Out of the realm of imagination
Two friends never dreamed their remake of an old song for the film 'Donnie Darko' would now be a hit
Just before Christmas, four years ago, Michael Andrews asked a boyhood friend to stop by his home studio in Los Angeles. Andrews was finishing the score to "Donnie Darko," a low-budget movie destined for the art house circuit. Crunched for cash, he couldn't afford his first choice for the final scene, U2's "MLK."
So he set up a microphone in a hallway and had Gary Jules sing a Tears for Fears song, "Mad World," over Andrews's melancholic piano arrangement. The demo would be just a start. If the director liked the recording, Andrews would put together a more polished production. It was only after he played the song for director Richard Kelly that Andrews realized a rerecording wouldn't be necessary.
" `That's incredible,' " Kelly recalls saying as soon as he heard the song. "I called the producers and told them, `We've got the song.' "
Thus began the unlikely path of "Mad World," the knockoff cover turned cult hit that, three years later, has become a bona fide pop smash. The song has introduced Jules's voice to TV audiences ("Smallville," "Without a Trace," and "Judging Amy"), theatergoers (the Huntington's production of "Butley" closed with "Mad World"), and radio listeners. "Mad World" hit number one in England at Christmastime and has been steadily climbing the US charts over the last month. Jules, a former major label castoff, is having his three-year-old self-produced album, "Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets," released by Universal on Tuesday.
As much as "Mad World" is a personal triumph for the singer, it's also an important reminder to the industry: A good song doesn't have to fit the formula; sometimes, a hit just happens.
"If someone sent that cold to a label, they'd say, `OK, that's a songwriting demo but certainly not a finished song to take to radio,' " says Nicole Sandler, programming director of 92.5 FM, "The River," where "Mad World" is first on the station's playlist. "Yet I've gotten calls from people who say, `What is that song? I was driving and I had to pull over and just listen to it.' "
Although Jules's version of "Mad World" sounds freshly contemporary, the song dates to the days of Ronald Reagan and Rick Springfield. Roland Orzabal wrote it and worked out the music with Curt Smith in his apartment in Bath, England.
"It was one of the quickest songs written," says Smith, who formed Tears for Fears with Orzabal. "I remember it being written in an hour or two above Roland's little flat above a pizza place. It's very much a voyeur's song. It's looking out at a mad world from the eyes of a teenager."
"Mad World" wasn't a hit in the United States, but it cracked the top 10 in England after its release in 1982. Andrews and Jules, teenagers in San Diego at the time, heard it on the radio.
Even as they moved around California separately after graduating from high school, the two friends stayed in touch. When A&M Records signed Jules to record his first album, he asked Andrews to produce it. But 1998's "Greetings From the Side" barely sold, and Jules briefly quit the business to finish his English degree at UCLA. That's when Andrews asked for help on "Donnie Darko," a film that tells the story of a delusional teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) tormented by dreamlike visions and a talking, oversize rabbit named Frank.
They worked quickly that day, with Jules shouting out a couple of chord changes until Andrews had the song transposed into music in the style of "Donnie Darko." The Tears for Fears version of "Mad World" chugs forward with electric drums, a wash of keyboards, and layers of synthesized horns. Andrews slowed the song down and added a dark Moog synthesizer line over his piano. The centerpiece remained Jules, whose voice has been compared with those of Cat Stevens and Paul Simon. And that could have been the end of it, as "Donnie Darko" made only a little more than $500,000 and quickly disappeared from theaters. But Andrews, proud of his work on the film, wanted people to hear the music.
He convinced Andy Lack, a friend who owned Enjoy records, to release the score, which was the material Andrews composed, not the original pop songs featured in the film. Instead of money, Andrews was paid with a few thousand pressed CDs. As Andrews promoted the score CD, "Donnie Darko" developed a new, underground audience. Art houses brought it back for another run. There was a DVD, a book, and a staged production at the American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advance Theatre Training. (A revival of that ART production started yesterday and runs through next Sunday.) Kelly has been working on a director's cut, and Newmarket will rerelease the film in theaters this summer.
Attention began to build for Jules as well. After "Darko," he recorded "Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets" with Andrews. With no label biting, Jules released it on his own early in 2002. A few months later, he was given permission to add "Mad World" to the CD. He then watched as the song spread.
"Most of it came from illegal downloads," says Jules. "It was crazy."
As time passed, it became clear the demand for "Mad World" was building. Los Angeles DJ Nic Harcourt heard Jules play the song at a local club and added it to the playlist of KCRW, the station for which he is music director. Lack licensed the song for two compilations in Europe and watched as the "Donnie Darko" score began to sell 1,000 copies a week. In September 2003, "Mad World" was growing so popular in England that betting houses began to set odds of it reaching the top of the charts by Christmas. When it hit No. 1, the same record executives who had ignored "Mad World" for two years began to bid on Jules. Universal signed him.
Today, the song is not only in the top 10 in the adult album category -- the River's format -- according to industry publication Radio & Records Inc., it's in the top 10 on the playlists of alternative stations WBCN and WFNX. Now it'll get the benefit of a major label push. Last weekend in New Jersey, French director Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") filmed a video of "Mad World." And on March 29, Jules and Andrews go on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Financially, "Mad World" hasn't changed the lives of the two musicians. Jules, 34, still drives a 1991
"When people talk about the song and don't mention me, I feel a little robbed," says Andrews. "But at the same time, it's benefiting a great friend of mine, and that's a good thing."
He is being protected. Lack insisted, when he agreed to license "Mad World" as a British single in December, that it be credited to "Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules." "It's an opus to a score," says Lack. "Gary was brought in as a work-for-hire guest vocalist and stole the show. But it's Michael's song in the same way that Moby has Gwen Stefani featured on his records."
For Tears for Fears, the success of "Mad World" has brought renewed interest. That's good news for Smith and Orzabal, who had already planned to release in the summer their first album together in 15 years.
Smith has exchanged e-mails with Jules, and they're hoping to meet in Los Angeles. After all, Jules has given Smith an idea for the fall, when he hopes Tears for Fears will tour. The idea, says Smith, is for him and Orzabal to walk onstage together. They will be unplugged, without even a Casio to rely on. They will dig deep into their catalog and, after considerable anticipation, launch into a new, stripped-down version of one of their oldest recordings, a song called "Mad World."
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.