A sampling of my undergraduate work and assorted non sequiturs. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery and absolutely encouraged.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Analysis of Non-Diegetic Film Soundtrack: Donnie Darko (2001)


One of the very fundamental elements when creating a film is the arrangement of the film music. Most people probably think of the original film score when referring to a film’s musical components. But for many low-budget, independent or semi-independent projects, epic film scores are not the most advantageous choice. Often, the pre-produced songs used in film music, or popularly referred to as the film’s soundtrack, are overshadowed. Their artistic weight and contribution to the film are overlooked and not fully appreciated simply because critics sometimes view them as a “short-cut” to creating a film’s music or consider them as just entertainment. If utilized properly, popular music used from a different previous context can bring the same amount of artistic and practical worth as originally composed scores. Soundtracks are usually used by a filmmaker diegetically, coming from inside the film’s narrative. But when used in a non-diegetic form, replacing or co-existing with a film’s score, a film’s song soundtrack can sometimes create a stronger relationship with the viewer as well as the onscreen action. This example is perhaps exemplified best in Richard Kelly’s freshman effort, Donnie Darko. Each of the musical pieces chosen by Kelly and his music editors help to define the film, commentate on the narrative of the film, and ultimately influence the emotional tone of the scene. Not to take anything away from Michael Andrews’ original and impressive score, the film’s score will be integrated into the discussion of soundtrack when appropriate. The following will analyze the functions provided by the film’s non-diegetic soundtrack of songs: “The Killing Moon” (Echo and the Bunnymen, 1984), “Head Over Heels” (Tears for Fears, 1985), “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Steve Baker, Carmen Daye), “Under the Milky Way” (The Church, 1988), and “Mad World” (Tears for Fears, 1983).

The Killing Moon

The opening scene of Donnie Darko begins with the protagonist Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the side of the road. He has a scenic and panoramic view of his small hometown in Middlesex, Virginia. Michael Andrew’s score plays as Donnie wakes up and sees that he has sleepwalked (or rather sleep-rode his bike) to the top of this hill. A simple piano with the accompaniment of a female choral vocal creates a feeling of innocence and wonder for the viewer. The soft dynamics and light texture of only piano notes allows the viewer to immediately assume that Donnie is a curious and adventurous teenager, and that while waking up on a mysterious road can be off-putting, this situation is more amusing than frightening. A close-up shot of Donnie is shown as he flashes a brief smile to himself. Next the film’s title comes onscreen and the sound effect of high-speed air ripping by transitions the music to the first soundtrack song, “The Killing Moon” written and performed by Echo and the Bunnymen. The song begins as Donnie is riding his bike on the street, downhill and through the forest he is gaining speed as the sun rises for dawn. “The Killing Moon” has an introduction of simple guitar chords; one guitar is plucked and overlaps a second guitar maintaining the rhythm. Then the drums come in as well as the vocals. The scene is given an invigoration of energy, a purpose to achieve something after waking up in the morning. The song immediately places the timeframe of the film in the late 1980s. As Donnie rides his bike into town, this timeframe is confirmed by observing the fashion of the supporting characters as well as the Stephen King book IT which Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell) is reading. The lyrics are ominous, and foreshadow the basic theme of the film: “Though I know it must be the killing time / unwillingly mine / Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin / He will wait until / You give yourself to him.” For those unfamiliar with the plot, Donnie must become a tool of fate and destiny, eventually killing Frank, and then choosing to sacrifice himself to restore order to the universe. Of course, the viewer cannot make the connection between the lyrics and the narrative at this early stage especially if it is a first viewing, but the correlation is notable after repeated viewings. The music is without question non-diegetic and the up-tempo beat of the drums keeps the scene moving smoothly as the viewer is informally introduced to the Darko family. No dialogue can be heard, the only sound effects are the spokes of Donnie’s bicycle, the noise of Eddie Darko’s (Holmes Osborne) leaf blower, and Samantha Darko (Daveigh Chase) jumping up and down on the trampoline. Their personalities are shown as Eddie playfully uses the leaf blower on his daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as she shakes the car keys asking for permission to use it. Rose is quietly reading while watching over the playful youngest child Samantha. But as the music plays, she flashes an incredibly subtle, yet heartfelt, look of concern as Donnie passes by her. The audience is comfortably introduced to the entire Darko clan and their characteristics in a simple scene lasting no more than two minutes.

Head Over Heels

The “Head Over Heels” scene begins with the dramatic opening of the emergency door in the back of the school bus. Instead of using the conventional bus exit, Donnie and his friends are immediately characterized as teenage rebels when the electric keyboard begins the basic melody of “Head Over Heels”. This musical piece was probably chosen by Kelly for its undeniably stereotypical 80s rock melody as well as its annoying ability to catch the audience’s ear and remain there for some time afterwards. In addition the tempo of the song paces well with what the director is trying to do in the scene. There are two extended, uncut tracking shots which introduce the main supporting characters at Donnie’s school. First the hallway portion will be discussed, and then the outdoor court shot. After Donnie’s dramatic exit from the back of the school bus, the camera cuts to inside the school. Donnie enters the hallway and struts down it with his friends. The music, which began with only an electric keyboard tapping out the melody, now has an electric guitar strumming the catchy tune, mirroring the keyboard almost exactly. Although, the guitar does hit higher notes and sustains those notes longer than the keyboard. This addition in song texture gives the audience a feeling of rebellious teenage attitude. The impression is confirmed as Donnie encounters the school bully, Seth (Alex Greenwald). The camera pans around 180-degrees and the shot briefly changes to slow-motion. The audience is now seeing the hallway through Donnie’s eyes (almost) as Seth tilts his head mockingly and gives Donnie a dirty look. The camera next follows Seth as the audience is introduced to the next character, Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), an overly conservative physical education “teacher” and coach for the school dance team Sparkle Motion. A drum rhythm is added as Seth flashes Kitty a sarcastic smile. Then the vocals begin, adding to the catchy pop-rock beat. As Kitty walks after Seth, the shots speed changes to a faster motion. It is as if she is perusing Seth, watching him to make sure nothing unseemly is taking place in the hallway. The uninterrupted scene continues as the camera now pans to Gretchen (Jena Malone), the future love interest of Donnie. The lyrics, “traditions I can trace against the child in your face”, play as the viewer is treated to Gretchen checking her complexion in her locker mirror. The romantic theme of the song hit hardest here, as the foreshadowing of Gretchen and Donnie’s future relationship is obvious. Again the camera speed changes, as Gretchen slams her locker (the only diegetic sound heard during this entire scene) and walks down the hall. The shot is slowed down and focuses on her face. Kelly’s focus on her while the song “Head Over Heels” plays non-diegetically shows that he wants the audience to know she will be one of the most important characters in the film. In fact, it is her death at the end of the film which instigates Donnie shooting Frank and deciding to use his power to save her and the primary universe.

After the long hallway scene comes a long uninterrupted scene outside which introduced still more story characters. The transition from hallway to the outside court is marked by a special effect of a bright flash, much like the visual transition after the opening title was shown. But the music is not interrupted. Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) is first shown as the camera pans down to her sitting alone reading a textbook. This overweight, Asian, female student is ostracized by her peers. The high-pitched vocals of Tears for Fears juxtaposes this lonely scene of Cherita alone. She is the only character being introduced which is not actively moving about; again this symbolizes her going against the grain which we will later see during her talent show performance. The audience is left with a feeling that just as she doesn’t belong in this upbeat 80s soundtrack, neither does she truly belong among her peers at school. Worth noting, Cherita often wears earmuffs to block out the insults her classmates hurl at her. In this scene, she appears to also be blocking out the music which is smoothly and seamlessly guiding the camera about to every supporting character. Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) is shown next talking with Kitty about his self-help philosophy. The two are joined by the principal, and the trio then proceed to run into Ken Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). As this encounter takes place, the lyrics, “wasting my time, just wasting my time” play to shed light on this seemingly cordial meeting. The trio of Kitty, Cunningham, and the Principal are out of touch with the students of Middlesex. Pomeroy and Monnitoff are the new progressive instructors, who will assist Donnie in discovering his fate, not hinder and antagonize him like Kitty and Jim Cunningham. The two groups do not think much of each other as can be seen in their facial expressions. Pomeroy is disgusted by Kitty, but as the scene continues, her disgust spreads to Sparkle Motion. Sparkle Motion is the dance team coached by Kitty which consists of five young Middlesex girls, including Samantha Darko. Just as the chorus of “la-la-la-la-la / la-la-la-la-la” begins, a shot of Sparkle Motion practicing their dance is shown. The camera slowly pans in to emphasize each corny, Star-Search move made by Samantha, and then the girls’ overly enthusiastic reaction to completing the routine. The high-pitched chorus is ominous as the audience is faced with this pre-pubescent dance team representing nothing artistic, and everything commercially shallow and gaudy.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Richard Kelly moves away from using popular 1980s rock songs as non-diegetic soundtrack in the following scene. It begins with Donnie and Gretchen, who are now “going together” (as Donnie likes to put it), watching a screening of Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981) at the local theater. Initially, only the diegetic music and sound effects of the Evil Dead can be heard. Donnie is quietly watching as Gretchen sleeps beside him. Then the soundtrack begins with a dark vibrato timbre and steady tone of a male vocal. Frank (James Duval) appears as the grotesque Bunny in the seat beside Gretchen. The audience is startled by the sadness represented by the minor scale of the musical piece. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was written by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye. It is composed of two vocals, a steady male hum and a operatic female choral as a simple drum is beat even few beats. The lyrics are indistinguishable and are elongated as to sound like a foreign opera. The music is filled with sadness and grief, yet telling a tale of predestined fate. Donnie and Frank turn to look at one another with quiet understanding. The camera shoots from an isometric angle slightly lower than eye-level. The shot, with the music, captures Frank’s unsettling Bunny mask as light from the movie screen reflects off of it. The drum beats sound like claps of thunder, foreshadowing a “stormy” and difficult path ahead for Donnie. Donnie asks Frank to take off his Bunny mask, which reveals that Frank’s left eye has been shot out. Donnie is of course responsible for this at the end of the film because “human” Frank accidentally kills Gretchen with his Trans Am. Frank knows he provoked Donnie by killing Gretchen and solemnly apologizes, “I’m so sorry.” The apology could also be on behalf of the “higher power” which set these events in motion.

It is in this scene that Donnie has is most open conversation with the mysterious Frank character. The overture of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” gives the audience the feeling that this encounter is very important in Donnie’s quest to discover his purpose. The male vocals resonate with the audience and lend weight to the terrible task asked of Donnie. Frank wants Donnie to burn down Jim Cunningham’s mansion. In contrast, the smooth female voice in the music draws the views attention to the tragedy taking place. Donnie did not choose this mission to save the universe; it was thrust upon him by some higher, incomprehensible force. The viewer knows he is tragic hero, and they also know his love with Gretchen will also end in tragedy as she sleeps peacefully beside Frank the Bunny. Later in the scene, as Frank explains to Donnie how to make a time portal using his powers, the vocals in the music sing higher and higher. Then the accompaniment of string pieces can be heard in the background. As the strings are fighting to be heard, a tinge of hope sparks up in the narrative. If Donnie follows Frank’s guidance, horrible as it may seem right now, he will eventually set things right by using his powers to create a time portal. Donnie has the same innocence observed previously, and the audience observes a child-like look of sadness on his face. The scene concludes with Donnie looking longingly at Gretchen’s pristine face before setting off into the night to burn down Cunningham’s home. The music then fades and transitions into the next scene where Cherita is performing “Autumn Angel” at the Middlesex Talent Show.

Under the Milky Way

Much less intense than the previous song, “Under the Milky Way” by The Church is played as diegetic party music during Donnie and Elizabeth Darko’s Halloween party. The moment when Gretchen and Donnie kiss in the master bedroom is when the music becomes louder, getting ready to become part of the non-diegetic soundtrack. After Donnie and Gretchen have sexual intercourse, their post-coital decent down the stairs cues “Under the Milky Way” to encompass the environment, it becomes fully non-diegetic. The texture is well arranged and rich. The melody is a melancholy, yet inspiring guitar-pop. Steve Kilbey’s (lead singer) deep and haunting voice resonates with the viewer as Donnie and Gretchen walk downstairs in a long slow-motion close-up shot. The expressions on their faces as they hold hands show the last moments of happiness the two will experience. Kilbey’s does not rush his vocals, which perfectly matches the speed of action onscreen as he sings, “Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty / Sound of their breath fades with the light / I think about the loveless fascination / Under the Milky Way tonight.” His words foreshadow the pain and grief Donnie will experience when later that night, Gretchen is killed. His soul becomes empty, he shoots Frank in the face, Gretchen’s breath fades, and Donnie is left loveless and alone in the night.

As Gretchen and Donnie continue through the house, Kelly drops the music in and out of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. When Donnie briefly puts his head into a water portal, the soundtrack becomes warped and distorted, and eventually fades. Donnie is suddenly brought back into reality, but the dialogue is low and echoes beneath the soundtrack. The viewer’s hearing is connected to Donnie perception of sound. He cannot hear Gretchen’s voice very clearly, but “Under the Milky Way” still prevails as if it were in Dolby surround sound, thus returning the soundtrack to the non-diegetic realm. “Under the Milky Way” has been used to give the audience a sense of disorientation when Donnie is overcome by the water portal. This is the same disorientation Donnie has experienced and now the viewer has some idea about how he feels. In closing, the lyrics parallel the narrative when Donnie insists he and Gretchen go see Roberta Sparrow A.K.A. Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland): “Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find.” Donnie is searching for something, the last piece to the puzzle, the final tragic encounter which will decide his fate. He does not know that he will be ambushed by Seth in Sparrow’s cellar, or that Frank will kill Gretchen, or that he will have to shoot Frank. Donnie is only searching for some meaning, guided by some force to seek out Sparrow’s “Cellar Door”.

Mad World

The second to last scene consists of “Mad World” (by Roland Orzaba and Tears for Fears, performed by Gary Jules) heard non-diegetically as the camera “side-scrolls” between each character affected by Donnie Darko. Donnie has sacrificed his life to create a time portal which saves the primary universe. The events of the past month are only remembered as a vague dream by the people he saved. Each character is depicted by their bed, awake and disturbed by what they remember in their dreams. Orzabal’s lyrics accompanied with a simple piano melody are the best summation of the ordeal experienced by Donnie Darko: “Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow / No tomorrow, no tomorrow / And I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / The dreams in which I'm dying / Are the best I've ever had.” Gary Jules bittersweet and earnest style of singing tear into the viewers emotions, pulling out genuine sorrow for Donnie. It is as if Donnie is singing from beyond the grave. The slow pseudo-montage of each character shows only their facial expression. What they all have in common is a shocked and vulnerable reaction, just like the audience has now, which is intensified by the stripped-down tone and unadorned texture of Jule’s “Mad World”. Strip away the science-fiction plot about time travel and the philosophical argument for the existence of God and what remains is a coming of age story of a teenage boy. The feeling of nostalgia is powerful and transitions into mourning when the scene changes to the Darko family silently crying out for Donnie as “Mad World” fades away for the ending scene.


This discussion of Donnie Darko’s non-diegetic soundtrack is best evaluated while simultaneously screening the film. The previous discussion has attempted to discuss pivotal scenes without having to fully explain the intricacies of the narrative and plotline. Hopefully, analysis of the soundtrack and the visual action has lead to a greater understanding of how soundtrack songs can provide adequate non-diegetic film music to compliment and sometimes replace a film’s original score. The use of popular songs in the films soundtrack (with exception to “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) demonstrate that picture and track share a closely fused relationship. Every part of a music track contributes the overall sensory experience: lyrics, tone, melody, rhythm, and more. This July 2004, Richard Kelly is re-releasing Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut with new music and footage. Perhaps there will be new scenes and song tracks ready to be analyzed like those in the original.

Works Cited

1.) Donnie Darko. Dir. Richard Kelly; Perfs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore; DVD; Prod. Flower Films; Dist. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001.

2.) “The Killing Moon”. Written by Will Sergeant, Ian McCulloch, Les Pattinson, and Pete De Frietas. Performed by Echo and the Bunnymen.

3.) “Head Over Heels”. Written by Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal. Performed by Tears For Fears.

4.) “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Written by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye.

5.) “Under the Milky Way”. Written by Steven Kilbey and Karin Jansson. Performed by The Church.

6.) “Mad World”. Written by Roland Orzabal. Performed by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews.

7.) www.imdb.com, film credits


Blogger conchchowder said...

"...which reveals that Frank’s left eye has been shot out..."
Frank's right eye was shot out; not his left.

2:12 AM

Blogger Nico said...

little late but this was actually a great article, thanks

10:44 AM

Blogger Fabio Pirovano said...

Outstanding Analysis , regards

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4:34 PM


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