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The music of Donnie Darko: 20 years of the cult classic soundtrack

All about the music of Donnie Darko - the cult film that spawned a Christmas number one and has influenced movie soundtracks ever since.

Donnie Darko
Newmarket Films
Published: Sunday, 29th May 2022 at 10:00 am
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Donnie Darko has gone down in pop culture history for many reasons - the breakthrough role of Jake Gyllenhaal, Frank the six-foot Rabbit and that cover of Mad World.

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Despite the extraordinary - and highly unlikely - success of the Michael Andrews and Gary Jules cover, there's far, far more to the Donnie Darko soundtrack, which makes great use of its 1980s setting to play around with some of the decade's best rock songs.

There's a clear trend of cult films having great music - the Pulp Fiction soundtrack similarly caused a resurgence of interest in classic songs from decades past, while the work of Vangelis on Blade Runner has provided a synth score quite unlike any other.

Donnie Darko is no different, avoiding the usual nostalgia tracks that feature in 1980s-set projects (such as Stranger Things) and instead opting for a mix of rock and alternative pop songs that capture the era with an underlying sense of dread.

It's a soundtrack that nearly never got released - the film struggled to receive financing until Drew Barrymore stepped in, and after flopping at the box office there was little interest in a soundtrack album for quite some time.

Thankfully, the film later became a word-of-mouth success on DVD and the film's unique soundtrack finally got a deserved release, which we'll break down below track by track.

Donnie Darko soundtrack

While the film's score was released in 2002, this track listing below is based on the 2004 re-release for the director's cut, which incorporated the many 1980s classics that featured in the psychological thriller.

The director's cut is infamous for altering the soundtrack by controversially removing and replacing a few songs, but thankfully the music from both cuts is included - we'll go through the music in both versions below.

  1. Never Tear Us Apart by INXS
  2. Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears
  3. Under the Milky Way by The Church
  4. Lucid Memory by Sam Bauer and Gerard Bauer
  5. Lucid Assembly by Gerard Bauer and Mike Bauer
  6. Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov and Paul Pritchard
  7. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye
  8. Show Me (Part 1) by Quito Colayco and Tony Hertz
  9. Notorious by Duran Duran
  10. Stay by Oingo Boingo
  11. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division
  12. The Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunnymen
  13. Mad World by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules

1. Never Tear Us Apart by INXS

A controversial one here - director Richard Kelly had originally planned to use Never Tear Us Apart by INXS in the opening scene where Donnie wakes up on the mountain and cycles home, but financial constraints led him to use The Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunnymen instead.

Following the film's surprise later success and cult following, Kelly was able to secure the rights to Never Tear Us Apart and use it in the opening for the director's cut, though fan reaction has remained mixed ever since. However, the INXS track does have lyrical significance to the plot of Donnie Darko - one line in particular refers to "two worlds colliding", a hint towards the two alternate universes within the film, and if you watch closely as that line plays in the movie you can see Frank's red car drive past Donnie.

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Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko
Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko Newmarket Films

2. Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears

Tears for Fears of course sang the original version of Mad World, which is famously covered at the end of the film, but the English pop-rock band can still be heard in both cuts with another one of their '80s hits. Head Over Heels plays during the lengthy - but very stylish - sequence where Donnie first arrives at school, and Richard Kelly has stated on the DVD commentary that the scene was written and choreographed with the song in mind - despite not having the rights yet.

Kelly has revealed that filming the scene took most of a day, which angered the production and line managers. "They saw it as an indulgent music video sequence that had no dialogue and didn’t advance the story," Kelly told The Guardian. "But when they saw the finished sequence, they said, 'OK, we were wrong.'"

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3. Under the Milky Way by The Church

Australian rock band The Church's 1988 hit Under the Milky Way plays at the party after Donnie and Gretchen return from his bedroom, in a trippy sequence where Donnie sees people travelling through time through those transparent tube blobs. However this song was replaced by The Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunnymen in the director's cut, and Under the Milky Way was moved to the scene where Donnie is driven home by his father.

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4. Lucid Memory by Sam Bauer and Gerard Bauer

Not actually a classic '80s song this one, but an instrumental that plays during Jim Cunningham's promotional video.

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5. Lucid Assembly by by Gerard Bauer and Mike Bauer

Again, this is a brief instrumental heard during Jim Cunningham's seminar on fear.

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6. Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov and Paul Pritchard

A change of pace from the 1980s rock, Ave Maria is a classical piece first composed by Vladimir Vavilov in 1970. This rendition of the aria plays during a rather hypnotic scene where the time travelling transparent tubes guide Donnie to the gun in his parents' room.

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Donnie Darko
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in Donnie Darko Newmarket Films

7. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye

This haunting track plays during one of the most iconic parts of Donnie Darko - and all of film - when Donnie and Gretchen are watching The Evil Dead in the cinema and Frank appears. It plays as Frank removes his mask for the first time and again during the end credits - causing many to associate the song with the theme of death.

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8. Show Me (Part 1) by Quito Colayco and Tony Hertz

Another departure from the soundtrack's '80s rock theme, Show Me (Part 1) is the song Cherita is dancing to at the talent show while being heckled. However it won't be long before the '80s nostalgia returns - the next act at the talent show, Sparkle Motion, are dancing to a Duran Duran classic.

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9. Notorious by Duran Duran

Don't doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion by not knowing their backing tracks - Duran Duran's 1986 hit Notorious is the song playing while Donnie's sister Samantha performs with her dance troupe. However, it was not Kelly's first choice for the scene - he originally planned to use Pet Shop Boys' number one hit West End Girls before having to reconsider due to financial constraints.

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10. Stay by Oingo Boingo

Donnie's party gives the film the opportunity to showcase many rock and new wave songs from the era, beginning with this 1988 track from American band Oingo Boingo. Oingo Boingo was formed by film composer Danny Elfman - who is best known for scoring the themes of the likes of The Simpsons, Spider-Man and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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11. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division

One of the most iconic tracks of the '80s and often named as one of the best songs of all time, Love Will Tear Us Apart plays when Gretchen arrives at the party and talks with Donnie in his room - a fitting choice given the end of the film and how their love story will conclude. Gretchen says the famously sad line "I guess some people are just born with tragedy in their blood” while this song is playing - particularly pertinent given Donnie's situation and the end of the film.

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12. The Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunnymen

Other than Mad World, the mysterious, haunting The Killing Moon - fittingly sung by Echo & the Bunnymen - is probably the song most associated with Donnie Darko. In the theatrical cut the song memorably features in the opening sequence when Donnie cycles home, but was controversially replaced in the director's cut and instead moved to the party scene when Donnie leaves his bedroom with Gretchen.

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13. Mad World by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules

Yes that's right - that iconic piano-driven cover of Mad World was recorded for Donnie Darko, specifically the final scene when all of the film's characters suddenly wake up following Donnie's death. The film's composer Michael Andrews wanted to add a song to his instrumental score, and together with childhood friend Gary Jules decided to cover a track by Tears for Fears, one of their favourite bands growing up. Stripping back the electronic synthesisers and heavy percussion of the original, Andrews decided on the now iconic piano version which has truly taken on a separate life of its own.

Donnie Darko famously flopped upon its release in the US, but performed much better in the UK a year later and slowly became a word-of-mouth cult hit on DVD. This resulted in renewed interest in the Mad World cover, which was eventually released as a single and became a surprise Christmas number one in the UK in 2003 - two years after Donnie Darko's release. Mad World remained in the number one spot for three weeks and has influenced movie soundtracks ever since, starting a trend of haunting covers of pop songs in trailers that is ongoing to this day.

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