Friday, February 18, 2011

Where Have All The Theme Songs Gone? Daft Punk and "TRON: Legacy"

Although I am not a huge fan of soundtracks, every now and then I will pick one up.  I appreciate that TV and movie scores are one of the last arenas in which instrumental music still has the public’s ear, and some compelling scores exist.  For me, scores are most interesting when they work on their own as standalone compositions or when they evoke a particularly distinctive atmosphere that brings the movie back for the listener.  The best ones do both, but I feel like I rarely hear either in most contemporary scores, so there are not many that I get into these days.

Soundtracks did play a significant role in my musical concept, though, particularly John Williams’ work in the late 70s and early 80s.  I have a youthful memory of listening to the original Star Wars soundtrack on my parent’s LP, trying to match the pictures on the inside sleeve with the music.  Furthermore, it was impossible to be a public school band student during that time and not play some of Williams’ work.  I think his work stands on its own quite well, and still helps to keep the sound of the orchestra fresh to contemporary ears.

The thematic style that Williams and other composers used during this era has seemed to fall out of favor in recent times, a tendency reflected in other soundtrack genres.  In the early 90s Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to Twin Peaks was hugely successful in merging atmosphere with melody.  Listening to this soundtrack out of context in everyday life brings back the uneasy surreality that the show created, making you want to peek around corners and talk in poorly executed backwards-masked accents.  Seriously.  I did it all the time.

Now run the clock forward a decade to the "theme" from one cerebral, metaphysical drama to another:

Meh.  Granted, the “theme sound” from “LOST” became iconic in itself, and as a piece of soundscaping it is interesting.  It doesn’t, however, make for particularly engaging listening on its own unless you have a really short attention span.  Now, I certainly don't pretend to say that I could do any better, but considering but how much thought and imagination was invested in the show itself, it seems a little lackadaisical.

Alas, these days, a movie or TV “soundtrack” is usually a compilation of songs that may or may not even be in the originating work.  This works well for the Showtime’s “Weeds,” but that show's producers are quite meticulous about how songs are chosen and placed.  Most of the time, this format doesn't do anything for me.  So, when I heard that Daft Punk was doing the soundtrack for “TRON Legacy,” I thought I might get a theme song out of them, but that was as much as I had hoped. Fitting Daft Punk’s cerebral house-style of electronica seemed to be too perfect a match to actually see light of day. 

But...I have to hand it to them, Disney does have a history of cleverly using of popular music stars, particularly with their 90s animated features.  Elton John is still banking on the “Lion King,” and Phil Collins extended his career by a few more years with “Tarzan.”  These stars lent credibility to Disney’s films by the virtue of their top 40 identities.  With Daft Punk, however, it was a significantly more compelling choice.  Their identity points to a rugged cyberpunk intellectualism that coincides beautifully with the existing TRON universe.  It was no stretch to see that if Daft Punk was given free reign, they would do something that would, at the very least, be appropriate and possibly interesting.

Fortunately it was true, and the resulting “TRON Legacy” soundtrack is actually quite clever and enjoyable on many levels.  Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to the original TRON blended the orchestral with the synthetic, and Daft Punk’s foray into similar styles is even more seamless than its predecessor.  It is equal parts James Horner and Jean-Michel Jarre, carefully balancing the digital and orchestral with the nostalgic and innovative.

This is the closing credits track.  It encapsulates the idea of soundtrack pretty well in its entirety, particularly when it opens to the orchestral part towards the end.

The soundtrack excels admirably at conveying the bombastic grandeur of a TRON film.  In addition to its overall atmospheric strength, it also has compelling melodies, as well – perhaps to its detriment.  When taken out of the context of the movie, the main TRON theme begins to feel a bit overused.  In other words, Daft Punk is not quite poised to dethrone Williams as the king of clever thematic score composition (although some clever arranging might produce a usable concert medley).  The "TRON Legacy" score may not quite stand on its own as a "work," but I think that the movie would not succeed as well as it does without it. As someone pointed out, although the movie itself is pretty good, as an extended Daft Punk video, it’s quite amazing.

Plus, that theme IS pretty memorable.  And it sounds good in traffic.  Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Especially knowing that Daft Punk was in the film as the DJ duo... and that they shifted into fight music mode when the action broke out in the bar. As much as I loved Wendy Carlos' score as a kid, this soundtrack was quite memorable. I found myself humming the main theme when driving home from opening night--a sure sign of success.