Silence and Soundtracks

The Use of Themes in TRON: Legacy

While writing my soundtrack review for TRON: Legacy, I became fascinated by the large number of musical themes and motifs being used throughout the film, but I decided not to dwell on them too much in the review for a few reasons:

  1. It sort of becomes a laundry list of facts. This song plays here. That song plays there. It’s not very meaningful or interesting to read unless you’ve seen the film.
  2. For some people, themes are expected, so it’s not necessarily a strong point to build my review on. They might say “Of course the score has themes, but what else does it do?”
  3. The review was already getting a bit long. I wasn’t losing too much by leaving this stuff out.

But I think these themes say something important about Daft Punk and orchestrator/arranger Joseph Trapanese – that they really cared about the work they were doing. They could have written a bunch of catchy tunes that didn’t relate to each other at all, but instead they dove head-first into classical composition. So if you’re interested in deconstructing the score on a smaller level, pick up a copy of the album or Grooveshark it and read on!

Beware: story spoilers below!

The main theme from TRON: Legacy is the very first track, “Overture,” and from what I can tell, it shows up in at least five other songs – sometimes played with horns, sometimes with synthesizers. It feels triumphant and important, and to me it seems to represent the mystery and wonder of The Grid. Check this out: the theme plays during the opening scene, as Kevin Flynn describes to his son how he created The Grid. After Sam Flynn enters The Grid twenty years later, it plays again during “Recognizer.” At the end of the film, the theme repeats during the approach to the portal (see “Arrival”), and finally once more in “Flynn Lives” as Sam leaves the Grid and returns to the real world. It’s also seems to be associated with the major plot points between Sam and his dad. A piano rendition of this theme, called “Father and Son,” plays during their last conversation in 1989, their heartfelt reunion in the Grid, and again after his dad’s death. And of course, it kicks in with the end credits, in what is probably the most Daft-Punk-like song on the album. The synth reminds me a lot of “Da Funk,” which I’m pretty sure was the first song I ever heard from them – way back in 1997.

There’s also a motif for the bad guys: CLU (Evil Jeff Bridges) and his right-hand man, Rinzler. It appears first (and is most prominent) in “Rinzler,” as a couple of notes that get repeated back and forth, played by the staccato strings. As the song builds, these two notes get doubled and bowed with more intensity. This plays beneath the scene where Sam first meets Rinzler in a deadly game of “disc wars,” and I think the heavy repetition does a good job of conveying him as a cold and relentless villain. He’s not just an assassin – he’s a program.  This motif returns in “Adagio for Tron” at 2:19, during a flashback where CLU presumably kills Tron (one of the good guys from the original film) – and once again later on, when we find out that Rinzler is Tron (I guess he changed sides, it’s not very clear). It shows up in one of the tracks from the bonus disc, “Reflections,” during the scene where CLU breaks into Flynn’s hiding place in the Outlands, and we see a flashback of when Flynn first created him. So here we can see it’s clearly associated with both of the villains, and interestingly, their origins. Last but not least, the motif also plays a major role in the song that’s called “C.L.U.,” which plays during the aerial dogfight near the end of the film, when Rinzler and CLU team up against the heroes, and ultimately come into conflict with each other.

As I mentioned in my review, “Fall” is used as a theme for the idea of falling. During the crashing elevator scene, the strings play a descending arpeggio that repeats over and over – it’s going down, down, down. The killer drum beat from “The Game Has Changed” is brought back, adding intensity to the scene. All of this plays underneath a slowly rising wall of noise. The noise starts to sound like the whistling wind of something moving at terminal velocity. It’s all just a really cool, musical representation of this broken elevator, as it gets closer and closer to smashing into the ground. It shows up again in “C.L.U.,” just after Flynn’s light jet stalls in mid-air and begins to fall back toward the ground.

I’m convinced that the somber theme heard in “The Son of Flynn” is used specifically to evoke the conflict between Sam and his Dad – to express the sadness and angst Sam feels, running away from home on his bike, after his father disappears. We hear it again in “ENCOM Part II,” when Sam tries to escape ENCOM tower, after stealing from his father’s corporation. Shortly after they reunite in The Grid, Sam and his dad get in a fight with each other. The theme returns in “Nocturne” to show that the conflict between them hasn’t been resolved, and mirroring that earlier scene, Sam hops on a lightcycle and drives away.

“Outlands” introduces another theme… for the Outlands. But it might also be a theme for Quorra. It plays the first time we meet her, when she takes Sam out of the city, and it gets repeated when Sam goes back in “Outlands Pt II.” (That’s another one of the bonus tracks I wish was on the main soundtrack. It’s got a really moody chord progression and some interesting pipe organ stuff toward the end.) This theme also shows up in “Sea of Simulation,” when they leave the city again, this time on a freight train. But this is also the scene where Sam learns that Quorra is an ISO, so there’s another reason why I think it might be tied to her character.

“Sunrise Prelude” plays shortly after, while Sam describes to Quorra what a sunrise is like. In what is surely a deliberate choice, we see the portal back to the real world, shining through the clouds on the horizon. It’s literally a prelude to a sunrise. This theme comes back at the end of the film when Sam finally shows her a real one.

So yeah, there’s stuff happening here that a lot of people probably never notice, but I think it’s fun to pull back the curtain sometimes and see what’s really going on. In the case of TRON: Legacy, the use of theme suddenly becomes more interesting, because we’re talking about two guys who haven’t scored a lot of films before. It shows that you can have an electronica-based soundtrack, without sacrificing the things that make a soundtrack really work inside of a film. I hope we see more bands getting hired to write soundtracks in the future, because they could bring a really different sound to the table. This is a great place to start.

  1. Roan: this is a really nice overview of the music i think it isn't recognised as much as it should be, Daft punk are legends :)