2015 has been a barren year for Daft Punk disciples, with the duo presumably off polishing their Grammys and enjoying life. (They could be secreted away in desert bunker rehearsing a surprise live tour though, right?) Last night, December 10, 2015, fans who hastily signed up for a Showtime 30-day free trial got to enjoy the US premiere of the Daft Punk Unchained documentary.
As the only encounter we’re likely to have with the robots in the near future, the English-subtitled version of the movie has been keenly anticipated. The good news: its 88-minute running time is stacked with standout moments. Don’t come expecting the kind of artsy surrealism of the duo’s own film Electroma, though—Daft Punk Unchained is a straightforward outing from director Hervé Martin-Delpierre.
The doc tracks a chronological path from the early days of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter through to their Grammys haul in 2014, with recurring talking heads from friends, collaborators, and journalists. Within that conventional structure, there are still surprising turns and maybe even some new revelations for diehard followers. Here are five things Daft Punk Unchained does right.
There’s incredible rave footage from the Daft Punk vault.
You can trawl YouTube for grainy uploads of early Daft Punk shows, but the doc adds valuable context. The story begins with video of Thomas and Guy-Man as teenagers in the band Darlin’, playing to a largely lifeless crowd. Once the guys discover dance music and start playing out, the early 90s footage is a real trip. We see acid house dancefloors, a fresh-faced Daft Punk tweaking hardware onstage, and bug-eyed ravers moving with the strobes. Over footage of Bangalter at the Wisconsin festival Even Furthur (sic) in 1996, Todd Edwards describes how the DJ improvised a bassline with a mixer plug. If you loved the duo in their gritty, unmasked youth, the first 20 minutes of Daft Punk Unchained are a gold mine.
The best talking heads weren’t in the trailer.
Daft Punk Unchained enlists a roll-call of big names to wax lyrical about the robots. You saw a few of them in the trailer, including Random Access Memories collaborators Pharrell Williams, Giorgio Moroder, and Nile Rodgers. Then there’s Kanye West at the Louis Vuitton Foundation show earnestly reflecting on what it means to be a punk.
However, the standout moments come from more peripheral players. Whether it’s genius filmmaker Michel Gondry painting while he talks or Stuart McMillan of Slam remembering the raw power of the first Daft Punk tape, there’s real insight on the sidelines. Then there’s friend Serge Nicolas recalling the duo’s attitude to heightened states in the 90s: “I remember Thomas saying he did not like [drugs], because using ecstasy made you lose your critical faculties. And that was it. He hates nothing more than losing control.” We weren’t going to get that soundbite from Kanye.
We get robot revelations.
If you’re the kind of fan who considers making a Daft Punk helmet for Halloween each year, there’s a lot here to fuel your obsession. Thanks to the lucid recollections of former manager Pedro Winter (aka Busy P), we hear how Thomas and Guy-Man were captivated by the Millennium Bug hysteria in 1999. On January 1, 2000, they were reborn as robots after a “studio accident.” Robot fanatics will savor the trip to the warehouse of special effects guru Tony Gardner, who helped create the iconic headgear. The complexity of their creation is a long way from the makeshift motorbike helmets the guys wore in Michel Gondry’s “Around The World” video.
There’s plenty of pyramid.
The game-changing arrival of Daft Punk’s pyramid live show—coming soon after the lukewarm reaction to Human After All—is discussed from all angles by a succession of talking heads. Dance music journalist (and Beatport News contributor) Michaelangelo Matos gives a dramatic account of that mythical first show at Coachella 2006, while Busy P admits how little he knew about the duo’s grand plans. Perhaps the most telling story, though, comes from Skrillex, who had his mind blown by the Daft Punk concert at the LA Sports Arena in 2007. Hearing Daft Punk play live “mashups” of their biggest hits was as impressive to him as the production. The influence of that show on America’s EDM explosion can’t be underestimated.
It’s not all about the greatest hits.
Daft Punk Unchained gives almost equal attention to each of the duo’s albums, culminating with the highly secretive, highly expensive creation of Random Access Memories. However, director Hervé Martin-Delpierre also makes sure to touch on Daft Punk’s other projects. In one of the doc’s highlights, we hear from Japanese anime and manga icon Leiji Matsumoto, who collaborated with the duo on the animated film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. There are also diversions into the TRON: Legacy soundtrack, which paired Daft Punk with an orchestra, the inspiration of the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise on their work, and the creation of Electroma. These vignettes might be too fleeting for the Daft Punk purist, but it’s good they’re in there.
While 88 minutes could never capture the full story of dance music’s most discussed act, Daft Punk Unchained does a valiant job. Now guys, it’s time to come out of that bunker.
Jack Tregoning is the Editorial Director of Beatport in New York. He is on Twitter.
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