When Requiem for a Dream premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, it turned heads and stomachs in equal measure. A devastatingly bleak and fresh adaptation of author Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 addiction-fueled novel, the film quickly garnered instant attention for everyone involved. For director Darren Aronofsky, the film put him on the map as an up-and-coming director of vision and style. For the illustrious Ellen Burstyn, her performance as the diet-pill addicted Sara Goldfarb nabbed her Oscar, SAG and Golden Globe nominations (and a Fangoria Chainsaw Award win). Everything from editing, to cinematography, makeup and supporting performances by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans became nominated at numerous award shows around the globe. Yet, 21 years later, it is composer Clint Mansell’s incredible score that is perhaps the most notorious and universally revered hallmark of the project.
Before entering the world of film score composition, Mansell was the lead singer and guitarist for the English alt-rock band Pop Will Eat Itself. Fusing elements of pop, hip-hop, electronic, rock and industrial over the years, the group’s interesting mix of sounds defied common mainstream music logic and traditional roads to major label success. Even when dropped from their major label, their talent was recognized and allowed to live on thanks to their fan and friend, Trent Reznor. After signing the group to his label Nothing Records, Reznor then proceeded to take the band on tour with NIN. Understandably, heavier electronic influences began to seep into the band’s music and the group began to collaborate with more and more established electronic acts. Despite this second chance and new wave of popularity, the band ultimately fizzled out due to creative differences in 1996.
Following the band’s break-up, Mansell moved to New York in an effort to start over and pursue new creative endeavors. Soon proving to be a wise decision, Mansell became introduced to the then unknown Aronofsky through mutual friends. Initially connecting over a shared love of hip-hop, the recently available musician learned of Aronofsky’s need of a composer for his first feature, Pi. Despite never having scored a film before, the idea intrigued Mansell and he took the job. A popular cult-favorite electronic heavy score, Pi features licensed tracks from artists like Orbital, Autechre, Aphex Twin and GusGus as well as Mansell’s own electronic style compositions.
Through Pi, Mansell was able to test the film scoring waters and simultaneously let loose in a new, unprecedented way. Dropping auditory hints towards things to come, attentive listeners will have no problem catching snippets of the next Aronofsky and Mansell collaboration. Having scored every single one of Aronofsky’s films (except for Mother! which has no score) since Pi, the decision to work together has clearly proven to be a worthwhile one for both parties.
Due to Pi‘s generally positive reception from indie film circuits and their successful collaboration, Aronofsky once again turned to Mansell to help with his next film and passion project, Requiem for a Dream. Long fascinated with the novel, Aronofsky’s vision for the film included bringing Selby Jr.’s characters into the then modern world of the early 2000s. Tragically timeless in it’s portrayal of addiction, the only real updating the book needed came through the film’s cinematic style, visuals and of course, the music. While initially desiring a hip-hop heavy score to tap into the Brooklyn setting and their shared love for the genre, Mansell and Aronofsky quickly realized that approach didn’t really have the effect they were hoping for. In a 2020 oral history of the film published on Vulture, Mansell spoke about this saying:
Darren had wanted a hip-hop score to reflect the music he’d listened to growing up in Brooklyn. I remember him sending me a clip of the scene where Ellen Burstyn first takes the speed pills. He put “She Watch Channel Zero?!” by Public Enemy under it. It was fantastic, just brilliant, but it didn’t do anything but say, “Oh, that’s cool.” There was no subtext to it. We realized at that point we were in trouble. I had written a lot of stuff in advance, but in this hip-hopish vein. When I started seeing the rough edit, we put the music to it, and nothing really latched on. I nearly quit at one point because I didn’t think I could do it.
Scratching the original full hip-hop centered concept (no pun intended), the duo turned their efforts elsewhere. Unlike many composers who become involved after production has wrapped, Mansell was able to visit the set and become intimately involved with the film. This deep understanding and connection roused many of the score’s minimalistic inspired melodies and ideas, but it still needed something a little extra. Perhaps inspired by classic cinema scores of the past, or perhaps just inspired by the word ‘requiem’ itself, Aronofsky finally threw out the concept of utilizing a string quartet to fill out Mansell’s score skeleton. Despite having never worked with a string quartet, Mansell was in favor of the idea. Not settling for just any string quartet, they reached out to the famous Kronos Quartet. Known for their diverse and talented players, the historical San Francisco group proved to be the final, defining piece of Requiem for a Dream‘s sonic puzzle. Now that we’ve cut up the history, let’s push off and look at a few iconic tracks a bit closer.
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Summer: When first introduced to Sara, Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), Harry is ‘borrowing’ his mother’s television in order to get some quick cash to buy heroin. This slightly tense yet regular occurrence is our first and abrupt look into the world of Requiem for a Dream. Literally underscoring this hectic opening scene is the track Summer Overture. Sweeping, drawn out string notes become replaced by cold, repeated progressions of electronic notes. Soon, the strings return with a synthesized hip-hop hybrid beat playing alongside them. As the strings casually progress up and down, these icy keyboard notes continue to whisper beneath the surface. Then, just as demure, crunchy and distorted bursts of syncopated sound appear, the violins boldly cut in with their simple, but iconic melody.
Though seemingly simple, there are layers of meaning attached to each and every element of this important opening piece. By keeping a hint of the original hip-hop mentality and fusing it with the world of electronic music, Mansell conveys the youth, excitement and party-like atmosphere often connected with recreational drug use. Later, this idea becomes further emphasized and highlighted further in tracks like Party and High on Life. With the strings, the emotional connection and cost of addiction becomes palpable. Often described by Aronofsky as the monster in the movie, it is the strings that become the Addiction Monster’s calling card and overpower any and all other emotions. And finally, it is the melodies themselves that provide a window into how addiction works within the film. Cyclical and rhythmic, the progressions move up and down within the same narrow range of notes. Just like the Coney Island roller coaster seen behind Tyrone and Harry as they push Sara‘s tired old TV down the boardwalk, the highs and lows flow seamlessly into one another and mirror the dangerous ride of addiction that is so incredibly difficult to get off.
Fall: Part of what makes Requiem for a Dream such a difficult watch is the way the relationship between Harry and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) deteriorates. In the early portion of the film, the pair is deeply in love and full of hope. Despite their mutual drug use, neither feel tied or controlled by it. Conveyed through the track Ghosts of Things to Come, this stage in their relationship becomes reinforced through low and beautiful cello notes and melancholic synth notes. Bathed in a light haze of swirling sound, the moment feels pure, perfect and untouchable. However, their love soon becomes tested as the monster of addiction digs it’s claws deeper into their hearts.
“Tragically timeless in it’s portrayal of addiction, the only real updating the book needed came through the film’s cinematic style, visuals and of course, the music.”
Playing off this earlier track, Mansell parallels Harry and Marion‘s devolving relationship with the track Ghosts-Falling. Still using cello as the representation for their old, healthier relationship, it quickly becomes interrupted by a sinister interjection of mood. Tonally darker and rhythmically much more aggressive, the unsettling emotional right turn works to support the couple’s increasingly desperate situation. Not only is the collision of tone jarring, it begins to reveal just how tenuous and fragile their position is. Similarly reinforced through simple tracks like Tense, there is an element of choice in each of the character’s decisions. The deeper and deeper they all get with their drug use, the harder and harder those choices become. What was once an active, conscious choice soon becomes an uncontrollable and unconscious decision motivated by something much more powerful than willpower alone.
As the seasons change, so does the film’s atmosphere. While the previous segments provided glimmers of hope and resolution sprinkled in with the dark, as fall turns to winter, all chances of a happy ending are erased—for everyone. Distortions of previously established sounds become heightened, especially in relation to Sara‘s character. As she starts taking diet pills in an effort to slim down and fit into her classic red dress, the slightly humorous conga tinted tracks of summer represent her upper-driven drive and reinvigorated sense of self. As the leaves turn and Sara up’s her dosage, the conga theme mutates and becomes truly terrifying by late fall’s Bugs Got a Devilish Grin Conga. Eventually driven out of her home in a fit of pharmaceutical drug-induced mania, Sara‘s freefall begins to merge and connect with Harry, Marion and Tyrone‘s. As it does, so does her musical backdrop. Here, in these late seasonal moments, all the components that Mansell has been establishing throughout the film begin to finally come together.
Winter: Aptly titled Meltdown, one of the film’s most unsettling tracks chronicles the group’s final, harrowing descent into despair and full-fledged addiction. The sonic equivalent of their inevitable collision of choices, events and consequences, persistent and unrelenting strings pulse and play dissonant progressions of sound. These monotonous and repetitive patterns slowly become further distorted and aggressive as the track goes on. Long gone are the beautiful, evocative strings of summer. Here, the instruments become as nearly unrecognizable as the characters themselves. There’s a true terror present in the unyielding dissonance and the effectiveness lies within Mansell’s refusal to back down. By doggedly maintaining it’s sonic attack on the senses and increasingly gaining momentum as it continues, what little hope remained in the film becomes digested and definitively eliminated.
As the narrative spirals rapidly towards absolute rock bottom, Mansell assembles all the pieces into the score’s apex track, Lux Aeterna. The most famous track in the entire film (and of Mansell’s entire career thus far), everything emotionally, narratively and visually coalesces with the track’s sonic confines. Sara becomes committed and ‘treated’ with electroshock therapy. Tyrone is arrested and subjected to hate filled emotional, physical and verbal abuse. Marion trades her body for drugs out of sheer desperation and Harry loses much more than just Marion alone.
These new levels of hopelessness and tragedy are served up through the combined presence of heartbreaking cello, sorrow filled viola and weeping violins. Low and heavy electronic pulses combine with nearly imperceptible atmospheric tones to provide an unparalleled undercurrent of despair while the familiar and cold keyboard melody calls back to the story’s nebulous beginning. Despite nothing new being truly presented in Lux Aeterna, it is the way in which these key components are rearranged, redistributed and reutilized that provides the track with it’s strength. Each part uniquely gaining potency from the other, Mansell presents this already familiar material in such a way it effectively creates a soul crushing sonic gut-punch few scores can rival.
“[…] 21 years later, it is composer Clint Mansell’s incredible score that is perhaps the most notorious and universally revered hallmark of [Requiem for a Dream].”
Due to this incredible force of emotional musical material, it is not surprising Mansell’s score has taken on a life of it’s own since the film’s release. In a rare turn of events for such a modern score, Lux Aeterna has been used multiple times over the years in ways completely unrelated to Requiem for a Dream. Commercial campaigns for camera and beer companies have used the track. Lil Jon sampled it in his 2002 song Throw it Up and multiple TV shows have used the track for one reason or another. However, perhaps the most intriguing is the fact that this same track has been used, remixed and rerecorded for high profile movie and video game trailers like I am Legend, Sunshine and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. While inextricably linked to Requiem for a Dream and the film’s emotionally exhaustive narrative assault on the senses, there’s just no denying it’s cinematic beauty. Because of this fact, it oddly makes sense that other films would want to tap into that power, even if it is just for a two minute trailer.
One of the most emotionally haunting and tragically beautiful scores of the modern era, Mansell’s iconic collab with the Kronos Quartet is a must own item for film score enthusiasts. Initially released CD only by Nonesuch in 2000, vinyl score collectors rejoiced when a version was announced for Record Store Day 2016. Featuring new artwork and two previously unreleased bonus tracks, the highly anticipated release quickly became a hot commodity. Then, Nonesuch released a different LP version of the score in 2020 featuring the classic poster art and the 2016 bonus tracks as well. Both readily available for reasonable prices, odds are there’s at least one copy waiting in the racks at your local record store this very moment.
What are your thoughts on Requiem for a Dream? Have a favorite Clint Mansell project? Talk all things trippy horror with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! For more score talk, check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!