Updated: Feb 24
Some people, it seems, are born cool, no pretension, no airs and graces, but a mystical aura of ingenious energy. These precious jewels 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 frees the mind. A theatrical choir and strings that are accompany 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 unabridged outlook of the duo. A montage of retro recordings play to entice; what we’re about to see will be etched in memory.
Going back nearly 30 years to the early 90s, there was a period of cultural growth, and this proved a vibrant time to start a musical project. 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 group Darlin’. They 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 the next chapter in our tale
A new, unknown 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, eyes wide. Something changed within; the vibrations pulsed through their bodies, filling them with inspiration. Serge Nicolas secured a meeting between label Soma 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 guided by Spike Jonze featuring Charles the lovable, anthropomorphic dog walking around New York with the symbolic Ghetto Blaster. It was cutting edge; DJ Pete Tong claimed its significance as an overall artistic package at that time. Director Michael Gondry 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 and the frills that can entail; it was the music, technology, and overall artistic merit that flew them to the top. 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. It was fate 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; an image of Tom and Guy-Man that complimented their wishes. Second album Discovery paved the way to the animated movie of beauty Interstellar 5555, with supervision from Japanese mangaka Leiji Matsumoto. Uplifting anthem and essential dance floor enticer 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 parents. 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? It did not put Coachella Festival in California off in their attempt to book the band.
After years of pleading 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 faith to collaborate with many respected and off-centre artists for Random Access Memories: the last album to date offered to us in 2013, experimenting 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) number Instant Crush featuring Julian Casablancas.
After an insightful ride, the end of the BBC special is near, featuring 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.
Contributions from Skrillex, Kanye West, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, and many more littered throughout. However, no new footage of the duo was filmed increasing their enigmatic state. They broke boundaries of dance music and gratefully received acceptance into the mainstream. Leaving nothing to chance, it shows, as they are one of the most importantly skilled bands of our time, their vision was ambitious. Unchained still feels like a fresh observation. It only fuels a longing for more from the French legends. Daft Punk is universal.
Article by Beverley Knight