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Donnie Darko, composed by Michael Andrews, 2002, 37:20

Like everything to do with Donnie Darko, the story of the soundtrack for this "cult classic" is convoluted and largely pointless for anyone except devoted fans of the movie. As the story develops, and the movie and the soundtrack change, the sad thing is that the resulting change is not necessarily for the better. I'm curious to see what Richard Kelly, the writer-director of Donnie Darko, does for an encore, but I'm wishing that he would be happy with his next project and then move on without fiddling with it.

When Donnie Darko was made in 2001, it faced many of the same difficulties as other low-budget movies. Most of these are related to a scarcity of money. In particular, Richard Kelly couldn't afford the rights to many of the songs that he wanted. The movie is set in the 1980s, which would seem to be a decade that's an easy target to hit, in terms of evoking the period musically. After some downgrades in his original vision, Kelly created a theatrical release of Donnie Darko that had a score by Michael Andrews and a selection of pop songs (more on these songs later).

Donnie Darko was given a miniscule release in theatres, and made a correspondingly miniscule amount of money. The original soundtrack, which I am reviewing here, did not do well, in the absence of a boost from a strong movie. It's a relatively short item, consisting mainly of the score provided by Michael Andrews.

For those who have seen the movie, the Andrews score is easy to describe: it's all those ambient moments of anxiety and dread. At least, it's the musical half of those moments. I'm not so sure that the music has the same effect without the acting and the visuals. More than most recent soundtracks I've listened to, these pieces are determined to support the rest of the movie. This reflects well on Andrews' craft, and his ability to do a professional job, but it makes the soundtrack less of a worthy listen on its own.

The more ambient tracks on the CD include the opening piece, "Carpathian Ridge," and the one that follows it, "The Tangent Universe," as well as "Manipulated Living," track 5, and "Ensurance Trap," track 13. There are some tracks with a more musical basis, often simple piano and wordless voices. These include "Middlesex Times," "Gretchen Ross," and "Rosie Darko," tracks 4, 8, and 11 respectively.

The original soundtrack CD also includes the version of "Mad World" that closes the movie. This is the standout piece of music for the whole enterprise. It's a cover version of a song by Tears for Fears, sung in this case by Gary Jules who is accompanied on piano by Michael Andrews.

This was not to be the end of the story of Donnie Darko. The movie gained increasing popularity in midnight showings and on DVD. Unexpectedly, "Mad World" became a huge hit in the UK and started showing up in many places (I remember seeing it as part of a Jerry Bruckheimer show of all things). Enough revenue came in from the DVD that the distributor of the film had a risk-free opportunity for Richard Kelly to recut the movie and put what he considered to be the proper music in.

Frankly speaking, I was dreading the Director's Cut. In case I didn't make my feelings plain enough in my review of the movie: I think that Kelly's version of what happens in his own movie is pointless and completely off track, missing everything that made the movie great. I watched the original DVD with Kelly's commentary and watched as much of the deleted scenes section as I could stomach. If the entire Director's Cut was going to be the deleted scenes added back in, that would be the world's biggest rip-off.

As Kelly points out in the new director's commentary on the Director's Cut DVD (recorded as a conversation with Kevin Smith), there are three main changes in this new version. The deleted scenes are cut back in, with a few surprises of material never seen before. The sound design is beefed up to favour the sci-fi elements of the story. The soundtrack itself is rearranged to suit the original conception more fully.

My reaction to this is notably mixed. I couldn't tell that much of a difference in the sound design and ambient noise; the movie already has enough of a sense of anxiety and dread underneath it, that the new stuff isn't that noticeable. My big complaint is about the opening tune, the main change in the new cut. When he was writing and directing Donnie Darko, Kelly apparently had the song "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS in mind for the rhythms and material of the scenes where we first see Donnie. In the theatrical release, this song was changed to "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen for budgetary reasons. This song is the one that I first experienced the movie with, and there's simply no way for me to go back. This is the opposite of how Kelly sees it, of course. He would much prefer to see "The Killing Moon" moved from the beginning of the story to the party that Donnie's sister throws later (which is the other change in the song-related soundtrack in the Director's Cut).

Appropriately enough, considering the success of "Mad World" over the pond, the expanded soundtrack that accompanied the Director's Cut was released in the UK last fall, and only available via import here in North America. The new soundtrack is a 2-CD set. The first CD has all of the pop songs that people were clamoring for ever since they didn't show up on the first soundtrack. INXS, Tears for Fears, The Church, Duran Duran, The Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others. The second CD has a replication of the previously available soundtrack. All in all, it's a nice package, but not necessary if you have the first version of the Donnie Darko soundtrack and also own a lot of 80s music.

My reaction to all of this changing and reworking is an unfavourable one. I suppose it was inevitable in a case like this, in which money was so tight the first time around and then a second chance popped up. Maybe no one could have resisted the temptation. And I've still got my DVD of the theatrical release of Donnie Darko, so my quibbling seems useless. It's just that I have less trust in Kelly's artistic judgment now and will be less eager to see his next movie.


Last modified: April 11, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (jschelle@becon.org)


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