Times staff writer Chris Lee, who landed a rare interview with Daft Punk, writes about the French electronic music duo who scored "Tron: Legacy." Today, Pop & Hiss presents Part 1 of Lee's story, which delves into how the duo came to be involved with the project. Part 2 will follow this weekend.
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 métier 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 Noé's 2002 drama "Irreversible" (albeit one filled with dread-inducing techno and not anything remotely orchestral).
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."
How did Daft Punk overcome their doubts, what was their work like on the score, and will they be doing another soundtrack soon? Check back this weekend for Part 2.
-- Chris Lee
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Top photo: Musicians Thomas Banglater and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk pose back-to-back. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Daft Punk is pictured with sirens at the premiere for "Tron: Legacy" in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theatre. Credit: John Sciulli / Getty Images.