Daft Punk’s robot shtick has multiple benefits. By wearing futuristic helmets that obscure their faces during nearly all public appearances, band members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo enjoy anonymity. As much as the duo has become known for innovative dance music, the degree to which they have controlled their identities allows them the flexibility to exercise various personae at will. For example, Bangalter’s stressful, nausea-inducing solo contribution to Gaspar Noé’s shock film Irreversible would likely never soundtrack a Gap jeans or Apple iPod commercial, as have Daft Punk’s pop songs. It is a rare measure of freedom that allows an artist to have equal footing in such disparate worlds.
With masks firmly affixed, Daft Punk is capable of remaining true to the robot concept to such an extent that fans and critics react with confusion. Pure statements like the brilliant album Human After All and film Electroma commit fully to the synthetic inspiration at the root of the band’s output. Listeners and viewers charmed by the concept don’t always warm to an execution that seems to be the work of actual robots.
All of these elements make Daft Punk a natural fit for science fiction films. In addition to Electroma (for which the duo did not compose music), Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have collaborated with Kazuhisa Takenouchi on Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a feature length Japanese animated film set to the entirety of Daft Punk’s Discovery. The corresponding cartoon world of Interstella 5555 expands the experience of listening to the music and places already impossibly catchy numbers like “One More Time” into a visual context that makes the music doubly difficult to forget.
There seems to be a similar symbiosis in the selection of Daft Punk to provide an original score for Tron Legacy, Disney’s sequel to 1982’s groundbreaking Tron. The announcement that the band would record music for the film resulted in supposedly leaked tracks of serviceable electronica by impostors — evidence of listeners thinking they’ve figured out how Daft Punk’s music should sound. The subsequent promotion of upbeat official soundtrack selection “Derezzed” suggested the impostors weren’t so far off in mimicking the danceable style of the group’s discography.
As a whole, however, the score for Tron Legacy is a surprising deviation from the band’s day job. Making less of an “electronic” impression than Wendy Carlos’ memorable synthesizer music from the 1982 film, Daft Punk’s compositions (orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese) reference classical film scores and come alive via a nearly 100-piece orchestra.
Although the range of instrumentation is significantly expanded beyond synthesizers and drum machines, the score retains the melodic precision that defines much of Daft Punk’s dance music. “Overture” introduces the primary motif that runs throughout the album. The familiar quality of the motif, and the many references it may or may not include (Alexander Courage? John Williams?) is at first a bit distracting. Though as the album progresses, the melody emerges as a Daft Punk creation, shaking loose past sci-fi associations.
In “The Grid”, Jeff Bridges’ voiceover narration introduces a synthesized version of the theme, a musical transition corresponding to the plot event of entering “the grid – a digital frontier”. Having not seen the film, it’s difficult to guess how much of the plot is conveyed through the score selections, but the song titles, and their attendant emotional qualities, do suggest areas of adventure (“Arena”), conflict (“The Game Has Changed”, “Fall”) and triumph (“Disc Wars”, “Flynn Lives”).
Beyond connections to the story world of the film, Tron Legacy offers some pieces that stay recognizably within the Daft Punk universe. “Solar Sailer” plays like a denser (but equally tranquil) version of Discovery’s “Nightvision”. “Derezzed” picks up where Human After All’s “Robot Rock” left off, and “End Titles” is likely to have audiences bobbing and grooving as they exit or stay for the credits.
In the end, the most satisfying material from the score is that which finds inspiration in the work of other esteemed composers. In “Outlands”, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo find their inner Philip Glass. Brassier numbers such as “Fall” and “Rectifier” owe something to Hans Zimmer’s recent film scores. Especially revelatory is the emotionally engaging “Adagio for Tron”, which recalls Sir Edward Elgar. That Daft Punk achieved this career highlight with Tron Legacy is yet another example of the duo’s adaptable form, and a sign that there is still uncharted territory beneath those helmets.