“You want to hear the Jay-Z song?” asked Mitchell Leib, President, Music and Soundtracks for Walt Disney Records. I had come to his office, in the old Ink & Paint building at the Walt Disney Studios lot, to talk about how Disney secured Daft Punk, (recently described by Canadian musician Chilly Gonzales as “funky, sad, French robots who elevated music to the level of conceptual art”) to compose the score for the highly-touted sci-fi fantasy TRON: Legacy. I thought the chat would last 15 minutes. By the time he asked this question, behind his large wooden desk in a room filled with enough incredible music memorabilia to fill several Hard Rock Cafés, we had already been talking for nearly two hours.
(And I’ll get to the Jay-Z song in a minute.)
“Look at TRON. Look at Daft Punk. It’s genius. And it’s pretty obvious,” Leib extolled. “It’s like, phenomenal casting.”
His recollection is that before there was even a director attached to the film (around 2007), Sean Bailey (who is now head of production at the studio, but was a producer at the time) and producer Justin Springer, approached Daft Punk. Which meant that it was either during or after their groundbreaking “Alive” 2007 tour. The finale number of that tour involved Daft Punk (nee Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) in their full robot regalia–with the special addition of neon piping–conducting a symphony of lights and effects from within a giant light-up pyramid. These outfits were, as was pointed out by many music journalists at the time, hugely influenced by the world of TRON.
At the time, Daft Punk or their manager listened to the pitch but were still too busy to commit. “Daft Punk, for the most part, only do one thing at a time, which is why they’re so great at what they do—it is incredible focus. So I think at the time that they were initially approached, they were too tied up with other things.”
Still, the creative team persisted. At that point director Joseph Kosinski (an advertising wunderkind and protégé of David Fincher, who had been brought onto his project for his bold take on the material), and KCRW’s Jason Bentley (who was serving as the film’s music consultant), had also spoken to them. But they still had yet to officially sign on. Eventually the project wound up in Leib’s court. “That was my job: to meet them and help convince them to score the film. And that took another four or five months to get them to commit.”
During that period, Leib was tasked with communicating “how Disney, the filmmakers, and the music department empower them, support them, and help them through the process–would they do this alone, would they collaborate with another composer, who would be a great arranger, where would they record it? We helped explore some important questions.” At one point there was talk that they might co-score the film, and spent weeks interviewing the top composers, including Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat. Sean Bailey monitored the progress and was anxious that Leib and his team help to “close them.”
One of the logistical issues that had to be worked out was where Daft Punk would record and write, since French copyright laws were restrictive to the rights that Disney requires. So recording in France was not an option. “Daft Punk and their manager Paul Hahn came up with the idea of building them a studio at Henson, where Hahn had an office and it made logical sense,” Leib said, matter-of-factly. I was imagining a giant room, the kind of cavernous space that only geniuses like Daft Punk would require. Also, I imagined a full orchestra being there all the time. As it turns out, the space they wanted was much more modest. “I remember the first time I went to see the room at Henson Studios they wanted to turn into a studio,” Leib said. “It was tiny.”
“It was just a funky little room at Henson,” Leib said, referring to Henson Recording Studios, a studio at the Jim Henson Company Lot (formerly Charlie Chaplin Studios), where things like “We Are the World” were recorded and, after TRON: Legacy, Daft Punk would create their groundbreaking, Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories. “By no means was it a normal recording studio. It was like a giant closet. It had no windows and it had no control room and it basically looked like you had just walked into the small brain of the starship Enterprise. There was gadgetry everywhere.”
When Daft Punk finally committed, they told the studio that they were going to “push off any other project.” All they did was work on the score for TRON: Legacy for 19 months: no tours, no more records, nothing. When French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who had directed an early, highly iconic Daft Punk music video for “Around the World,” called them and asked to use “Robot Rock” in a film, they turned him down. They did do one thing outside of TRON: Legacy in those 19 months: an Adidas commercial that riffed on the famous Star Wars cantina scene, where Daft Punk appeared in their robot guises. “And, out of courtesy, the boys asked if it was okay with us!” Leib recalled.
“We moved towards starting principal photography, and the studio was up and running, Daft Punk they already had ideas,” Leib said of the “incredibly proactive” Daft Punk. “By the time the filmmakers went off to shoot, they had already given them something like 45 or 55 minutes of original ideas. Before we even shot a frame.” This meant a couple of things: one, the music was played on set, which put the cast and crew into this new world of TRON from the start. Also, when the movie was being cut, it was temporarily scored with original Daft Punk music (rough, unfinished music but music that was created for the film instead of repurposing existing songs from other films), which added another degree of originality to the music, since the filmmakers weren’t referring to any other score. “The latter we call temp tracks,” Leib said.
Finally, I asked if there was ever an attempt to create a conventional end credits song and single for the film and soundtrack album. Leib said he “tortured” Daft Punk with pleas for a single, and that they collectively decided on approaching Jay-Z. Leib helped orchestrate a “secret” meeting between Jay-Z and Daft Punk. “So they get together and record a song,” Leib said. Daft Punk was really excited the song, but Leib hadn’t heard it yet. Finally, on a night flight to London to record the score, they “whipped out a pair of headphones” and asked Leib if he wanted to hear it. He still remembers his first listen (“You’re flying to London with rock stars and everybody else is asleep and you’re not”), thinking that it was “epic and amazing” but was worried that the filmmakers behind the movie would feel the lyrics and tone were “too rooted in real life and rap for their fantasy movie.” Still, Leib thought it was a singular “event.” Unfortunately, the song never made it to the final film.
Instead, when they were mastering the album, Daft Punk “very generously” came back with an instrumental medley with the intention of it becoming a standalone single. (This is the track that ultimately served as the accompaniment to the end credits sequence.) Leib convinced Daft Punk to release “Derezzed,” a cue from the album, as a single, complete with a music video and visuals inspired by the original film.
There was another rumor from around this period that I had to ask Leib about: that Daft Punk were scheduled to perform at the movie’s glitzy Hollywood premiere. “Yeah, it’s true. I was already architecting with our events people and Hahn to block off Hollywood Boulevard and put Jay-Z and Daft Punk up on the El Capitan marquee, and we were going to do lasers and smoke,” Leib said. “We had this great thing in mind; just the two robots and Jay-Z doing his thing. We were already mapping out how much weight the marquee could take. It was in context of the whole Jay-Z thing that we thought about the performance.” While Daft Punk were disappointed that the single didn’t get approved, Leib describes them as “total pros, with unwavering commitment to the film.” “They showed up to the premiere, in their outfits, and paraded down the red carpet and did a bunch of photo ops.” One of “the boys” later joked that Mitchell had “turned them into costumed Disney characters.”
More recently, Leib had reached out to them to do some one-off live performances of the TRON music accompanying the film. They declined because, in Leib’s words, “It’s just not something they’re interested in doing. I think they see it as repeating. I don’t think they see it as doing something new and dynamic. They didn’t even tour on the back of Random Access Memories, the Album of the Year. But they left it on the table, because they’re always planning something bigger. Right now, you can bet that, on the slow burn, they are cooking up something big for their next move.”
As I was leaving, I took a look around his office, which features photos of him with dozens of famous musicians, a framed TRON: Legacy poster signed by the boys, and Platinum and Gold records (the soundtrack for Mission: Impossible 2, which Leib worked on, was all warped like it had “self-destructed”). I asked him where he would put the experience of working on TRON: Legacy in terms of the rest of his career. (The first film he helped with the music on was 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School when he was 19 years old.) “I’ve been doing this a long time and the process is always the same. I think I’ve touched more than 500 films in my life. What makes it interesting and challenging and different is the talent. Just working with Thomas and Guy-Man, it was a real highpoint in my life,” Leib said. “I’d never built a studio for a composer prior to that or since. I’ve never had artists commit to the project and work on nothing else for 19 months. I’ve never dealt with artists who wear robot suits and don’t speak in public. It was interesting, different, unique, through and through. I’m so satisfied with the journey, as well as the outcome. And I’m a lucky guy for the privilege.”
It’s a testament to the power of the Daft Punk score that it is still regularly licensed, remixed, constantly re-released with bonus tracks and color ways (including a new see-through vinyl from Disney Records), and that the music from the film serves as the soundtrack for the TRON Lightcycle Power Run attraction at Shanghai Disneyland. “I think Daft Punk signed the TRON: Legacy project with their own artistic stamp. That’s what made it so special,” Leib put it succinctly.
And as soon as my tape recorder was off, he turned around, asked if I wanted to hear the Jay-Z song, and drew up the files on his iTunes: there were dozens of unmarked Daft Punk tracks in the library, undoubtedly those temp tracks that they used while filming and temping the film. To a Daft Punk fanatic like myself, this was like getting a peek behind the robots helmets; this is the Holy Grail. Amongst these unreleased treasures was “Computerized,” the Jay-Z collaboration; it initially surfaced online in 2014 completely out-of-context and almost a half-decade after TRON: Legacy was released. The backing track would become what ran over the closing credits, with Jay rapping about getting romantically involved with a woman via technology (“textin’ ex-and-ohs”). In a bit of TRON: Legacy dialogue that Daft Punk sampled for the album, computer mastermind Jeff Bridges says, “I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer–what did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.” So did I.