A low-budget but high-concept feature that combined teenage angst with low-key but disturbing sci-fi and horror, Donnie Darko was not a major hit in theaters. But once it came to home video, audiences responded favorably enough to writer-director Richard Kelly’s strange story of tangent universes and quasi-malevolent bunny rabbits that it received both a director’s cut and a terrible cash-in sequel. The Donnie Darko‘s cult success ultimately proved a boon to its cast and the genre of suburban angst in general, and continued to spawn imitators and homages in the decade after its 2001 release.
LA musician Michael Andrews became attached to Donnie Darko after reading Kelly’s script; for his part, Kelly knew Andrews through the latter’s association with a jazz group called The Greyboy Allstars. Through his work with the Allstars, Andrews had some feature scoring experience, having contributed music to Zero Effect and Freaks and Geeks, but such was his enthusiasm for Kelly’s script that he taught himself how to play the piano when the director decided to make that instrument the centerpiece of Donnie Darko‘s score. In their consultations, Kelly and Andrews spoke at length about electronic music from the 1970s and 1980s, naming Isao Tomita and Vangelis as key influences for the atmosphere they hoped to capture with Andrews’ score. Due to an extremely limited music budget, Andrews wound up performing virtually the entire score himself on vocoder, piano, synthesizer, mallet percussion, ukulele, organ; for wordless vocals, he retained singers Sam Shelton and Tori Haberman.
Despite the tone of their conversations, Andrews’ score does not sound anything like Tomita or Vangelis, and especially nothing like their works Snowflakes are Dancing or Blade Runner which Kelly cited in the soundtrack’s liner notes. Instead, Andrews’ score favors a very simple mix favoring piano and the voices of Shelton and Haberman in its most memorable and melodic moments, creating an ambient atmosphere of considerable airy beauty at times while remaining aloof and cold. It’s not a thematic score, but Andrews does provide a recurring motif, explored most thoroughly in “Waltz in the 4th Dimension,” that appears throughout a number of other cues.
There are many other places, including the first couple of album cues, where the piano and voices are absent or minimized in favor of a harsh, desolate soundscape for the film’s most disturbing moments. These cues add little to the album and fulfill only basic sonic wallpaper duties in Donnie Darko as a film. While they do serve to break up the melodic and airy vocal/piano tracks, the kind of industrial ambience found in the weaker tracks is simply not a compelling listen and it makes up a meaty chunk of the brief album and score. It’s particularly modern ambience as well, one that is often at odds with the film’s 1988 period setting.
But it’s not the score that everybody remembers from Donnie Darko but rather the end title song, a cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” arranged for piano and string accompaniment by Andrews and sung by his old friend Gary Jules. This “Mad World” takes the relatively peppy and new wave original from 1983 and twists it into a powerfully sorrowful and bleak paean to suburban malaise, and its impact was such that the original was all but forgotten. The cover charted in the UK and has since become something of an anthem to depressive detachment, widely played and widely known. It’s a shame that rights issues precluded Andrews from using the song’s melody in his underscore, because it easily overshadows his main waltz melody, his wordless vocals, and the grindingly unpleasant ambient portions of the score. A second version of the song ends the album, throwing percussion and synths into the simple piano and string mix and utterly destroying it, a testament to just how finely tuned the original cover by Andrews and Jules is.
Donnie Darko‘s early failure at the box office meant that Andrews’ score waited a year for release in 2002 when the film had risen to cult status. The brief platter offered all 30 minutes of Andrews’ score and the aforementioned dual versions of “Mad World;” a later issue would add a first disc with the 1980s songs used as source. In both cases, it’s worth picking up the disc for “Mad World” alone, and with the lovelier parts of Andrews’ score there are about 15 minutes of solid highlights to be had. While Kelly would experiment with several other composers for his troubled future filmography, Donnie Darko launched Andrews into a profitable sideline in film score composition, producing roughly a score a year for the next decade. While overshadowed by its primary song, his Donnie Darko score still serves as an interesting souvenir from an interesting film.