I watched both Tron Legacy and Hanna recently. The two films are set in alternate realities where the main character is fighting some monolithic authoritarian entity, and both have scores composed by popular electronic duos who have never scored a film before. In one case the score is remarkably successful. In the other it’s disappointing at best.
I must admit, when I saw that The Chemical Brothers did the score for Hanna, I didn’t expect it to be very good. Not that I don’t appreciate their work. Quite the contrary. But as I’ve said before, film scoring is a tricky business, and novices don’t often get it right on the first go-round. With the score for Hanna, the Brothers don’t stray far from their usual format—electronica for rock fans—but that genre happens to suit the film perfectly, and they clearly grasp many of the subtleties of film music.
You might think that since this is at least partially an action movie, they would stick to their usual formula of big beats and distorted synths throughout the film. They don’t. “Hanna’s Theme” is a unique and somewhat unnerving mixture of clockwork bells and ethereal voices. It provides the perfect combination of childlike naivete and creepy menace that the film requires. And “Container Park,” one of my favorite moments of the film, sets a frightening chase scene to a gauzy, meditative throb of intertwining keyboards. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.
A few Chemical Brothers fans have complained that this album isn’t among their best work when listened to on its own. I’m not reviewing it in that context. As a film score, I think it’s extremely successful, and the score is a great lesson on using contemporary technology effectively in a film. It may not be the finest example of that use, but they’ve made some truly interesting choices that I know will keep me inspired for a while.
On the flip side there’s Tron Legacy. You would think that Daft Punk would be the perfect group to score the sequel to Tron. They’re popular, fun, high tech, and they pretend to be robots anyway, so it seems like a perfect fit. Alas, the score (like the movie, truth be told) is a bland, colorless affair. It’s like they hired one of the anthropomorphized computer programs from the movie to create the music. If this is what robots think music is, I’ll take flesh-and-blood composers any day of the week.
I shouldn’t fault Daft Punk too much. It is a Disney movie, so there was undoubtedly pressure from the suits to keep the music family-friendly, which I guess translates to “boring.” But that doesn’t mean the French duo needed to completely abandon all uses of melody and most of their quirky, cheesy eccentricities. The score is mostly whole notes and burbling arpeggiated synth lines. Massively tame stuff, even by modern standards. The main theme is as close as we get to an actual melody, and that’s only three notes. It’s pretty, but not very interesting.
As an example, listen to “Solar Sailer.” The only thing I find even moderately compelling about this cue is the turnaround at the end of each musical phrase. Otherwise it’s just a repetitive string pad with a synthesized rhythm. My film scoring professor used to talk about the rule of three: you can repeat something three times, but after that you’d better vary it or people will get bored. This cue, already musically weak to begin with, violates that rule by about 10. One of the comments on a different YouTube clip was, “This was about the point when I fell asleep in the theater. So relaxing.” As if tedium was a good thing!
Just so this review isn’t completely negative, I will say that “Adagio for TRON” is an appealing piece. Apparently, the title is meant to evoke Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written. “Adagio for TRON” pales mightily in comparison, but in the context of the rest of the score the piece stands out. It’s also one of the few pieces where the orchestra gets something relatively interesting to do. The “Overture” isn’t terrible either (featuring the three-note Tron theme mentioned earlier), and could have been wonderful if pushed further.
There has been much publicity about the Punks doing this score, and they claim to have worked on it for two years. I’m not sure I’d so proudly make that claim if I were them. It feels like they used the time to process all the life out of the thing (along with most of the notes). I can’t imagine what they were doing for so long, aside from programming the perfect pulsating rhythms on their arpeggiators and researching how long French horn players can hold a single note. I really wish they’d spent the time exploring the territory that makes their own music so interesting—their sense of fun and technological playfulness that can be so alluring. I fear they thought their brand of goofy electronic disco wasn’t serious enough for this film, and it probably wouldn’t have been, but unfortunately they went too far in the opposite direction. They end up taking themselves so seriously that they’ve stripped their music of all its interesting elements.
If you’re a diehard Tron fan, you’ve no doubt already seen the movie. If you’re not, you may want to steer clear. It’s a lush and beautiful, but dull, retread of what was a groundbreaking picture back in 1982. Like the computerized characters in the film, it’s got no soul. It’s all gloss and no guts. Unfortunately, so is the music. One the flip-side, if you haven’t seen Hanna, go out and rent it. It’s a hip, inventive twist on the typical action film, and the music takes it to an even higher level.