A Brief Inquiry Into Donnie Darko’s Dark-Fest Soundtrack

Gore, jump scares, misunderstood teenagers, all things considered for a Halloween motion picture; but what if I proposed a Halloween movie with a misunderstood superhero teenager: Donnie Darko! Ultimately, whether Richard Kelly’s 2001 classic should be classified as Halloween-esc is up to the audience (just like its plot), but what isn’t up for debate is how masterful the movie’s soundtrack is.

Don’t fret if you haven’t seen the movie, because thanks to its polarizing re-release, audiences experience Donnie’s maddening world in bonafide ways. Both the director’s and theatrical cuts follow the same storyline. Without studio intervention, Kelly juxtaposed a myriad of off-putting tracks and extended scenes for the 2004 version. Successfully, Kelly draws our ears to Donnie’s nostalgic mirror-world with artists like Tears For Fears, Joy Division, and Duran Duran. The film’s gothic atmosphere was enriched by these classic grooves, adding to its massive cultural appeal.

Contrast to the director’s cut’s opening scene, the happy-go-round comedic introduction to Donnie’s mind is catapulted by Echo & The Bunnymen’s, “The Killing Moon.” In the DC, the go-lucky stride is exchanged by Kelly’s resolution: “Never Tear Us Apart”, by INXS. A banger nonetheless, though, it’s difficult to trust the cinematic tonal distinctions between the two openers. On the one end, the film delivers a subtly-amusing in-look at Donnie’s pajamas and bike laid across a random forest road. Echo & The Bunnymen are queued for the bike ride cross-cutting through Middlesex. Observing Middlesex with, “The Killing Moon”, offers a direct approach to the film’s thematic nuance and imaginative dialogue. In the 2004 version, a mildly slow goth-epic with an arrangement of strings and emotional drums potentially disorients audiences’ expectations. “Don’t ask me what you know is true / Don’t have to tell me / I love your precious heart”, play as a more symbolic approach. Unfortunately, INXS’ funeral-forced rhythm escorts a reflexive, overtly serious opening. I’m not here to criticize a movie’s ambitiousness, I’m just here to clarify the film’s musical qualities. Thankfully, whether appealing to one version over the other is your edge, Donnie’s character arc is flexibly interpreted thanks to Kelly’s musical fanaticism.

At no argument, the film’s school scene with Tears’ “Head Over Heels”, is one of the most inviting moments of the film. “Something happens and I’m head over heels / I never found out until I’m head over heels / Ah don’t take my heart don’t break my heart / La La La La”—this sequence is a spell-check for any Nickelodeon, Patrick Swayze, or Drew Barrymore Y2K fans out there. The chemistry behind Tears’ rhythm and the shot sequences are spine-chilling, astounding, yet oddly unnerving. The bell chimes leading to Donnie’s feet hitting the concrete off the bus is too unforgettable. The scene stretches a couple of minutes, and thankfully is enriched by the span of the opening verses of the track. Watch for the sparkle motion dance shot juxtaposed with the: “La-la-la-la’s.”

Later in the film’s Halloween party scene, the theatrical cut showcases Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The addition was not only tempestuous to the plot, but timely. The song gives the setting a fitting backdrop, letting rebel-school kids be: Drinking out of kegs, smoking cigarettes in someone’s living room, and kicking back to some Joy. “I guess some people are just born with tragedy in their blood,” Gretchen tells Donnie before he leans in for the pre-world-ending, first (and last), episodic kiss to the tune of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” closing measures.

On that note, the following sequence where Donnie and Gretchen walk downstairs is one of the most enticing moments. “Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find”. The Church’s, “Under The Milky Way” shines the spotlight on the film’s internal plot-shift, illustrating Donnie and Gretchen’s heart-struck romantic fate. The twists and turns these scenes express, culminate a certain suave that’s unbothered by the tongue twisting storyline (I’m talking about those transparent tube blob things)—all because of how magnificent “Under The Milky Way”, is queued.

“Sometimes, I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” Well, don’t doubt Samantha and her Sparkle Motion troupe to Duran Duran’s, “Notorious”. This 1986 hit proves how efficiently keen Richard Kelly, and his composer are when it comes to embellishing the 80’s. “Stay” by Oingo Boingo and Tears For Fears’, “Mad World”, give the film those decadent 80’s textures. Safe to say that Oingo Boingo’s addition was a comedic twist at best, an idea that stemmed from the group’s live personality. After watching “Safe’s” music video, I was partially confounded by Oingo Boingo’s theatrical approach to music production. Personally, Tears For Fears might’ve overstayed their welcome. The film has three songs by the brit duo, and in hindsight while their sonic prowess is clear-cut, I would’ve been down for some more Joy or even The Cure in the mix.

Donnie Darko’s cultural stamp is still exponentially relative. Its metro-specialty and critical takes on life are the focal points that attract fans even today. Not even Stranger Things or the IT movies resemble the 80’s ethos that Richard Kelly propped up in 2001. The soundtrack to say the least, is a golden framework for gothic empathy, which is a Halloween attribute. Whether “Mad World” captures the film’s core outlook, I think the weight “Under The Milkyway” thrusts are immensely touching. Collectively, the soundtrack is not a tediously curated horror anthem, which is what makes it so special. These songs are integral to the film’s tone and deliver a crushing experience. I absolutely recommend this movie and songs; plus, how can you not love lines like: “You’re weird. ‘Sorry’. No, that was a compliment”.