Tron: Legacy — soundtrack

Being a geek of a certain age, I of course went out to see Tron: Legacy as soon as it opened in the theaters. And being a geek of a certain type, and having listened to Wendy Carlos‘ ethereal soundtrack to the original Tron, I also purchased the soundtrack to this one as soon as it was available. This was my first introduction to Daft Punk, whom (I must admit) I first even heard of when their role was announced to much rejoicing. On receipt of the CD (yes, I still buy physical goods from time to time), I learned that they had worked on the orchestration with Hans Zimmer, a composer whose other cinematic work I do know and enjoy.

I say all this to make clear that I cannot evaluate the album as to its “Daft Punkness”. On my first listen through, I was underwhelmed. Wendy Carlos notwithstanding, I am not much of a fan of techno, and this album is certainly that. But having spent the cash I gave it a few good listens, and then I noticed that I was replaying the music in my head throughout the day. That’s just about the best recommendation you can give an album: it’s something you want to keep listening to. It evokes the movie (which I very much enjoyed) without being dogmatically tied to it. I’ve played these tracks for more than anything I’ve purchased in the past year or so.

That’s not to say the album is perfect. Again, bear in mind that all I know of techno is an outsider’s impression; it’s not my cup of tea. But the soundtrack encapsulates why it’s not my cup of tea. Daft Punk is very good at mood-setting and crafting almost subliminal music cues and then building them up. But this album is too much crescendo and too little climax: Too many tracks simply don’t pay off, dribbling away into subtle but ultimately disappointing whimpers. To be fair, this is a criticism applicable to most movie orchestration; after all, the music is fundamentally infrastructure on which a scene is hung. It’s not supposed to attract your attention and it isn’t telling the story itself. Especially in a visual medium such as movie-making, there tends to be an emphasis on crescendo: The scene wants to build tension which is generally then released abruptly with transition to the next scene. (Certainly the action genre, of which Tron: Legacy is an example, follows this pattern.) So the music builds for the big reveal, and then dashes to the next cue.

All of that said, it is this no-there-there quality of most tracks that I find most dissatisfying about the album. Daft Punk does a nice job with the rising action and are masters of the building overlay, where the same riff is repeated many times, but each repetition adds a new instrument or variation. By the tenth or so cycle, the output is quite complex and rich. But once the end of the scene comes, the payoff is usually just one abrupt transition to a fadeout; and that is unsatisfying, especially when encountered over and over.

Nonetheless the soundtrack worked its way into my brain and I found myself often putting it on when I needed instrumental music in the background. It turns out that this album is far more effective when heard out of the corner of your ear, rather than faced directly head-on. Once I got past the newness of the genre and made peace with the crescendo/climax issue, I was able to appreciate the subtleties. One surprise, for me, was that the bombastic big-picture stuff is not the album’s strengths. There are some quite gentle and quite beautiful pieces to be found, such as “Adagio for Tron” and “Father and Son“. They serve as nice counterpoints to the more driven mood music of the rest of the movie. They also allow the audience to come up for air and find the emotional core of the movie, which is always at risk of being lost among the neon action.

It is fair to say that the album succeeds in capturing (and creating) the mood of its progenitor film. After listening to the album for nearly a month, I went back to re-watch Tron: Legacy in the theater. My familiarity with the music definitely enhanced my experience of the film. Daft Punk does seem to have a cinematic intuition; the music evokes the action, as it should. Despite now knowing the soundtrack, it still did not drown out the film. It lies safely underneath what is happening on screen, the audio substrate but not a distraction, just as it should be. Perhaps the only place where that really fails is during the End of Line Club scenes, wherein Daft Punk appear as digital versions of themselves and their music on this album is closest to the club-thumping techno for which they’ve earned their fame. Maybe I’m just a oldster but this is the least engaging part of the movie and of the soundtrack.

Being versed in the released album also let me notice the musical cues that aren’t to be found on the CD. Clearly there are always artistic choices to be made and decisions to face. I did discover the haunting “Father and Son” interlude, cut from the album but happily available online via the Apple iTunes store. I wonder if the decision was artistic or commercial — perhaps they wanted to tap multiple revenue streams? In any case the omission lessens the official soundtrack. Likewise, there are apparently tracks available on an import CD but not in the States. I’m a big Tron fan but I’m not spending another $40 to get five tracks.

Daft Punk have said that Wendy Carlos was a major influence on their own style, and that comes through. No one would mistake this soundtrack for hers, but then, no one would mistake Tron: Legacy for Tron, so that’s OK. Much like the visuals of the movie, the soundtrack has been updated and evolved. I do wish that, perhaps, they had included just one or two more direct homages (all we get is a brief rendition of the iconic Tron motif by Kevin Flynn) but that is really more nitpicking than anything else.

Final verdict? This album was definitely worth the time to listen and the money to buy. It’s already worked its way into my rotation of instrumental/soundtrack playlists and I expect I’ll be replaying it for a long time.??????????? ?????