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A Mad World: 'Donnie Darko' Soundtrack

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.


Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly: 2001) is a freakishly surreal cult classic that boasts an incredible soundtrack. There are endless analytic theories discussing what the hell happens in this bizarre film. From the film’s central themes of teenage rebellion within conservative 1980s America, the film is essentially a sort of fantastically Gothic rendition of the work of director John Hughes. The “doom and gloom” nature of film is enhanced with tracks from 80s new wave goth such as Echo & the Bunnymen and Tears for Fears. Let’s open up a worm hole, use this article as a vessel, and take a closer listen to Donnie Darkos’ great examples of film music.

Echo & the Bunnymen - The Killing Moon

The significance of this track does not solely lie with the band’s name having a cheap affiliation with the film’s antagonist, Frank (James Duval); a giant nightmarish humanoid-rabbit who is, or is not, materialised from the subconscious of the title protagonist Donnie (James Gyllenhal). After Michael Andrew’s beautiful piece of scoring with the track 'Carpathian Ridge’, this track is the second piece of music we hear in the film's theatrical cut. Similar to the other tracks that will be discussed later on, there is a music video quality within the use of this song as soundtrack. For the majority of the post-title scene, the soundtrack accompanies reverse-tracking-shots of Donnie riding his bike through his suburban neighbourhood in his pyjamas. Similar to how Echo & The Bunnymen were notably distinguishable from other vibrant and poppy 1980s new wave bands, the ambiguous portrayal of Donnie does not fit into the white-washed suburban culture in which he resides within.

More specifically than the context of the band, the track itself contextualises the film perfectly. Songwriter and front man Ian McCulloch, in an interview with NME, disclosed that the song's chord progression is essentially David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' in reverse. This ties in well with the science fiction aspect of the film’s narrative but more specifically how the aspect of time is manipulated in the film. Donnie is introduced in such an ambiguous way that, in accordance to time, it doesn't make any sense. We see him waking up on a hilltop, then the film jump cuts to him riding his bike to 'The Killing Moon'.

Foreshadow from the lyric "killing time"

Foreshadow from the lyric "killing time"

Furthermore, choosing this track to introduce the main character and the world around him is filmmaking genius. Details within the lyrical content of the song are used to foreshadow the film's narrative. In the broadest and most metaphorical aspect of this foreshadowing affect, let's take a closer listen to the lyrics of the chorus:

Fate, up against your will,

Through the thick and thin,

You must wait until,

You give yourself to him.

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These lyrics summarise the film's narrative so well that they could easily feature as notes within Grandma Death’s (Patience Cleaveland) book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’. A more specific example of this process can be seen at minute 2:11 of the provided clip. The lyric “Killing time” is met with the intrusion of Frank’s red Pontiac entering the frame. It is impossible to miss the car as its colour stands out amongst the ordinary palette of the mise-en-scene. As well as this, the camera forces the viewer to change perspective from an extremely quick pan from a wide-shot of a suburban sidewalk to the original reverse tracking shot of Donnie riding his bike. The entire film language places a clear emphasis on the importance and inclusion of that specific lyric.

Tears For Fears - Head Over Heels

The execution of this song in the soundtrack is very similar to ‘The Killing Moon’ previously discussed. Once again, the soundtrack functions within the dynamics of music video. The song dictates the scene; the music is foregrounded as the dialogue is muted, and the rhythm fuels the tempo of action within the mise-en-scene. Developing on the last point, the track works brilliantly as a device of exposition. Its slow keyboard and drum rhythm works in conjunction with the slow motion mid-shots of individual characters. The introduction of more musical layers pushes the camera to quickly pan between character to character. This can be specifically seen between the transition between Donnie and mullet-sporting bully Seth (Alex Greenwald). Keep an ear out for high-octane 80s guitar riff that begins with the shocked expression of Donnie; it carries on through the pan to a mid-shot of Seth. Similar to ‘The Killing Moon’, lyrics are taken from ‘Head Over Heels’ and are materialised on screen. The most clear example of this is at the end of the scene. We hear Curt Smith sing “Time flies” within a reverb effect over a wide-shot of pupils within a classroom moving in fast motion.

Gary Jules, Michael Andrews - Mad World

Finally, let’s take a closer listen to a track that belongs in the rare category of the cover being better than the original. This is not solely a personal opinion. The track obscurely secured a UK Christmas #1 in 2003, 2 years after its release along with the film. The song’s original performers share the same opinion. In an interview on Dutch television programme ‘Top2000 a gogo’, Tears for Fears members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith expressed that:

It’s truer to the lyrics than our version in the sense that the recording is very dark as well. We became popular because of the juxtaposition of quite serious lyrics with a pop sound. So our version of the song tended to be more upbeat… that is really the emotion of the lyric.

The composer of the film’s score, Michael Andrews, and singer Gary Jules made the original track’s key themes more poignant. The soundtrack has completely flipped the upbeat nature of the original song to match the gloomy atmosphere of the film. The song’s observant view of people going around their daily business in the world carries over in the cinematography. The track is used over close-up images which fade between several of the film’s key characters being depicted in a vulnerable state of rest. The best example of this is the depiction of sleazy motivational author Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who arguably appears the most vulnerable. Ironically, the “wise”, emotionally stable, love pushing motivational figure is a wreck of man in his vulnerable state. We see Jim sitting up on his bed, restless, and doused in tears. Having this as the ending image for this character encapsulates the gloomy ethos of the film. Not only have we heard an upbeat 80s song transform into the film’s dreary anthem, but we also witness an Acheronian conversion of an enigmatic figure of the 1980s in Patrick Swayze into a dark and disturbing figure.

© 2020 Andrea Sciambarella

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