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SECRETARY – Angelo Badalamenti

September 20, 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

secretaryOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There are two distinct sides to Angelo Badalamenti. Firstly (and most famously), there’s the side that embraces and provides the soundscape for the dark, twisted, and occasionally horrifying cinematic visions of director David Lynch, through films such as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and, most famously, Twin Peaks. And then there is the composer who has brought his not inconsiderable talent to bear on a number of surprising films, and with a great deal of versatility: Italianate pastiche for Cousins, Hollywood comedy scoring for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and lush full-orchestra work for The Comfort of Strangers and The Beach. It is with more than a little disappointment to find that his work on Secretary is actually rather bland and inconsequential. Written primarily for a small jazz combo with piano and synthesizer, Secretary is a predominantly low-key and ambient affair, a world away from the thematic beauty of The Beach or The Straight Story (still his best work), but with just enough energetic hits to stop it being an insomnia cure.

Secretary is an offbeat romantic comedy/drama, directed by Steven Shainberg, and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway, a disturbed and troubled young woman who, following her release from a mental hospital, secures a secretarial job working for lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Grey is nothing if not a demanding boss, expecting nothing less than absolute perfection in his new assistant’s work. Gradually, however, Grey’s fastidiousness turns slightly more “kinky” as he awakens in Lee a hitherto repressed appreciation for sadomasochism, bondage, and submission games. As their new personal and professional relationship develops apace, Lee’s psychoses seem to diminish – but it everything as it seems? It’s an unusual topic for a movie, to be sure, but Shainberg’s film won a slew of awards, not least an Originality Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for lead actress Gyllenhaal.

Quite a bit of Badalamenti’s work on Secretary seems to be internalized: by this, I mean that he seems to be scoring the movie specifically from Lee’s point of view, and that all the emotion is inspired directly by her state of mind at the time. As one might expect, given that Lee is a little “off kilter”, mentally, the score is similarly unbalanced, skipping from style to style to style, often within the confines of the same cue. While this is undoubtedly apt dramatically, it still creates a somewhat unsettling effect in the listener – emotions and stylistics seem jumbled and uncoordinated. Ultimately, it is a somewhat disappointing score overall, with lots of good ideas that sadly never seem to go anywhere.

Still, musically, there are a few things to admire. The opening score track, ‘Main Title’, has an appealing seductive rhythm, albeit with slightly seedy overtones, which slowly transforms into a down-at-heel variation of the Twin Peaks theme. This mix of styles is a recurring theme throughout the score: for example ‘Feelin’ Free’ juxtaposes a lively, carefree melody with nervous-sounding percussion that Thomas Newman would have been proud to call his own. Thomas Newman is the obvious inspiration for ‘Office Obligations’ also, especially through the use of piano chords that sound like they were lifted wholesale from The Shawshank Redemption or Meet Joe Black.

Other tracks, notably ‘Bathing Blossom’ and ‘Seeing Scars’ emphasize Badalamenti’s jazz credentials, featuring Hammond organs, guitars and contemporary synthesized grooves. ‘Loving to Obey’ is probably the most attractive track on the album, combining piano and guitar with a dark, moody, romantic synth melody that is playfully cheerful, yet somehow aloof. ‘The Loving Tree’ is a defiantly happy and upbeat track that reminded me of Hans Zimmer’s work on Regarding Henry, and somehow works a Spanish guitar into the mix, but the finale of the score is low-key and disappointing, just sort of quietly vanishing into nothing. Two songs, performed by Leonard Cohen and Lizzie West respectively, bookend the score and are adequate enough, albeit both featuring very unique and unusual vocal performances – although the first one, ‘I’m Your Man’, does have scurrilously mischievous lyrics, considering the subject matter of the film.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • I’m Your Man (written and performed by Leonard Cohen) (4:26)
  • Main Title (4:42)
  • Feelin’ Free (3:20)
  • Snow Dome Dreams (4:32)
  • Bathing Blossoms (1:59)
  • Seeing Scars (1:59)
  • Loving to Obey (4:12)
  • Office Obligations (3:19)
  • The Loving Tree (2:08)
  • Orchids (2:44)
  • Secretary’s Secrets (2:45)
  • Chariots Rise (written and performed by Lizzie West (3:16)

Running Time: 40 minutes 34 seconds

Lion’s Gate Records LGR0006 (2002)

Music composed and arranged by Angelo Badalamenti. Orchestrations by Angelo Badalamenti and Phil Marshall. Recorded and mixed by Phil Mann. Album produced by Angelo Badalamenti and Beth Amy Rosenblatt.

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