Some movies are ahead of their time, some movies are out of time, and some movies are released at precisely the wrong time. Donnie Darko was all three. It’s release date? The Eleventh of September 2001… It is a dark and strange film…and did I mention that someone dies (or doesn’t, it’s complicated) when part of a plane crashes to Earth in it? One might assume that Donnie Darko would have vanished into the cinematic ether, and, yes, it did vanish without trace on its original US release…but Donnie had a secret, it was a beautiful movie and when it was released overseas a little while later it found instant cult appreciation. And deservedly so. I must admit here that I am not entirely objective about this picture, I love it unashamedly and every time I watch it, I cry. Not very macho, but macho leads to the Fool’s
Graveyard and Much Yawning (a small English village) so I can’t bring myself to mind too much.
I could talk about many things to explain why I think Donnie Darko (in its original theatrically released form, not the Director’s Cut which reduces mystery, decreases magic, cuts in pointless new material for the hard-of-thinking, adds an INXS song, and should generally be avoided like the plague or a Justin Bieber/Miley Cyrus duet) is wonderful: the acting (Jake Gyllenhaal and his sister Maggie, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborn, Katherine Ross, Patrick Swayze – yes, the late Mr Swayze and he’s very good too! – as a motivational speaker/B.S. Merchant who turns out to be a pe- no, I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it!); the writing; the excellent spooky sound design; the absurdist humor; the emotionalism; the neatly observed 1988 setting; the strange beauty; the ending that breaks your heart… Yet I’m just going to present you with one element: the music, represented by three songs.
1. The Killing Moon, written and performed by Echo and the Bunnymen (1984)
The original theatrical version finds Donnie waking on a golf course overlooking his hometown bathed in sunlight. We don’t know why, he’s there, and the smile he smiles could indicate joy or madness but it is an immediately arresting opening. An opening made even more so when Donnie picks up his bike and rides the treelined road down into town (the suburban setting and appearance may put some in mind of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, this is not accidental) accompanied by the magnificent almost-Middle Eastern strains of Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon. The decision to replace that song with INXS’s far inferior Nothing Will Tear Us Apart in the Director’s Cut is just one of several unfathomable decisions made by Richard Kelly, even if that was the track he had originally wanted. In contrast, the union of The Killing Moon cut to Kelly’s images is one of the most perfect things in recent cinema. The Bunnymen’s rarely unegoistic vocalist/leader Ian McCulloch has claimed that Moon is the Greatest Song Ever Written, it may not be that but, golly, it IS one the Greatest songs of the Eighties! It is, in my always-humble (ahem) opinion virtually impossible for your heart not to swell when hearing and seeing this opening sequence. “Fate up against your Will/Through the thick and thin/He will wait until…”
2. Head Over Heels, written by Orzabal/Smith, Performed by Tears for Fears (1983)
As we journey deeper into the world of Donnie Darko, things get Weirder and more Sublime: a sense of the numinous pervades as adolescent ills meet the truly strange and moving. Our odd, angry, funny hero may or may not be hallucinating; he meets a new girl in the neighborhood (Jena Malone); he encounters Frank, a scary, apparently supernatural man (?) in a metallic rabbit mask (!); he’s told that there are just 28 days until the “end of the World”; oh, and his parents are Republicans! Ha! No, but they are nice! The next great musical sequence comes as Donnie comes to one of the scariest places of all: high school. The short montage is swirlingingly and brilliantly shot and edited with judicious use of speed up/slow down photography which manages to embody the disorientating effects of school life and teenagedom. However, what elevates the scene into something more is the “choreography” to Tears for Fears’ fabulous near-forgotten Head Over Heels. All soaring vocals, lysergic phasing, and emotionalism, it’s a gorgeous song and sequence. “Don’t take my Heart/Don’t break my Heart/Don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away…”
3. Mad World, written by Roland Orzabal, performed by Michael Andrews (piano) and Gary Jules
Without giving anything much away the movie climaxes with a sensationally beautiful and moving montage set to a cover of another Tears for Fears track, 1983’s Mad World, as performed by the film’s composer Michael Andrews and his friend, the singer Gary Jules. In
place of the original’s synthscapes we get a stripped-down, sparse, stately version. When paired with the events it is backing it is devastating. Does it make me cry? Of course no-wait, who am I kidding? Yes it does! Every. Single. Time. As another example of how constraints can sometimes lead to inspiration, Kelly had initially hoped to use U2’s MLK (I make no comment…!) but the licensing fee was far too high for him to afford so he turned to Andrews. One of the reasons that the Andrews/Jules version of Mad World is so spare is that the budget couldn’t accommodate anything more yet the result is all the better for it. It helps create an unforgettable and emotive scene. I think I’ve rambled on enough but hope I’ve convinced you of the effectiveness of the song use in the movie and maybe even prompted
those of you who haven’t seen or have dismissed Donnie Darko to give it a try.
And I haven’t even mentioned how The Church’s spectacular Under the Milky Way and Duran Duran’s fun, slightly shonky funk pop Notorious (“N-n-n-notorious!”, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers) are equally superlatively deployed…
“I find it hard to tell you/I find it hard to take/When people run in circles/It’s a very, very mad world…”