When Daft Punk released Human After All in 2005, many critics reacted with confusion. The group did zero promotion for the album (“We thought the record would speak for itself,” said Bangalter in 2013), and critics were left alone with their thoughts and speculation. Were these guy same guys that released Homework? Was their transformation into soulless robots complete? The reality, as elaborated in Daft Punk Unchained — a new documentary premiering tonight on Showtime — was more in line with the French duo’s career up to that point. They were simply enough steps ahead of everyone else that the rest of us needed time to catch up.
The film’s peak is arguably the tale of Daft Punk’s now-legendary performance at Coachella in 2006. They used a sizable portion of their $350,000 fee to build their massive LED pyramid stage set, and created an hour-long mix that mashed up material from their entire catalog. People went insane, with 40,000 people crushing the 10,000-cap Sahara tent at the Indio Polo Grounds. Finally, it all made sense; the evolution of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s human/robot interplay, human identity in the digital age… their entire mysterious aesthetic, de-mystified in one massive, epic performance. What was once decried as a disappointment is now looked upon as the flashpoint in a worldwide resurgence of dance music. When the official version of the mix was later released as Alive 2007, it was met with quite a different perspective. “It’s interesting to see that years later, those same critics [that panned it] re-evaluate the album,” the journalist Pascal Bertin says in the film.
With that in mind, Daft Punk Unchained takes a look at just how these two reformed French punks managed to become such an influential force in dance music. It starts with the genesis, born of the ashes of darlin’, a punk quartet that featured future Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz. An unfavorable review from U.K. music rag Melody Maker dubbed them “daft punky thrash,” a name that would stick when Bangalter and de Homem-Christo would form their new electronic group.
From the start, the duo was uniquely suited to navigate not just electronic music, but the music industry at large. Bangalter’s father Daniel was a recording artist himself, releasing records under the name Daniel Vangarde. They had the money to purchase the expensive equipment, space at Bangalter’s house to produce the music, and the saavy to negotiate favorable contract terms with the record labels that came calling after their first releases on the independent Scottish label Soma. So when they fielded offers from major labels, they had the confidence and know-how to negotiate extremely favorable terms with Virgin; rather than a long-term contract with a big advance and few ownership rights, they negotiated a two-album deal in which they retained full ownership of the masters, licensing the music to the label for a period of 10 years. Or, from a different perspective, just before that ’06 Coachella performance.
The rest of the film takes a cursory look at the group’s major releases over the years; the films Interstella 5555, Electroma, working with Disney on the Tron soundtrack, and the star-studded Random Access Memories. It touches on the birth of the robot alter egos; born of a fascination with the “Millenium Bug,” they created a backstory that involved a machine transformation on the evening of December 31, 1999, a product of culture and technology. There’s a bit of sanitization; “merde” gets translated into english subtitles as “junk,” and in a section on Daft Punk’s sampling, one journalist laughably declares that “they changed them so much that samples became unrecognizable.” Because in what universe is Breakwater’s “Release The Beast” unrecognizable from “Robot Rock?” Even Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby,” an example used in the film, is so obviously sampled on “Harder Better Faster Stronger” that it immediately discredits his point.
Regardless, Daft Punk Unchained is essential viewing for any Daft Punk fan, and with its impressive archive footage and photos, is a worthwhile jaunt down memory lane for those with even a casual interest. In the anti-fame techno tradition, they never show their faces in public as Daft Punk, but the film offers some early photographs that give a glimpse of their young faces, before their transformation into robots. And while much of the mystery behind their story has already been revealed elsewhere, the film does a good job of collecting and organizing the tidbits into a coherent narrative. It’s worth a look, especially if you’re one of those “rock guys” that just doesn’t “get it.”