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Electronic Music Goes to the Movies

by Philip Sherburne

Electronic Music Goes to the Movies

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Aside from some characteristically superlative-drenched praise from NME ("If Tron: Legacy is among the most anticipated sequels in all of history, this score blasts away all previous frontiers of excitement for what a movie soundtrack can be"), early reviews of Daft Punk's music for the film have been polite at best. The Chicago Tribune laments that the French electronic superstars "sound less like innovators and more like film-score novices, which they are"; The Guardian sighs, "It's hard not to feel a bit disappointed. As is so often the case with sci-fi, the future hasn't turned out quite as you might have hoped."

It's true: Daft Punk's soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, Disney's sequel to the iconic 1982 computer thriller, will leave most fans wanting. Working with an 85-piece orchestra, the duo has turned out a serviceably dramatic score, but also a surprisingly generic one. The strings don't seem to have evolved beyond John Williams' stolid '80s scores, and the tracks with a more electronic foundation aren't much more distinctive. Daft Punk are clearly inspired by the '70s soundtracks of bands like Vangelis (Blade Runner) and Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer), but you can find far more compelling updates of Krautrock's kosmische tradition in the work of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds' Mark McGuire.

If Tron: Legacy feels like a missed opportunity, it's because electronic music has such a long, proud history in film soundtracks. Way back in 1956, at a time when Stockhausen was unknown to all but a small circle of avant-garde academics, Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score to Forbidden Planet introduced similar sounds to mainstream moviegoers; the theremin was in use even earlier, in 1945's Spellbound and Lost Weekend and 1956's The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Something about electronic music's tendency toward abstraction seems to suit the moving image balancing its literalism and highlighting its expressionism. And, of course, the synthesizer's alien warble always makes an intuitive fit for sci-fi. Composers working in electronic idioms have given us some of the most classic soundtracks in the canon, from Wendy Carlos' score for the original Tron to Vangelis' Blade Runner, Giorgio Moroder's Midnight Express, and John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's Escape from New York.