still image from darren aronofsky's requiem for a dream showing jennifer connelly and jared leto laying on the ground surrounded by photos
Photo by Artisan Entertainment/Courtesy of Getty Images/Art by Dessie Jackson
Entertainment

How the 'Requiem for a Dream' Song Became the Default Sound of Epic Drama

Twenty years later, versions of Clint Mansell's 'Lux Aeterna' can still be heard in sports games, trailers, and ads, thanks to 'Lord of the Rings.'
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
October 6, 2020, 11:15am

The last minutes of Darren Aronofksy's Requiem for a Dream are a sweaty, shivering fever of an anti-drug PSA that finds the film's four main characters each curled in the fetal position, reeling from the effects of addiction. Those tension-spiked moments are set to the sounds of a string quartet that build from a lilting chord progression to a mournful and fervent crescendo.

Composed by Clint Mansell—now a frequent Aronofsky collaborator, though Requiem was only the second film he worked on—and performed by the Kronos Quartet, "Lux Aeterna" is the musical theme that reverberates Requiem's shattered hopes. "Whenever we played it under a pivotal moment of the film, it just worked—the pace and the progression in the chords," Mansell told Billboard in 2010. Beautiful but melancholy, "Lux Aeterna" is the earworm that underscores the entire film, and it's hard to imagine Requiem's most dramatic scenes without its haunting notes.

In the 20 years since Requiem for a Dream's release, Aronofsky has built a formidable career of surreal and psychological dramas; Mansell has composed scores for dozens of films including Moon and Black Swan; and "Lux Aeterna," meanwhile, has transcended its role as the leitmotif of Aronofsky's cult classic. Mansell's original song and versions of it have been employed in so many movie and video game trailers, sports events, and YouTube videos that the sound is now a signifier of epic drama, recognizable even to people who have never seen Requiem in the first place. Though he wasn't thinking much of the song's future path when he wrote it, Mansell told VICE, "It's just gone on to have a life of its own."

Remixes of "Lux Aeterna" quickly followed the film's October 2000 release. That year, Thrive Music put out Requiem for a Dream: Remixed, an album that included Paul Oakenfold's "Aeternal," and two years later on Kings of Crunk, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz put rhymes and a trap beat over Mansell's composition in the song "Throw It Up." (Oakenfold released a modified remix called "Zoo York" that also featured "Lux Aeterna" on his 2002 album Bunkka.) Those moments certainly helped "Lux Aeterna" take on an identity separate from Requiem, but it was another classic film that turned the song into a beast of its own: Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, whose record-breaking success in 2001 meant its highly anticipated second movie, The Two Towers, needed a treatment just as epic.

At the time, The Fellowship of the Ring had already rounded out the top five highest grossing movies ever, but The Two Towers took the action to world-shaking new heights as Frodo Baggins continued his quest toward Mount Doom and as men and orcs fought in the legendary Battle of Helm's Deep. As the team at entertainment marketing company Ant Farm thought of the music for the Two Towers trailer, editors Jenn Horvath and Steve Harris were inspired by Requiem for a Dream's score. According to Nathan D. Duvall, who established the music department at Ant Farm and worked as the music supervisor and producer on the Lord of the Rings advertising campaign, Horvath—who did not respond to an inquiry for this story—came to him with a request: What if they adapted Mansell's composition from the personal connection it conveyed in Requiem into an orchestral groundswell worthy of Tolkien's source material?

The task of adapting "Lux Aeterna" came down to a few composers: Veigar Margeirsson, Daniel Nielsen, and Ant Farm's in-house composer Simone Benyacar, who worked to re-envision "Lux Aeterna" from Requiem's minimalist strings to a Tolkien-level tour de force. After Peter Jackson loved and approved the concept, Benyacar recalled, they went to a recording studio to record the song live with a full orchestra and choir. Those recordings became the musical montage in a hotly anticipated, full-length Two Towers trailer. Forceful and heavy with bravado, their re-recorded version of Mansell's song was named "Requiem for a Tower," the perfect backing for a war at the end of days.

"The DNA of the composition was haunting, dark, mysterious, but at the same time, could also be very epic and grand," Benyacar said. "You know, you could play that composition on a piano, and all those emotions are there. Obviously, the magic comes in the orchestration and the choices of instruments, and adapting that idea to a large scale felt very natural. Of course, it was a gamble; it was something that could have fallen completely wrong and flat, but somehow it worked."

Paired with footage from the film, the structure of the song helped catch familiar viewers up on the action, while onboarding new fans who could follow the trailer's plot even if they couldn't quite tell the difference between Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir. If it had been paired with a less iconic movie, Benyacar isn't sure "Requiem for a Tower" would have had such a lasting legacy, though it's impossible to know for sure.

Over the years, the understanding of "Lux Aeterna" versus "Requiem for a Tower" and other versions has muddled online, likely due to the sheer popularity of the songs and the now-20-year-separation from their source material. "Lux Aeterna" is the original composition, written by Mansell; "Requiem for a Tower" is a version adapted by composers Benyacar, Margeirsson, and Nielsen that was recorded separately and features a full live orchestra and choir. As Benyacar described it, they are the same composition, based on the same notes, but different recordings and arrangements, just as another artist might cover a Frank Sinatra song.

Though "Requiem for a Tower" appeared only in the Two Towers trailer and not the final movie, it was so popular that Duvall's music label and production company, Corner Stone Cues, released official recordings in 2006, which are available on streaming platforms today. "The version they did for the trailer of the Two Towers really brought that piece of music to a much wider audience, and for whatever reason, [it] resonated with people," Mansell said.

The first time he recalls having heard "Lux Aeterna" outside of the two movies was the 2003 play-offs between British football clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United. A Wolves fan, Mansell watched the game from Los Angeles. "I knew we were going to win that day because they'd used my music," he said, and indeed, Wolves won three to zero.

That was just the beginning of the song's rocketing popularity. It eventually formed the theme for Sky Sports News; Canadian hockey team Edmonton Oilers used "Requiem for a Tower" as entrance music; and the football club Arsenal has also walked onto the pitch using "Lux Aeterna." The song has been so popular in figure skating alone that it holds an entry on a Wiki for the sport: French skater Brian Joubert used it toward a first place win at the European Figure Skating Championships in 2009, and the French duo Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres—who recently retired amid the latter's sexual misconduct allegations—skated to it in a 2014 routine that took them to the Sochi Olympics. The song's structure is particularly well-suited to sports, according to Duvall. "It works perfectly to describe two opposing forces brought to the ultimate confrontation," he said.

Both versions of the song have had success outside the world of sports: They've been used in ads for Canon PowerShot digital cameras and the Canadian telecom provider Telus; trailers for Sunshine, The Da Vinci Code, and I Am Legend; the Assassin's Creed and Return of the King video games; a performance by Ricky Jaime on So You Think You Can Dance in 2011; and a ballet routine that earned Monique Evans the title of Miss Texas in 2014. And those are just their biggest name appearances.

The song has morphed even more on YouTube. "Requiem for a Tower" backs the hugely viral meme of Stains, the dramatic cupcake dog, in a 2009 video with over 5.4 million views. It's the climactic soundtrack for amateur clips of cats fighting; fan compilations of the movie 300 or of the footballer Lionel Messi; hype up videos of the Chicago Bears and American college football. It "even makes bad golf epic," reads the title on a 2012 home video. "[It's] almost like in pop culture, it's become its own voice to represent intense drama epic," Benyacar said. "A long time ago, 'Carmina Burana' was that piece and then somehow, this kind of took the place of that in a way."

With the song's many fans come others who poke fun at its melodrama. In one of the leading YouTube streams of "Lux Aeterna," one person wrote out a series of emotions, complete with timestamps: from sorrow and pain in its first two minutes to 20 seconds of hope, another 20 of doubt, and so on. Another, however, paired its progression with a short story about going to school to take an exam you haven't studied for. Commenters say things like "I listen'd to this while on the toilet, needless to say... most dramatic visit to the bathroom ever," or "Listen to this while watching Thomas and Friends. It makes them epic as shit."

After many viewer requests, YouTuber Eric Calderone posted a metal cover of "Lux Aeterna" in 2012 to immediate YouTube success. Calderone's cover now has over 3.7 million views, and the self-described "Aronofsky cult member" pointed out that he used the opportunity to add his own Easter egg, too: A nod to the effect of drugs in Requiem, Calderone incorporated a breakdown from trash band Exodus's "Brain Dead" into his version.

To Mansell, the song's reuse is complicated. Since it was written for Requiem, he hopes these reinterpretations don't detract from the original work's point of view, though he understands that the song can exist separately from the film. "You know, we live in a time when things are sort of repurposed, shall we say?" he said. "There's very little control over that once you put something out into the public domain these days. They're like kids: They grow up and have lives of their own, and you hope that they will be good lives."

The song's huge success has also brought some infamy, however. Today, "Requiem for a Tower" accompanies videos of speculative scenarios of nuclear war or an asteroid-induced apocalypse, and YouTubers also associate it with clips surrounding the supposed 2012 doomsday. A dark association came in 2011, when the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway's deadliest attack since World War II while listening to "Lux Aeterna" on his iPod.

This experience woke Duvall up to how work created with the best intentions could spin out of control as it became larger than itself. "We put all of our heart and soul and love into this song… We made that and we really reimagined Clint's beautiful cue, and that has nothing to do with that mentally ill person committing that act. That is not us," he said of his work for The Two Towers. "As far as wide acceptance, I'm very happy with how many people it's touched, and at the same time, like yin and yang, I feel bad for the families that have been negatively impacted, in any way, by something like that."

Despite this blight on its reputation, "Requiem for a Tower'' has been life-changing for the creators involved in the Two Towers project. Today, Benyacar runs the company Out of Office, which provides music consulting and composition for films, TV shows, trailers and more. Duvall continues his 20-year career in music production, publishing, and voiceovers, which has led to his work on a Damian Marley cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" that has been used in trailers like X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Editor Jenn Horvath now counts high-profile films like J.J. Abrams's Star Trek and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel on her resume.) "It's one of the biggest calling cards you can have," Duvall said. "You can walk into any meeting and they say, 'Who are you, what's your experience?' And you can play 'Requiem.'"

Though "Lux Aeterna" undoubtedly shaped Mansell's career, he said that he barely thinks about the song these days, focusing instead on other projects—he's certainly not whistling it when he wakes up in the morning. "As a writer, it's very rewarding that a piece of work that you create will connect to people and have a long life, I suppose," Mansell said. Still, it's never something you can expect as a creator. "I mean, you know, if you knew how to do it, you'd do it every time, so it's very nice when something does happen like that."

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