Updated: May 24
Some people, it seems, are born cool, no pretension, no airs and graces, but a mystical aura of creative energy. These rare little gems grace the music industry creating history and leaving an intoxicating legacy; electronic music duo Daft Punk are both up there as gold members. Hervé Martin-Delpierre’s fascinating documentary Daft Punk Unchained first aired on BBC Four back in February 2016, charting their beginning up to the triumphant Grammy win; currently, you can watch this intimate study of them on Netflix.
From the offset it's dramatic with a theatrical choir and strings that are accompanied by the quote,"It's really a misconception to feel like artists will be able to gain back a certain amount of control if this control has somehow been compromised along the way." This explains the whole outlook of the duo. A montage of vintage recordings play to entice; what we’re about to see will be memorable.
Going back nearly 30 years to the early 90s, there was a period of cultural growth, and this was a vibrant time to start a band. In an ultra-rare, grainy clip we find two youthful-looking 17-year-old Parisian lads, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, playing in a rock band. Armed with influences of punk and disco, they named the band Darlin’. The group didn’t stay together for an especially long time, but the experience did provide us with a now-legendary tale: a review in Melody Maker claimed the band made daft-punky thrash, which kick-started a new chapter.
A new movement was happening in Paris, resulting in the birth of European house music. It was still very much underground when Thomas and Guy-Man, aged 18, attended their first rave. Something changed within; the vibrations pulsed through their bodies, filling them with inspiration. Serge Nicolas secured a meeting between label Sona and the two shy lads resulting in the release of their first 12” single The New Wave. Momentum grew and grew at a staggering rate.
An acute sense of business and intelligence was always clear, and in 1996 we are reminded of the quote from the start as they secured an unusual record deal with Virgin. Then manager Pedro Winter, now label owner of Ed Banger Records, explained that they wanted to keep ownership of their records, and Virgin could have the rights for ten years. But music wasn’t the only essential element of the deal. It was inherent that Daft Punk controlled everything, including their image and artistic freedom.
1997 brought the international release of Homework, their first album. The re-release of single Da Funk followed accompanied by the renowned video directed by Spike Jonze featuring Charles the lovable, anthropomorphic dog walking around New York with the symbolic Ghetto Blaster. It was cutting edge with DJ Pete Tong claiming its significance as an overall artistic package at that time. Director Michael Gondy has transformed commercial music videos into works of art, and for second single Around the World, motorbike helmets were used to create robots, possibly planting a seed of exploration.
Categorically, the duo was never interested in being stars; it was the music, technology, and overall artistic merit that drove them. Friend Antoine Ressaussiere reminds us that historically techno is faceless, and with their popularity soaring, they needed to keep their air of mystery and privacy. Cheap joke shop masks started to be adorned keeping their life ordinary but enabling them to do extraordinary things. This evolved into the decision that on January 1st, 2000, Daft Punk would transform into robots.
The physical helmets were devised first, aided by SFX designer Tony Gardner in LA, with the thought that new images of Tom and Guy-Man would be drawn and animated in videos for second album Discovery. These then would join up to create the movie Interstellar 5555, with supervision from Japanese mangaka Leiji Matsumoto. Uplifting anthem One More Time from this was more commercial sounding and fully launched them in the USA, managing to transfer easily from the club to the radio.
Craving a more raw experience, their third LP Human After All was made in two weeks and received no promotion from its creators. It was the first time that there wasn’t an unprecedented success for their work. However, film Electroma was derived from this. Tom and Guy-Man’s robots are no more at the end and it was in this film that they emerged in a new look of studded black leather. Was this the decline of Daft Punk? Well it did not put the Coachella Festival in California off in their attempt to book the band.
After years of trying to get them to play, the festival offered the sum of £250,000 in 2005, but the duo politely declined. The very next year, this was upped to £300,000 and finally accepted. A cloak of secrecy encased the planning; even manager Winter was left in the dark. Here we are given a sense of how monumental, powerful, and sensual the whole experience was. Every last detail was meticulously planned as usual, and the results are there in plain LED sight. It’s often voted as the most iconic Coachella set of all times; some claim that it changed, dance music, even live music forever. 40,000 eager revellers tried to get into the Sahara Tent. Any doubt was dashed; their cultural significance was still vast.
Writing the score to Disney’s Tron: Legacy instilled confidence in them to collaborate with many respected artists for Random Access Memories: the last album to date offered to us in 2013. They experimented with live instruments to create a vintage sound. It topped the US Billboard 2000 and UK charts. Song Get Lucky, with Nile Rogers and Pharrell Williams resolutely blew up and created worldwide hysteria reigniting the spirit of disco and dance, but not covered in the documentary is the PERFECT and BEST (subjective) song Instant Crush featuring Julian Casablancas.
After an insightful journey, the end of the BBC special is near. There are clips from their Grammy Awards performance, where they broke the record for the first time an electronic music group won five awards. There is a recollection from Peter Lindbergh of a photo-shoot, used in the posters for this documentary; their helmets never came off, not for a second. It all leaves you with a tear in your eye and the notion that they are humble people who have not let these insane successes go to their heads.
There are contributions from Skrillex, Kanye West, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, and many more littered throughout. However, no new footage of the duo was filmed for this making them even more enigmatic. They broke boundaries of dance music and gratefully received acceptance into the mainstream. They leave nothing to chance, and it shows, as they are one of the most importantly skilled bands of our time, their vision was ambitious and unique. Unchained is not new at four years old but still feels like a fresh observation. It only furthers a great longing for more from the French legends, with a tour being exactly what we could get excited about. Daft Punk is universal.
Article by Beverley Knight