Aidan Monks explores how a good soundtrack can transform a film
Summer is now upon us; temperatures reaching peaks of 29oC across London. With warm weather quickly follows the season of the summer blockbuster.
Films can delight and engage our senses, whether it’s through a captivating film or an evocative soundtrack.
What I’m saying is, blockbusters are on my mind. The good, the bad and the sequel.
In my series of articles for Exposure, I have written about nostalgia and its uses in the mediums of cinema and music.
I have argued for the merits of Daft Punk whose ingenuity ingeniously fused the cheapness of nostalgia-in-art with an oxymoronic sci-fi vision.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Disney, whose content outpour is laughably unoriginal, leeching off the successes and legacies of bygone times in an attempt at sentimentality but the outcome is simply regressive.
But where do these examples meet? In what capacity can the uses of nostalgia economically versus artistically be compared?
In 1982, Disney released Tron, the first computer animation-based movie, to a mediocre reception and even poorer box office results. As with many unsuccessful ‘80s experiments, the film had a cult following by the ‘90s and a sequel was already in the works.
Due to a series of conceptual changes, it took until 2010 for Tron: Legacy to premier. In the post-Matrix and post-Dark Knight world of action, the production for this sequel borrowed the concepts of the substantially camper original but lowered the exposure.
The film is darker than anything Tron fans were expecting, aligning more with the grungier mood of superhero cinema in the styles of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder.
In 2009, Disney signed Daft Punk to compose the film’s score.
Daft Punk, with Human After All and their Cannes-screened film Electroma, were at that time also vibrating towards something bleaker, more serious, more Philip K. Dick, sci-fi writer, than the playful tones of their second album Discovery.
Perhaps it was equally something to do with the mood of their music, perhaps the lyrics, what the robots were saying in songs like Television Rules the Nation. Two robots growing more and more impatient with their inhuman nature: a backdrop of artifice coloured by humanism, well-suited for the Tron universe.
I will sing a few praises for Tron: Legacy which, as far as sequels, reboots and remakes go, it’s better than most. Why? Tron: Legacy does something that the original doesn’t. Whether that be the original soundtrack (OST) itself or the darker tone of the film (young adult rather than children’s fiction) which I think makes the film more valuable than any Star Wars sequel made after 2005.
Safe to say, following an onslaught of mixed reviews (although a commendable $400 million global gross), Tron: Legacy has aged like a fine wine and is now considered an emblem of 21st century cult cinema. I think Daft Punk are responsible for this, and I will explain why.
Anyone who defends the film for its use of supposedly radical visual effects need only remember that Avatar came out the year prior
In my opinion Tron: Legacy is a bad film. If we judge a film based on its narrative components and whether its characters emotionally involve us in the stakes of the plot and their own psychologies, the film is messy.
In short, the characters are either badly performed, badly written or both, which amounts to emotionally stunted development and an uninvolving story. It screams: $170 million budget with characters written and created to resurrect a dead concept to sell action figures.
But bad writing is not original to Tron: Legacy. Take any Terminator sequel from Rise of the Machines onward. None of the contemporary characters are interesting, and audiences who are brought to cinemas for nostalgia’s sake end up focusing on Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What is original to Tron: Legacy is that the film it follows is also, in my opinion, poor. But the reason Tron gained cult status was because it was visually experimental, which Tron: Legacy is not; most cult classics are, in some way, authentic.
Anyone who defends the film for its use of supposedly radical visual effects needs only to remember that Avatar came out the year prior.
So, how come a film like Tron: Legacy has achieved cult status, barely a decade after its release, and sequels like Terminator: Salvation have not? I would argue that it’s for the same reason as other films of low artistic merit. For instance, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Narnia are both remembered fondly. This is because they all have impeccable soundtracks.
Sound and music is 50% of the cinematic experience, in terms of how vital it can be for engaging us in story and character
We know that sound is 50% of the cinematic experience, and music must represent at least half of this – likely more, in terms of how vital it can be for engaging us in story and character.
Refer to any YouTube experiment which removes a film’s music from a scene to see the difference it makes. Equally, we know that the average spectator recalls musical leitmotifs more accurately than any line of dialogue after leaving the cinema, also highlighting musics retroactive influence. Anyone is susceptible to effective music, and so can easily be enticed by the idea of Tron: Legacy – at least the ideas behind Daft Punk’s 24-track LP.
Critics have dismissed Tron: Legacy based on track sequencing, track length, among other things. I don’t buy these objections. They seem strange to me since the album is first and foremost a film score, not an LP, which means the speed at which the songs go by is deliberately timed with the film image and ordered for an editor’s convenience.
If anything, music critics take issue with the actual film. I would even argue that working within the confines of the OST format showcases Daft Punk’s versatility. More, the album is creative, radical, engaging as both a film score and a Daft Punk LP (a great double feature with Human After All) and, yes, nostalgic.
In typical Daft Punk fashion, Tron: Legacy is a synthesis of genres and voices, including their own. Tracks like Outlands echo the Hitchcockian strings of Bernard Hermann and the playfulness of Danny Elfman’s Batman score; French horns envelop the orchestra in an unsettling atmosphere via Hans Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight; other composers directly mimicked include John Carpenter (Halloween) and Wendy Carlos (Tron and The Shining).
While the mix of electronic and orchestral is hardly avant-garde – it goes back to Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner and before – the incorporation of Daft Punk’s signature house style among the recognisable cinematic textures is where nostalgia meet authenticity.
Daft Punk’s use of nostalgia to create a futuristic vision holds true to their philosophy as artists. Take album highlights like Derezzed (see above), The Game Has Changed and Son of Flynn which feature familiar drum machines and synthesisers but also incorporate acoustic strings and thunderous timpani. The sound of this score is nostalgic, futuristic, and completely unique. We can even hear its influence today in the work of Cliff Martinez and Junkie XL.
As far as I can tell, if a piece of art is remembered, it is because it reaches something previously untouched. Why Tron: Legacy has seen a rise in popularity over the last few years, apart from its nostalgic value for Gen Z, is unexplainable in any other way than because of its powerful score.
Daft Punk have provided the film with a memorable, fully realised, inventive original soundtrack, as vital for world-building as any computer graphics set piece.
It’s easy to be grateful for songs like Derezzed, as good as anything developed by the French duo. This OST will go down in history as one that saved a bad film, or almost did. I think it should be remembered as one of the greatest of all time, not least for supporting the weight of a brainless plot and boring characters, but for erasing them from our memories entirely.
It’s easy to be grateful for such talent. Film and music enrich our lives, broaden our horizons, and can have a profound impact on our emotions and perspectives.
Aidan currently studies at the University of St Andrews studying English and Philosophy. He is an avid reader, writer, and film-watcher. His favourite film is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, best book is Nadja by André Breton, and, as well as anything by Daft Punk, he loves Lou Reed’s album Street Hassle.