In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in honor of our best films of 2013, songs we discovered through movies.
I gave Tears For Fears a lot of play circa Songs From The Big Chair, so I presumably heard “Mad World” (which appeared on the band’s 1983 debut, The Hurting) at some point during the ’80s, but I don’t have any memory of it. When a spare, haunting cover of it appeared in Donnie Darko, I didn’t recognize it—I don’t think many people did.
Cover songs seldom eclipse the original, but every time I hear the Tears For Fears version now—it pops up on SiriusXM’s First Wave occasionally—it sounds wrong. The band is generally lumped in with ’80s new wave, but even dated synths and electronic drums can’t obscure the sadness at the heart of the song.
Michael Andrews and Gary Jules found their spare version of the song somewhere beneath the cheesy sounds of the original. Director Richard Kelly had brought Andrews on to write Donnie Darko’s score for little money and with one seriously limiting rule: no guitar or drums. (An alternate version of “Mad World” for the soundtrack has drums.)
Andrews and Jules had been friends since they were kids, and the two shared an affinity for English bands of the ’80s. They’d played music together for years, so when Andrews got the Donnie Darko job, he enlisted Jules to sing “Mad World.” He says in the soundtrack’s press materials that any song from The Hurting would’ve worked, but the “self-absorbed adolescent angst” of “Mad World” made it a perfect fit for Donnie Darko’s climax.
With Andrews on piano and Jules on vocals, the duo banged out a version of the song in 90 minutes. The budget was so small that Andrews couldn’t record a glossier version of it even if he wanted to—he had played every instrument on the score, because he didn’t have the money to hire anyone. (There’s a reason he called his lifelong friend to sing “Mad World.”) Jules would later add it to his 2001 album Trading Snakeoil For Wolftickets after getting a positive response from local L.A. crowds when he performed it. When the film became a cult hit, especially overseas, the song became deeply intertwined with its popularity (and vice versa).
That remains the case 12 years after Donnie Darko came and went from theaters. By stripping “Mad World” down to its elements, Michael Andrews and Gary Jules perfectly captured the film’s mood—and all but took the song away from Tears For Fears.