My Favourite Soundtrack

Reflecting on the Donnie Darko Soundtrack, An Opera of Teenage Angst

Fifteen years after the release of Richard Kelly’s cult classic, we take a look at how it’s musical backdrop became so culturally and emotionally significant.

by Francisco Garcia
13 September 2016, 11:50am

We all have our internal hard-drive of epiphany-provoking art knocking about. Works that helped us develop empathy, or exposed vistas of experience which couldn't be gleaned growing up in Corby, or Kettering, or even London. This was the stuff that confirmed what you already sort of knew, but couldn't express. Very often, we encounter these works of art at our most febrile, impressionable ages; and it stays with us. It's the awkward baggage of an adolescence you've never quite left behind and, in all truth, have never been able to properly shake. It might be Blink-182, or it might be The Fall. And if you were even half-way sentient between the the mid to late 2000s then there's a fair chance it was Donnie Darko.

By turns tragic, sinister, funny, poignant, introspective, absurdly bombastic and, in places, laughable, Donnie Darko is the Jake Gyllenhaal career-launching adjective magnet that refuses – even 15 years on from its release – to slip comfortably into any prescribed critical straightjacket. A labour of obsessional, autobiographical love written and directed by an oddball 26-year-old called Richard Kelly, the film is an ultra-quotable, ultra-broody masterpiece based on the suburban horrors of his own 80s adolescence. But so much of the mood in Donnie Darko – the atmosphere of anxiety and dread that hangs like a pregnant pause over every scene – is amplified by the perfect creative symbiosis between Kelly's narrative, and its soundtrack. And more than the narrative alone, it is this aural sketchbook that arguably helped to implant the film in the collective memory of a generation.

I remember watching the film for the first time – piqued by an Empire magazine subscription, an unhealthy urge for self-improvement, and enabled by inhabiting that interregnum between childhood and full-on wank-a-minute early adolescence. It wasn't the plot or the characterisation that gripped me. In all honesty, I probably found them incomprehensible back then. It was the mood, the tone, the shading that I reacted to. I'd never heard of Tears for Fears, but after hearing "Head Over Heals" for the first time as Donnie and his small gang of misfit mates bust through the back of the school bus doors, I knew that this was something. Whether that something was significant, whether I liked it, or found it unbearable, I couldn't say. But watching that ambitious tracking shot of the school made me sit up and pay attention. There's been much written about its technical brilliance, all of its artful choreographic qualities – how it frames and sculpts the entire film and all of its concerns and themes. But that wasn't the reason it gripped me. It was the impression that this film, this tune, just got 'it'. It 'got' the sweaty horror of high-school, its complexity and absurdity. As the film's writer and director Richard Kelly points out, the track had that "romantic let's get through this quality".

Like the basis of so many iconic partnerships of the past, the matching up of Richard Kelly with Michael Andrews – the composer, multi-instrumentalist and astute arranger behind Donnie Darko's score – was borderline fortuitous. The collaboration came to fruition through a mutual acquaintance, as a friend of Kelly's recommended Andrews, straightforwardly enough, as "a genius", and "the guy". It only took a couple of meetings for Kelly to concur. In an interview with About Entertainment, Kelly recalls: "I just knew right away that he was really, really talented and that he could come together with a really original score." Crucially for the partnership, Kelly could also sense the collaborative instinct in Andrews that would "allow me to be in there and be 'editorial' in how I wanted it to be."

The first result was "Carpathian Ridge", which is also the first sound we hear in the film. With its eerie, piano-driven mock-simplicity, the instrumental track frames exactly what's to come in a way that is both precise yet suitably floaty, like a post-op patient still vague from anaesthetic. In a film stuffed with set pieces, it's a punch-in-the-gut opener, framing (in the cinema release) the moment of Donnie waking up in the middle of a road on top of a mountain: the lifeless body jerking up, the dreamscape sunrise, the slow befuddled turn to the camera. But it's what comes next that hammers down just how crucially 'editorial' the scope of the soundtrack is to the film and its afterglow. As the score and credits fade, as Donnie starts to pedal furiously back to to his non-descript family home, in his non-descript suburban town, it bleeds into a sound now so familiar, then so revelatory: ''The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen

In less guarded moments, Kelly has let slip that maybe 'editorial' is too small a scope for his ambition as to what the soundtrack could achieve, describing it as "structurally… like an opera or musical" with "five musical interludes that hopefully mean something to the story." Which sounds grandiose until you revisit the film in its entirety and realise that it's littered with evidence. The way "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye) builds and shifts that horrible pit-of-the-stomach doom before Donnie's main showdown with Frank; the litany of production distortions; the use of Tears for Fears' back catalogue as a strange kind of punctuation for the film's major events and themes. It's these minute details that contribute to the mind-shifting experience of the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

There is a powerful connectivity between the clarity of the score and the adroitness of the track selections. Just take a fresh look: Echo and the Bunnymen, The Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears – Kelly and Andrews cherry-picked the best from a generation who repackaged existential gloom as relatively upbeat synth-pop hits. The Donnie Darko soundtrack isn't just a nostalgic world to explore, but a whole galaxy of disillusionment that speaks to you as if you're the only one in it. What could be more seductive to a certain kind of teenager waiting for that first spark to ignite the comforting delusion that it's just you, standing alone in this infinite universe, feeling this morose and lonely. But Kelly's refashioning of his own memories of high school in both the narrative and the musical thermometer are effective reminders that, actually, you're not the only one to feel like this; loneliness and angst are universal and inter-generational feelings, and that can be comforting too. 

In many ways, the fine-spun combination of Andrew's score and Kelly's vision for the soundtrack is exactly what reminds you that these deep, furious feelings aren't unique or exclusive. These are, after all, bands your parents would have known intimately and at first-hand. This point was illustrated when millions bought Michael Andrews cover of "Mad World" – the devastating lament for the film's closing – making it a UK Christmas #1, and responsible for driving the later cult interest in the film. As Kelly noted, it was consciously chosen as a track that captured 'that self-absorbed adolescent angst', and acted as a pitch perfect climax for the film. You can imagine most of the buyers who sent it to number one were either teenagers in the throes of adolescent disillusionment, or parents remembering the nostalgia of theirs.

It's faintly astonishing to recall that Kelly was just 26-years-old when Donnie Darko was completed, with the script knocking about in various incantations for years prior to that. With that in mind, it can be easy to assume the genius of the soundtrack is in some way naive, or even a beautiful accident. Years after Donnie Darko was firmly cemented as a cult classic, Michael Andrews described it as "maybe a naiviety that manifested itself as something original", which is perhaps a romantic way of looking at it. But to describe the soundtrack as naive would be to downplay how impeccably-crafted and meticulous it is; how the tracks are melded and shaped around each scene like buttons on a coat; how the simplicity and brazenness of the music feels so purposeful; and how, fifteen years after the film's release, it feels like one of the only mainstream films to ever properly capture what it is to be young, sad and confused.

You can find Francisco Garcia on Twitter.

A re-release of Donnie Darko will be available on limited edition dual format blu-ray and DVD on December 12.

(All images are stills from the movie)