For the last two years, Parisian Big Beat electronica experts Daft Punk have retreated from live performances to toil over and perfect the soundtrack for December’s sci-fi epic “Tron: Legacy.”
But a holiday movie showcase on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank on Wednesday revealed something else about the duo’s participation. Included in 23 minutes of the still-unfinished movie that the studio screened: a Daft Punk cameo.
In the scene, a pale white dandy called Castor portrayed by Michael Sheen (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon“ ) reclines on a small divan waving a translucent walking stick. He glances over to a glass partition where two suspiciously familiar-looking robots stand over a computer mixing board.
“Change the scheme..! Alter the mood…! Electrify the boys and girls if you’d be so kind..,” the fey and somewhat sinister Castor implores, prompting Daft Punk (or at least two guys wearing the duo’s signature headgear — robot masks without which they have almost never been photographed) to trigger a barrage of digital fireworks.
The Disney showcase also provided as up-close a listen to the highly anticipated soundtrack as has yet been available (the CD is set for release by Walt Disney Records on Nov. 22 but you can hear snippets on tronsoundtrack.com). Recorded in part with a 100-piece orchestra at London’s AIR Lyndhurst Studios, the group’s scoring efforts reveal a mastery of formal musical composition and finesse for arranging live instruments that may surprise fans most familiar with Daft Punk’s groundbreaking synthesis of Acid House, electro, synth-pop, heavy metal and techno.
In an early sequence in “Tron: Legacy,” protagonist Sam Flynn (played by Garett Hedlund) finds himself inside a deserted video arcade that was featured prominently in the movie’s 1982 progenitor “Tron.” As Flynn searches for traces of his missing father (Jeff Bridges), the score surges with foreboding violins and booming horns to achieve an almost Wagnerian effect. It’s a palette of organic sounds applied with a subtlety quite unlike anything the duo has recorded before.
It’s also a far cry from the soundtrack that Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter produced for the 2002 French revenge drama “Irreversible.” For that film, the musician created a sonic realm of moody, dread-inducing techno that is heavily reliant on the kind of repetitive sampling, electronic bass booms and digital manipulation for which Daft Punk is known.
In a later scene where Flynn is getting outfitted with matte black body armor for “the games” — think: neon-hued battle royale-meets-demolition derby by way of “American Gladiators” — by a phalanx of femme-bots, Daft Punk’s tuneage goes ambient. It’s an Art of Noise-meets-Giorgio Moroder-meets-Aphex Twin kind of vibe.
But the mood changes quickly. In the next sequence, Flynn suddenly finds himself fighting for his life; he’s dropped into a deadly game where contestants try to off one another by ricocheting glowing Frisbees around a glass stadium. Here, Daft Punk employs what can only be described as — sorry, music-writing police — a soundscape that mashes up Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with something Ennio Morricone might have composed for a spaghetti Western.
On Daft Punk’s most recent album, 2005’s “Human After All” — and specifically on such songs as “The Prime Time of Your Life,” “Television Rules the Nation” and “Robot Rock” — the group makes pointed use of digitized, robotic voices to underscore the idea of machines making machine music.
In one of the last scenes shown at the Disney showcase, however, a sequence where Flynn makes his escape in a glow-in-the-dark SUV driven by an apparently sympathetic character named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the group uses classical instruments and decidedly non-electronic trills to highlight the humanity of two people struggling to survive in amid a digital realm’s killing fields. And for this, Daft Punk rips a page from the Hans Zimmer playbook. As the SUV careens around sharp turns, bumping “light cycles” off the grid and dropping spherical cluster bombs, violins surge and tremulous flutes blare.
And Daft Punk reveals a hidden depth. Having taken two years away from the payday of live performances, the group really seems to have a firm grasp of all the bells and whistles of soundtrack composition. But there is another takeaway too. Despite the fact that the duo goes around dressed as robots and creates the kind of grinding electronica that can rattle the fillings out of your teeth, Daft Punk seems to legitimately want you to feel something.
Human after all, indeed.
– Chris Lee
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had an incomplete quotation from the film.
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