Donnie Darko and its Soundtrack

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Tickets are on sale now for our GYFF Presents screenings of Donnie Darko. Click here to find out more.

GFT Youth Board Member Alex reflects on what Donnie Darko's score brings to the iconic cult classic.

Donnie Darko is a cult classic. A delectably dark and comically surreal take on time travel and adolescence. Many may point out the film’s use of theme, or perhaps its unique pacing or controversial ending as factors that made it effective, but the score seems to be overlooked.

It's here that I would like to examine why the score helps underpin the contrast at the core of the film and helps to really emphasise the films main themes: love and fear. These themes are highlighted many times within the film, by Jim Cunningham, by the gym teacher Miss Farmer. They are even personified as two characters, Gretchen and Frank. And of course, the film’s score reflects this.

Let's take the first encounter with Frank. We begin with a shot of Donnie's father watching television as the grandfather clock strikes midnight, jarringly coming to a close as we hear the words 'wake up'. This is where an almost ambient, low hum begins. It slowly ignites a sense of dread in the viewer, the tone becoming more intense, almost like the wind blowing from outside as a child cowers in his bed.

Donnie begins to sleepwalk, and we hear the words 'I’ve been watching you'. The tones seem to wrap around his words, almost like reality itself is being manipulated (a common theme for the film). As Donnie reaches the kitchen, the tones become higher in pitch, almost like whistling, still deeply sinister. We then are treated to a wonderful crescendo as Donnie approaches Frank, seeming to pick up in both intensity and distortion as he talks. The same technique is employed as the camera jumps between Donnie and Frank. When on Donnie the tones are much less intense, and we can hear crickets and other ambient sound around him, as if Donnie remains somewhat in reality.

Finally, as the iconic line about the date of the world's end is delivered, the music reaches an ethereal crescendo, before suddenly being cut out by TV static.

This track does have an opposite, however. Just as in the film, love and fear are established as two opposites of a spectrum and so too are the tracks that represent love and fear within the film.

So, let's now look at the music used when Donnie and Gretchen meet. It’s tense, the teacher asking Gretchen to sit next to the boy she thinks is cutest as she is new to the class. Her eyes settle on Donnie as he turns around, and slowly but surely we hear a few soft, clean piano notes. The tempo picks up slightly as she moves next to Donnie. Some high synths are audible along with almost angelic choral ambience, making the song seem very dreamlike, as opposed to the nightmarish nature of the music used when Frank is present. This perhaps is fitting. Within this scene, contrast is central. Destruction and Creation are brought up as the class analyze 'The Destructors' and Donnie brings up the idea that destruction is a form of creation. And it’s here, that Donnie Darko establishes that forces we may view as conflicting can often cross paths, with disastrous results.

Things are never as simple as love and fear existing at opposite ends of a spectrum, as Donnie points out to the horror of one of his teachers. We can truly see this as love and fear intersect at the climax of the film, and the iconic score is used to tie these themes together.

The scene follows Donnie and Gretchen as they explore a dilapidated cellar. The atmosphere is macabre, and this is accentuated by the distorted, pitched down version of the piano that accompanies Donnie and Gretchen’s more romantic moments. This seems to indicate how love and fear overlap, how one can make the other stronger, since here the distortion and change in pitch of the piano prompts the audience to appreciate how the track sounded in its more innocent form. Perhaps Donnie is reflecting on something similar here.

Of course this is interrupted by a brutal showing of fear as both protagonists are set upon by two of their classmates. The piano notes become more dissonant as the ambient tones from Frank's theme begin to slowly creep in. This is symbolic of love and fear slowly combining, the contrast blurring and merging into one. This finally hits fever pitch as love and fear collide, and Donnie is left without love, and without fear. The love of his life is gone, literally collided into by his fears, and his fears no longer scare him. All that’s left is to give into the Mad World.

Alex Cunningham
GFT Youth Board Member

Tickets are on sale now for our GYFF Presents screenings of Donnie Darko. Click here to find out more.

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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