Donnie Darko’s Mad World: when limits trigger creativity

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Some songs are born marked by destiny, forced to find their way through tortuous and unusual paths where the freedom of choice is extremely limited, and yet it’s precisely that limitation that determines the success. It’s the story of Mad World, a lucky single that had already been very successful in 1982, as the third single from Tears For Fears’s debut album, The Hurting. Melancholic mood, introverted lyrics, the right amount of synths and a sustained beat, something that the English duo was very good at.

Yet, the new generation knows this song more for a cover made in 2001, made by composer Michael Andrews and sung by Gary Jules, within the soundtrack of one of the most particular films of the 2000s: Donnie Darko. Film born with very low budget, which didn’t have huge success at the theatres but acquired the aura of a cult afterwards, when internet decides to shoot dozens of new age stories to explain the plot. Even for the soundtrack, of course, the costs had to be low and Andrews had to learn the art of cheap problem solving: for the entire soundtrack he played all the instruments, piano, keyboards, percussion, everything except the guitars, a veto imposed by the director Richard Kelly. Even the singers involved were artists with whom he had already worked, invited by him to participate. The overall result was very well done, delicate and strong at the same time. And Andrews had an ace in his hand: he would have added a a song to the full-instrumental soundtrack, and the Tears for Fears were one of his great youth passions. The choice fell on Mad World, Reinterpreted in an ethereal version, with a transparent texture.

The creative limits as real success factors of a work. It’s in fact a known theory in the artistic field: having available infinite resources doesn’t help the artist, rather it condemns it to a productive process without real control, with real impact on creativity. When few tools are available, the genius often comes out. Here was the mellifluous melody of the piano, which transformed the energy of the original song into a touching, almost hypnotic harmony. The success of the DVD distribution convinced them to publish it as a single a few years later, in 2003. With the last touch: the video directed by Michel Gondry, who was able to extract the magic character of the song with a choreography seen from the top, on the basketball field of a school, and Jules seeing it from the building. One of the most shared video in the history of Internet, probably the Gondry’s pop masterpiece in music, and a cover successful like few others. All that, just because music had to be made only with a piano. Difficulties stimulate talent.

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