Daft Punk haven’t released a new album of original material since 2005’s “Human After All”. That’s not to say they haven’t been busy though. They’ve continued to perform mindblowing live shows on occasion and even released a live album in 2007. Oh, and we can’t forget the movie they made, “Electroma”, which they wrote and appeared in but did not create the soundtrack. The film wasn’t the first they’d made, and it probably won’t be the last. One of the themes that Daft Punk seem to be exploring in their various projects are the close relationships between the visual and auditory. It’s a big part of what makes their live shows so kinetic and engaging. That’s why it makes perfect sense that the duo would actually craft a movie soundtrack someday. It was just a matter of finding the right film to work on. The ideal situation finally presented itself a couple years back as Disney was preparing to make a sequel to the 1982 cult classic “Tron”. With the technology available today, recreating the futuristic video game world for “Tron: Legacy” seems like an inspired idea. Apparently Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo is a huge fan of the original film as well, so the duo cut a deal with Disney to provide a full album’s worth of new music that would serve as the official soundtrack.
Had the makers of “Tron: Legacy” chosen to use old Daft Punk music to soundtrack the film, it’d probably turn out just fine. Daft Punk is one of the best electronica groups in music today, and songs like “Around the World” and “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” sound very futuristic in and of themselves. Still, the prospect of entirely new Daft Punk is too good to pass up, particularly with the attention it’d bring, so it made the anticipation for the film itself that much higher. Fans of the duo have been clamoring for any material they can find from the soundtrack, and bits of excitement came in the form of the movie’s trailer, which features the song “Derezzed”. Amazon has since begun to offer 30 second preview snippets of the album, and NPR just put up a lengthy interview with the film’s music supervisor that has a few songs from the soundtrack available for streaming as well. These little bits and pieces are certainly getting more attention than, say, Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” soundtrack or Clint Mansell’s “Black Swan” soundtrack, both of which are hotly tipped for Oscar nominations. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did attract attention for their soundtrack work on “The Social Network” this year, and that was largely because of how different it sounded compared to your average Nine Inch Nails song. But assuming you’ve paid enough attention to catch at least a small clip of the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack, you’ll easily recognize that while it may be Daft Punk behind the music, there’s a whole big 85-piece orchestra backing them up. Two synthesizers and a drum machine just isn’t going to cut it anymore, as interesting as that might have been. So with all those extra moving pieces as part of every song, any hope that this might be a fun and danceable soundtrack like their normal albums gets thrown out pretty quickly.
Opening with “Overture”, the orchestra swells and there’s this whole grand, triumphant moment that comes across like the excitement that all the “Tron” nerds will be experiencing once that movie title is revealed on the screen. Things get decidedly more electronic after that, with Jeff Bridges doing a spoken word thing as he describes “The Grid”. The beat is downtempo, but synths come in with a little symphonic assist and the 90 second track gets a sharp Daft Punk stamp on it. The same can be said for “The Son of Flynn”, which has plenty of skittering electro-parts while a horn section quietly rises in the background. That’s sort of the way things go for the entire record; often the orchestra holds down and dominates a track with plenty of cellos and violins that race along like a light cycle on the track. Synths and other electronica elements play a significant role in most tracks too, tending to lend the entire soundtrack a very dark, epic and futuristic vibe. A dance record this is not (“Derezzed” being about the only exception), but it’s not a typical soundtrack either. Daft Punk make sure their presence is known, even if it involves a squelch here or a drum machine there. To put it another way, if you subtract the duo from every track, you end up with an extremely normal and somewhat boring collection of instrumentals that still work. As it stands though, the Daft Punk bits added will serve to compliment the film perfectly and turn this from a merely good soundtrack to an extremely good if not great one.
Where the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack will work best is obviously within the context of the film. Given that it’s not in theatres yet, though the soundtrack isn’t out until next week anyways, just listening to it completely separated from the visual elements is really fascinating. To be able to pin certain tracks to certain scenes will only increase each track’s value as time goes by. And based on some of the track names, you can guess bits of plot information or what scene it belongs in. Will “Disc Wars” be playing when some characters throw those light-up frisbees at one another? You can probably put money on it. Whether or not you choose to put money on the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack can be a challenging decision to make. As great as Daft Punk can be, and they prove it again here, this isn’t the sort of record you’re going to want to throw on for casual listening or at a party. A better thought would be to make a call on picking this up based on your past instrumental soundtrack experience. Does something like John Williams’ “Star Wars” soundtrack get your blood moving in the right sort of way? Perhaps you prefer a more traditional pop song, something with words and actual singing. Or maybe Daft Punk’s dance-filled records like “Homework” and “Human After All” are more your style. This album has a high possibility of disappointing you if you’re on board solely because you’ve loved everything the French duo has done in the past. It’s been 5 years since the last record and some of us are starving to hear something, anything, new from Daft Punk, but this isn’t quite what was expected. The ray of hope is that considering the complicated and epic nature of these tracks, you’ll probably never see the majority of them performed live. This soundtrack then functions as more of a one-off, and maybe a more traditional dance-filled electronica Daft Punk album isn’t too far down the line. It’s nice to know that these guys can make a pretty killer soundtrack, but perhaps next time the orchestra and enslavement to a storyline can take a break for something truly worthy of the legacy that this duo has had going for them the last decade.