LOS ANGELES — Played in the denouement to a gripping shootout between digital warriors on rocket-propelled hang-gliders, the musical passage “Adagio for Tron” arrives about two-thirds through the $170-million sci-fi thriller “Tron: Legacy” (which hit multiplexes Dec. 17). It’s an elegiac movement recorded by a symphony orchestra that features desolate violins swelling around a barely there synthesizer pulse.
Scoring aces such as Hans Zimmer (“The Dark Knight,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and John Williams (the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” franchises) have become global brands for creating similar emotionally pregnant soundscapes for film — the kind of music that isn’t shy about pushing viewers’ buttons or providing an emotional context for what’s on screen.
But while “Adagio for Tron” — for that matter, most of the tracks on the soundtrack — shows a mastery of orchestral music and fluency for deploying every symphonic resource from timpani to Wagner tuben, the musicians responsible for the score are better known for a sound that can be characterized as anything but classical.
That would be Daft Punk. In a startling departure from the kind of techno-disco-heavy metal mash-ups and bombastic dance music that propelled them into international superstardom, the Grammy-winning French electronica duo back-burnered what they do best and went on hiatus from a lucrative touring schedule for nearly two years to compose and produce the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack.
In its first week of release, the CD landed at No. 10 on the national album chart, scanning over 70,000 units according to Nielsen SoundScan; it has sold more than 118,000 units to date. Critically hailed as a game-changer for the group (even while a certain quadrant of the blognoscenti decries its commerciality), the soundtrack is the first film score to chart that high in half a decade and Daft Punk’s highest-charting album to date.
But hiring the group to score one of Disney’s tent-pole films of 2010 was hardly a no-brainer for studio brass. Moreover, it took the members of Daft Punk, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, over a year to commit to the project after being initially approached by “Tron: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski. And when the duo finally set to work with an 85-piece orchestra, they shocked the filmmakers by shelving Daft’s signature four-on-the-floor sound in favor of a more classical direction that little in the duo’s musical oeuvre suggested they were qualified to produce.
“It was not obvious for anyone,” Bangalter said during a rare interview with the notoriously press-averse group. He was seated at an outdoor picnic table at the Jim Henson Productions complex in Hollywood, where Daft Punk’s production company, Daft Arts, keeps offices. “We knew that dance music was not the appropriate style of music to fit this movie — in scope and tone on many levels. We were not interested in doing it in terms of what we’ve done in the past,” he said.
Bangalter and De Homem-Christo started out in Paris as a punk-leaning indie rock group before trading their guitars for computer sequencers and making a name as an underground rave act. In the early ‘90s, Daft Punk performed a self-styled synthesis of acid house, funk and big beat electronica at illegal warehouse parties in France that “you had to crawl under barbed wire and run from police” to attend, as Bangalter recalled.
But they shocked rave purists by landing a major-label recording deal with Virgin/EMI in 1996. Since then, with musical output comprising a scant three studio albums, the Grammy-winning live recording “Alive 2007” and a couple of remix CDs, Daft Punk has cemented its reputation as an enigmatic group of almost unerring street cred and uncompromising vision as well as a top touring act that has headlined major music festivals around the world.
Big-budget Hollywood films typically contract a soundtrack composer only when the film is in the can. In contrast to the prevailing method, though, “Tron: Legacy’s” Kosinski tried to enlist the group in 2007 long before a script or even so much as a single visual effects test had been created.
Given the musicians’ electronic musical metier and the movie’s computer-matrix-for-virtual-gladiator-games setting, it seemed like a marriage made in digital heaven. Plus, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo already had some film experience, having co-written and co-directed the arty travelogue “Daft Punk’s Electroma.” And Bangalter composed a score for controversial French writer-director Gaspar Noe’s 2002 drama “Irreversible” (albeit one filled with dread-inducing techno and not anything remotely orchestral).
Meanwhile, the original “Tron” left a lasting impression on Bangalter and De Homem-Christo, who saw the movie as children and took to heart its core value: that the interface between humans and technology can be alternately seductive, galvanizing and terrifying. As evidenced by the group’s robotic helmets — without which they have seldom been photographed since 1996 — the “Tron”-inspired electronic pyramid they use for live shows (beginning with 2006’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival) and the heavily computerized “Robot Rock” that characterizes most of Daft Punk’s last studio album, 2005’s “Human After All,” “Tron” remains a touchstone for the duo that’s helped define much of Daft Punk’s cultural output.
But even after a meeting during which Kosinski and the musicians discussed their mutual admiration for recording artists such as Vangelis, Philip Glass and “Tron” soundtrack composer Wendy Carlos, De Homem-Christo and Bangalter still had doubts about signing onto the project.
“Obviously, we love ‘Tron,’” said De Homem-Christo, the quieter, more intense of the two. “We thought it would be hard for the director or anybody in the new ‘Tron’ to top not only the music but the visual aspect of the first one, which is still relevant and more avant-garde than most of the stuff out there now. Also, to commit to work with a big studio, maybe the biggest and most iconic? It was a big question.”
After a year of reflection in which Kosinski continued to detail his vision for “Tron: Legacy” to them, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo agreed to take the plunge as a means of learning to “widen the palette” of Daft Punk’s sound. And in 2008 Disney arranged to have the bandmates meet with several of the most successful soundtrack composers working today about potentially collaborating: Zimmer, Harry-Gregson Williams, John Powell and Christophe Beck among them.
Bangalter, 35, said: “They were very generous and very open, sharing a lot of technical advice.”
“And warnings,” De Homem-Christo, 36, added. “They said, ‘You have to make your vision understood. It’s not easy. You’re serving a movie. You’re not just serving the director, you’re serving a team of people. It’s always about changing and going back.’”
The band ultimately scrapped any collaboration plans. And the task of telling the studio fell to Kosinski, a successful commercial director with no feature film background. “It was considered a huge risk for Disney,” Kosinski said. “A director who had never done a feature before and composers who hadn’t scored a movie before.”
After the two relocated to Los Angeles, scoring began in earnest in January 2009. Nevermind that “Tron: Legacy” still had no script, only concept drawings to illustrate set pieces and characters. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter decided that an orchestral score employing subtle electronic cues — rather than vice versa — would be most appropriate to “paint that epic quality” the film dictated. So the duo applied the same kind of musical cross-pollination responsible for its gold-certified 1997 debut album “Homework” and commercial breakthrough “Discovery” to recording violin arpeggios, surging horns and roiling timpani.
“In dance music, we’ve always tried to combine existing genres — heavy metal and disco or funk, something that contrasts associations,” Bangalter said. “(For the film), we liked the idea of a dark influence reminiscent of some electronic scores of the ‘70s. But at the same time, we wanted the scope of classic Hollywood. To mash up those things that usually exist on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The group hooked up with music arranger and orchestrator Joseph Trapanese, whose job was to translate Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s ideas into symphonic arrangements. They provided him with “extensive electronic sketches” — synthesizer approximations of orchestral music and iTunes playlists running the gamut of 20th century film composers that were indicative of the “timeless” vibe they wanted.
“They had this very clear and distinct idea of what the orchestra should sound like,” Trapanese said. “They gave me an overall tone to work in. Maybe they couldn’t physically transcribe what music for, say, a cello. But they know how a cello sounds and how to translate ideas to it.”
Tonally, Bangalter explained: “We thought it was very important that the score not sound like real world music. It could not feel 2010 in any aspect.”
In July 2010, Trapanese helped actualize Daft’s vision for the score over a five-day recording session with an 85-piece orchestra at London’s AIR Lyndhurst studios. “My role was as the interface between the robots and the orchestra,” he joked.
For his part, Kosinski says he understands why Daft Punk wanted to diverge from the repetitive, sample-and-synthesizer-based template that has served such epochal dance floor anthems as “One More Time.” And he feels the new music fuses electronic and orchestral music in ways that serve the scope and sweep of “Tron: Legacy.”
“It was always conceived as a blend,” Kosinski said. “What evolved over that first year was the ratio. The original thinking was more electronic music with classical orchestral lines in it. As the process evolved, when they got down to writing the final cues, it became much more orchestral than any of us initially anticipated. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”
Even in the face of acclaim for the group’s new musical direction, though, the influential music review website Pitchfork panned the soundtrack, lamenting the “gloom of blown expectations” and basically calling into question whether Daft Punk had sold its soul to Hollywood.
Bangalter and De Homem-Christo said they have no plans to record another soundtrack anytime soon and hinted at the release of new Daft Punk music: “Making music for a movie is very humbling,” Bangalter said. “We’ve been working on some of our music concurrently.” (They declined to specify touring or album release plans.)
With typically Gallic shrugs, the bandmates also said they have learned to live with being tarred and feathered as “commercial.”
“We like the idea of trying to experiment and do different things we haven’t done in the past,” said Bangalter. “Our idea of selling out is a different one, though. I imagine it would be finding a successful formula and sticking with it and always doing the same thing. That is not what is exciting to us.”