At the very core of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror-thriller Don’t Look Now is a family wrestling with the complexities of grief. While representations of the family unit are some of the most prolific and intimate subjects in all of film, Don’t Look Now offers a rare glimpse at family trauma with untouchable tenderness. When their family home becomes a physical reminder of pain and sorrow, Laura (Julie Christie) and John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) relocate to Venice for work and escape. However, the couple soon learns that one cannot fully outrun grief, especially when there may be paranormal forces at work.
While there are many incredible factors that contributed to Don’t Look Now‘s overall success, one of the most iconic and intrinsic aspects of the film comes from it’s chillingly beautiful score from Italian legend, Pino Donaggio. The interesting thing about the genesis of the film’s score is that Donaggio never planned on entering the world of film scoring. While his talent and passion for music started at a very young age, for many years his trajectory was headed in a completely different direction.
I was very skeptical because I could not understand why they would call me for such an important movie. I thought it was a mistake. I had never had any experience with movies before except that I was very fond of cinema. I used to watch two movies a day. But I was not interested in making soundtracks. I’d never thought about creating music for a film. – Pino Donaggio
As an extremely talented violinist, his understanding and grasp on music and melody led him into a promising and successful career as a singer-songwriter. Following his big break singing alongside Paul Anka, Donaggio began to write and sing his own works. Before long, he became one of Italy’s top singers and in 1965, his hit ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me‘ reached a whole new audience when it was performed by Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley. But life is funny that way. Despite one’s best efforts to follow a specific path, sometimes that journey is interrupted as new pathways are revealed.
After a chance encounter with casting director Ugo Mariotti, a whole new world of potential became revealed for Donaggio. Recognized as the famous Italian singer while riding a Venetian waterbus, Mariotti saw it as a sign and pursued the artist for this new project he was working on: Don’t Look Now. Despite his initial hesitations, Donaggio met with director Nicolas Roeg and the two instantly connected. As a director, Roeg had established his experimental, talented and unique style of filmmaking with his films Walkabout (1971) and Performance (1970). He was a director with vision who had mastered the art of seeing the larger picture and the value that every shot, every object and every note could carry. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he saw the deep well of potential that resided in the young composer. Even with Roeg’s unarguable talent and experience at the forefront, Donaggio himself was not coming to the project empty-handed. While his formal film scoring experience was nonexistent, what Donaggio did offer was his natural affinity and deep understanding of music. Let’s take a look, shall we.
From the moment the film begins, the score embodies the role as the emotional grounding and translation device. By that I mean, the score acts as means of conveyance for us, the audience, to truly understand and feel the emotional state of our main characters at any given time. As young Christine plays about outside with her brother the simple, sweet ‘John’s Theme‘ plays. The solo piano tune reveals as much in what is played as how it’s played.
In the melody itself, there is a beauty and innocence with just the right amount of melancholy. With their children outside, Laura and John remain inside by the fire, both focused on their separate tasks. The two scenes accompanied by melody instantly establish a beautiful portrait of picturesque domestic life in the countryside. In conjunction with the melody comes the lilting, childlike execution of the actual performance itself. The hesitation at certain points combined with the focused pressing of each key elicits images of a child learning to play the piano. While Donaggio was an extremely talented violinist, the world of piano was a fairly unfamiliar one to him. Therefore, the hesitancy and inexperience that comes out in the tune was very real and ultimately translates as truly authentic. In applying this performance technique to the melody, it naturally imbues the scene with a fulfilling sense of innocence and love. By setting the stage so perfectly, the following moments unfold in the most heartbreaking and dramatic of ways.
“While subtle, the utilization of a synthesized electronic sound associates the character with something otherworldly or supernatural.”
Throughout the rest of the film, John’s Theme returns in various incarnations altered and expanded to fit particular scenes. For example, in the beautiful sex scene between John and Laura we see the couple reconnecting on both a physical and emotional level. Despite the grief the two have experienced and their different ways of coping, this scene establishes their intense love and commitment to each other. While the core of John’s Theme remains, in this Love Theme version of it Donaggio makes some incredibly smart decisions to help support the visual narrative.
While the original theme was a timid piano melody, here the theme becomes a mature and confident melody playing counterpart to flute, acoustic guitar and violin. By choosing the flute, Donaggio literally breathes life into the scene as a subconscious connection between us and the couple. As an audience we can hear the vibrato and breath breaks that are naturally a part of the instrument’s performance. There is nothing gratuitous about the lovemaking between John and Laura in this scene and the score helps support that idea. Through the natural warmth the flute imparts, plus the romantic and emotional resonance associated with the guitar and violin, we as an audience are given a glimpse into how passionate and loving a committed domestic relationship can be.
Outside of John’s Theme and it’s many different presentations, the score offers some fascinating cues and connections to the film overall. For one, every time John sees the red rain coated figure we get a nice little electronic sting. While subtle, the utilization of a synthesized electronic sound associates the character with something otherworldly or supernatural. From a narrative perspective, the sonic ambiguity of the sound leaves the door open for a plethora of possibilities.
Don’t Look Now is a film filled with connective threads that overlap and entwine. For both the characters and audience alike, it is often hard to discern what is real, what is interpretation and what actually means something. Playing on this idea, Donaggio often incorporated story-driven concepts into the execution and utilization of the score. In the first half of the film, there are lots of classically styled melodic note runs. These runs offer lots of action, but don’t necessarily provide a large range of sonic motion. For one, this supports John and Laura‘s struggle with so many different questions and little answers. Similar to these moments in the score, their thoughts and minds are constantly trying to make sense of their grief while having little to show for their efforts.
Another way we see these melodic runs return comes much later in the film as John chases after the red raincoat with Laura in pursuit. As the couple runs across through the dark streets of Venice, their alternating footsteps mirror the melodic runs introduced much earlier on in the film. This sonic cue between past and present scenes in the movie not only works as an overall unit, it also supports the core of the movie as a whole. In the same way that John wrestles with his clairvoyant visions, this auditory call back provides the viewer with a subtler, yet comparable experience.
Based on subject matter alone, it’s no wonder that Don’t Look Now has become one of cinema’s most notable and respected films focused on the subject of grief. The journey that John and Laura traverse while grappling with their daughter’s death is both intimate and complicated. While their methods and approaches vary, their love for each other is never in question. Through Roeg’s remarkable gift for filmmaking and Donaggio’s intense understanding of music, the two were able to provide a fully encompassing film experience.
Separated from the film, the score also provides a beautiful listening experience all it’s own. It’s a score with layers and an incredible ability to evoke a wide range of emotions based on the listener’s current emotional state. For all these reasons and more, it’s a must-own piece of art. Lucky for us, options are readily available for eager collectors. Originally issued in 1973 by Carosello Records, the next vinyl iteration would come in 1981 by That’s Entertainment Records. After that, it would take Waxwork Records to bring this haunting score back into print in 2017.
“A score with layers and an incredible ability to evoke a wide range of emotions based on the listener’s current emotional state.”
Silva Screen Records also jumped on the opportunity with their own European 2017 version as well. It was even released in 2018 as a Record Store Day piece, faithfully reproduced to match the original 1973 release. What this large offering of quality releases does for collectors is provide an affordable array of options. Prices tend to range from $10-$40 dollars and can likely be found with some focused crate digging.
What are some of your favorite Pino Donaggio scores? Does that iconic piano melody have red raincoats haunting your dreams? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!