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

straightstoryOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Having regard to a track record that includes such brilliantly off-the-wall films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart and the Twin Peaks TV series, one would have never expected director David Lynch to craft such a beautiful, poignant, heart-warming movie as The Straight Story. Although the title is something of a pun, and although Lynch has never made one before, this is a completely straightforward story about a man named Straight, who leaves his slightly backward daughter at home in Iowa and travels across the American Midwest to Wisconsin on a converted lawn mower to see his estranged brother before one of them dies.

In Lynch’s hands, one would normally anticipate a film such as this to have delved deep into the psyche of mid-America, eventually exposing a hotbed of sexual perversion behind the white picket fences. But The Straight Story does nothing of the sort. Alvin’s journey, and the peculiar mode of transport forced upon him by failing eyesight and fragile hips, is told in a romantic, almost fantastical fashion, almost like a modern day fable. Richard Farnsworth, in the lead role of Alvin Straight, is totally compelling and wholly believable, and allows the viewer to share completely in his life’s reconciliation. The various encounters Alvin has while on his travels each reveal a new facet to his character, whether it be through sharing pearls of wisdom with a teenage runaway or a fellow W.W.II veteran, or by consoling a distraught commuter who keeps crashing into rogue deer while on her daily travels to and from work. What makes this film all the more incredible is that the story is a true one – the real life Straight died in the mid 90s several years after making the trip, and the movie is dedicated to him and his family.

Technically as well as conceptually, the film is superb, with veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis’s exquisite work being of special note. The camera swoops low over the vast cornfields, gracefully glides around combine harvesters undertaking their daily routine, and gives Alvin’s journey a sense of momentous scale by capturing both the never-ending landscapes and the mammoth juggernauts which roar past the little tractor as it chugs along the highway. For the music, Lynch once again turned to his regular composer Angelo Badalamenti who, for once, has not been called upon to score anything in the least bit depraved. I believe that Badalamenti will genuinely surprise a lot of people with the beauty and delicacy of his work here. I would imagine that most listeners (myself included) have only experienced Badalamenti’s more bitter and twisted works such as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and the recent thriller Arlington Road, but cast aside any preconceptions. The Straight Story is gorgeous.

It may seem a cliché to say it, but the sound on display here for me epitomizes middle America. Fiddles, acoustic guitars, harmonicas, pianos, and a wash of strings both synthesized and real combine in a series of cues which are alternately relaxing, soothing, and just plain beautiful. There is the occasional faint hint of Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, especially in ‘Laurens, Iowa’ and ‘Farmland Tour’, but this is really just a superficial similarity that can be attributed to “composer style” and the fact that he is once again using sampled violins.

The whole album is an absolute joy to listen through, but there are several moments which stand out as being of special note. The tender acoustic guitar in ‘Rose’s Theme’, ‘Sprinkler’ and others reminds me slightly of Clint Eastwood’s theme from Unforgiven, but without the concertante progressions, and with the unavoidable but ever-so subtle Spanish inflections that give it just a little kick. The stylized fiddles that open ‘Alvin’s Theme’ are quite ironic in that they signify movement by seemingly mimicking the sound of a train whistle. The irony, of course, is that trains travel at speeds approaching 100mph, while Alvin and his lawnmower were lucky to get much above two or three. Still, the poignant theme which develops out of this in-joke is perfectly judged road movie music. Other cues worth mentioning include the lyrical, balletic ‘Country Waltz’ and the old-fashioned ‘Nostalgia’, which has been intentionally altered to sound as though it is being heard through a crackly gramophone speaker.

It seems to me as though, with this score, and for the first time in his film music career, Angelo Badalamenti will reach a wider audience. Although Angelo has written some beautiful works in the past, especially scores such as Cousins and The Comfort of Strangers, The Straight Story is undoubtedly the most attractive mainstream work he has ever penned, and will hopefully allow his work to be heard by more people than merely David Lynch enthusiasts and Julee Cruise fans. The Straight Story encapsulates the sound of the American soul, with a richness and grace and uncommon delicacy. Prepare to be surprised.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Laurens, Iowa (2:45)
  • Rose’s Theme (2:55)
  • Laurens Walking (4:11)
  • Sprinkler (2:56)
  • Alvin’s Theme (4:25)
  • Final Miles (4:06)
  • Country Waltz (2:46)
  • Rose’s Theme (Variation) (3:07)
  • Country Theme (3:38)
  • Crystal (4:07)
  • Nostalgia (6:51)
  • Farmland Tour (3:09)
  • Montage (7:24)

Running Time: 52 minutes 24 seconds

Windham Hill 01934-11513-2 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Angelo Badalamenti. Orchestrations by Angelo Badalamenti. Recorded and mixed by John Neff. Album produced by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch.

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