Daft Punk at the world premiere of 'TRON: Legacy' in 2010
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage
'Tron: Legacy' At 10: How Daft Punk Built An Enduring Soundtrack
In December 2010, The Walt Disney Company took a chance—the kind only a business can take when they're the most powerful entertainment conglomerate in the world. They took Tron—a 1982 film about the world and programs living inside computers that enjoyed a dedicated, if small, cult following—and gave it a sequel. Tron: Legacy brought back original star Jeff Bridges, alongside fresh faces Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde, to revisit the film's computer world of "The Grid" with the help of some much-updated digital effects.
As a film, Tron: Legacy was a mixed bag at the time, earning a modest, by Disney's standards, $400 million over its theatrical run. The movie garnered praise for its impressive visuals, while drawing criticism toward some questionable acting—and even more questionable de-aging effects on Bridges. Ten years on, many aspects of Tron: Legacy hold up quite well, especially its soundtrack, composed by none other than French electronic music duo, Daft Punk.
By 2010, Daft Punk were already legends in the electronic music community. The duo, composed of producers Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, had three studio albums under the belt across a career that was nearing its second decade by then, but each release showcased the meticulous genius of their craft. So, too, was their artist persona well-set, with their signature robotic helmets and gloves and their aversion to interviews combining to craft an enigmatic aura around them that only heightened their mythical status.
One only needs to look at the singles the group charted throughout the decades to understand the vast breadth of Daft Punk's skill and musical knowledge. "Da Funk," off their 1997 debut album, Homework, naturally draws from the groovy basslines and percussions of funk. The shimmering "Face To Face," off Discovery (2001), incorporates disco into the mix, and the undeniable "One More Time," from the same album, mashes sampled horns, jubilant dance music rhythms and French house music into a track that remains a foundational piece of electronic music in the 21st century.
Even with that amount of range and expertise, it was no sure thing from either side to have Daft Punk compose the film's soundtrack. In one of the few interviews the duo gave about Tron: Legacy, Bangalter told The Hollywood Reporter that director Joe Kosinski had reached out to them all the way back in 2007, with no script in hand to reference. "We were on tour at that time, and it took almost a year to decide whether we had the desire and the energy to dive into something like that," Bangalter recalled.
As well, there was initial hesitation from Disney to give the duo free rein. Another interview with the Los Angeles Times revealed that the original plan was to pair Daft Punk with a much more traditional and established film composer like Hans Zimmer. Instead, the final product saw Daft Punk forging ahead largely on their own, and the results speak for themselves.
A conversation about the artistry within the Tron: Legacy soundtrack has to mention the original 1982 Tron soundtrack. Composed by Wendy Carlos, a pioneering electronic musician and composer, it planted the seeds for Daft Punk. While the original soundtrack is largely a traditional symphonic score, Carlos did incorporate synths where she could, like on mid-movie track, "Tron Scherzo." Even where she didn't, the physical instruments mirrored the chimes and notifications of a computer system, as in the intro to "Water, Music, and Tronaction." Daft Punk took these concepts and ran with them.
It's evident from the intro of Tron: Legacy's "Overture" how the duo innately understands the sounds they're working with and how they operate within the world of Tron. Instead of drawing from French house or club music, they pull from the sounds of an actual computer. The low thrum in the opening seconds sounds like a system booting up, and the lone horn delivering the main melodic line instantly connects this soundtrack with the original. The duo told the Los Angeles Times that the original film captivated them, and these direct links back to it prove they did their homework.
Each track Daft Punk created stands on its own without the film. The cascading synth building with a sense of urgency on "Son Of Flynn" is prime Daft Punk in its understanding of tempo and musical momentum. "Derezzed," played in the film's neon club scene—in which the duo make a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as the DJs—is an electronic dance track through and through. "Adagio For Tron" is a moving, sorrowful ode to a fallen hero, with a minor key and just a hint of a synth beat under the orchestral rise.
Altogether, the production across the soundtrack is topnotch. Moments like the live percussion blending into the synths in "The Game Has Changed" show a great understanding of both film scoring as well as the concept of bridging technology and humanity, a central theme in the film.
Much of Daft Punk's approach to Tron: Legacy is rooted in a darker, more ominous sound, which is a major reason why the soundtrack and the movie both still resonate today: They're decidedly more cynical and pessimistic than the original. Tron arrived at the dawn of widespread home computing, and both the film and its soundtrack embody the optimism of what technology could do for the average person. In 2010, things were vastly different. Mass data collection, security hacks and stolen information, social media toxicity, and disinformation spread were the name of the game; it's only gotten worse over time.
Consequently, Tron: Legacy is cynical in its view and appropriately more sinister in its aesthetic, an approach Daft Punk heightened with their soundtrack. "Rinzler," the theme for one of the film's main villains, drips with menace from its abrasive percussion and moody synths. Even "Flynn Lives" and "Finale," two of the tracks at the end of the movie where the heroes emerge triumphantly, are more subdued than a typical climactic piece, with horns that fade quickly and quiet string sections taking their place.
2010 was a high-water mark for popular artists stepping into film music, with Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy soundtrack and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' The Social Network score dropping in the same year. Still, the influence has been felt periodically on film scores since. Sucker Punch (2011) leaned heavily into dance and electronica in its cover album soundtrack, and Arcade Fire provided a futuristic tilt to Her (2013). For its part, Disney clearly learned the right lesson when it came to pairing a visionary film with an equally visionary artist: On the Black Panther soundtrack album (2018), Kendrick Lamar married his music with the film's fictional world of Wakanda, an approach extremely similar to what Daft Punk created on Tron: Legacy.
Daft Punk, too, learned some things they took to heart. The integration of more live instrumentation within their production, an understanding and homage of music that came before, and the challenge to explore new genres resulted in something truly special: the duo's 2013 album, Random Access Memories. It's a disco album that switched gears heavily to include more live instruments than Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had ever used in their own material before, and included direct tributes to electronic music legends like Giorgio Moroder. (The duo's magnum opus, Random Access Memories won the coveted Album Of The Year honor at the 56th GRAMMY Awards in 2014.) And each of these new elements can be traced to the work they started on Tron: Legacy.
It's fitting that Tron: Legacy and its soundtrack released in December. The cold winter matches the darkness of The Grid and the tired cynicism of what technology can achieve. But December is also so close to the start of a new year, to the hope of something different and to the promise to do more and to do better. On Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk reached deep into their knowledge to push their music to new, exciting places. It still endures as a testament to their craft 10 years later.