Sometime in 2003 or so I was riding with a friend into downtown Chicago on I-94. He had his iPod connected to his car stereo, and while it was mostly filled with the same crappy Christian rock that he’d been playing to death for the last five years, there were a few other songs on it that he’d gotten into since college. Specifically, some hip-hop and upbeat dance music that he probably didn’t listen to outside of his times working out at the gym, but why he had them was of no concern to me, so long as there was something to soundtrack our drive that didn’t make me want to stuff cotton in my ears. It was here that I heard Daft Punk’s “Aerodynamic” not for the first time, but finally as the epic and glorious track that I know it as today.
My feelings toward Daft Punk’s Discovery as a whole weren’t changed overnight but in the past seven years since then (or nine years since hearing it shortly after its release in 2001) I’ve gone from misunderstanding and dismissing the album to liking, loving, and admiring it as a truly awe-inspiring achievement. Around the turn of the decade it was easy to assume that the future of electronic music would belong to confounding, often obtuse artists like Autechre or Oval – or in my crystal ball, laptop jockeys like Kid 606 or Cex – but certainly not corny and indulgent retro crap like this. Pop music was still considered “evil” and disco was still regarded as a fad best left to the past. Sure, Discovery had its fans early on but there were just as many listeners that didn’t know what to do with it at all. Those of us who would need time to come around to it would need to unlearn a decade’s worth of reactionary habits and revise our attitudes about pop music, a more complicated task than it may sound. Understanding accessibility as a positive trait, accepting and basking in the album’s sheer excess, and giving in to its boundless optimism and brazenly idealistic vision were key to finally “getting” the album, and by extension, so much of the decade’s music that would follow it.
Having gone through this process myself, Discovery holds a special place in my heart, coloring my experience of its visual manifestation in ways that (I suspect) most anime fans probably can’t quite relate to. Now I’ve only watched Interstella 5555 four times through, but each time I’ve felt literally overcome with emotion, captivated by the story and the gorgeous visuals and continually feeling somewhat shocked that the movie is indeed real, and not a product of my Frosted Flakes-fueled dreams. Apparently conceived by Bangalter and de Homem-Christo during the recording of Discovery, the film was pitched to legendary anime creator Leiji Matsumoto, who agreed to head the project at Toei Animation. If there was more to the initial process than this simple and cordial meeting, Daft Punk have kept the details to themselves. It’s hard enough for promising and “safe” films to go from a script to the screen, but a French-Japanese collaboration based on an album of post-millennial space-age bubblegum disco without a single line of dialogue? It’s a miracle this film was ever made at all. Interstella 5555 premiered in late 2003 and has since become a cult classic of sorts, albeit one recognized more in fractured form as a series of music videos (thanks in no small part to Youtube) than as the great animated musical it should be viewed as.
The first glimpse I ever had of Interstella 5555 was of the now-iconic music video for “One More Time.” I was walking past a television in a vacant students’ lounge at school (the beginning of a suspicious-sounding story, but I assure you it happened) when I saw it on the screen and paused to watch it, not so much excited and intrigued but confused and somewhat annoyed by the unexplained blue people and their rather straightforward onstage performance. Was this done as a parody of AMVs? Of Eiffel 65’s “Blue”? Surely this had to be ironic, right? The twist at the end, as the concert is attacked and the band is abducted, seemed like a copout of an ending. This was a real video? Although I was going through some difficult times at school, I don’t understand my hostile reaction to the album, the song or the video and in hindsight feel somewhat ashamed of myself and my reasoning. I wouldn’t understand the context of the video for a few years, but by then I was in much better spirits, a much bigger fan of the band, and an exponentially bigger anime enthusiast who’d grown to love the particular animation style of it.
While the story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, it’s simple enough to give both the artists and writers plenty of opportunities to play off of the songs in clever and imaginative ways, and in turn the music provides no shortage of cues for the story to surprise and delight. It’s hard not to get caught up in the fate of the four main characters and their biggest fan, whose troubles mirror those stuck in the marketing machine of our own idol-obsessed culture. The music industry – no matter what country it’s in – has long been a subject ripe for mockery in fiction, but I’ve never seen it addressed or skewered in science fiction quite like it is here. Commentary aside, there’s plenty of suspense and some genuinely exciting action sequences, and the dramatic ups and downs of the film pack a wallop.
Much as it’s hard to choose a favorite track on Discovery, it’s hard to deny any of the individual sequences in the film, each of which is essential to the film as a whole and contain hardly a superfluous scene in its succinct 68 minutes. The opening segments, featuring “One More Time” and “Aerodynamic,” set the visual (and sonic) tone of the film, introduce the characters and the conflict, and quickly draw us into their world. In the “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Crescendolls” chapters, the film’s villain and fifth protagonist are introduced, and the conflict is further flushed out in masterfully-composed montages that are some of the most elaborate and whimsical I’ve ever seen. As “Nightvision” provides an interlude of sorts on the album, here it soundtracks an emotional comedown from the exhausting yet (until now) upbeat ordeal of the now-brainwashed band, a necessary rock-bottom for our heroes to hit in order for the fantastic sequence featuring “Superheroes” to have the effect that it does. I’ll abstain from actually proceeding to describe every part of the film, particularly in such purposeful but vague terms, as it’s not worth experiencing in such a secondhand manner. The look, the sound, the tactile feel of the movie give it a depth and resonance that can’t be communicated outside of simply viewing it itself. Watching this on DVD is an experience to relish and return to, the dynamic colors and sounds deserving better than what a pixilated video stream and cheap computer speakers could provide, but for those viewers hunting for the film on the cheap, it is posted on Youtube in its entirety.
So who was this film made for? Daft Punk fans? Anime fans? How much of a crossover really exists between the two? The band’s previous music videos, directed by such auteurs as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, established them as conduits for groundbreaking visual art and endeared them to discerning fans of the medium. These same folks seem to hold Interstella 5555 at arm’s length, or at least express a hesitation to engage with it in the same way that I do. As far as the film’s reputation in the world of anime, it seems somewhat unappreciated given its ambitious scope, technical achievements and relatively accessible nature. I’d go so far as to say that anime fans (in the West, at least) generally don’t like this sort of music at all. Of course, being in both of those camps makes me the ideal viewer, but I wonder how many other people out there might stand to see it the same way. I hope it’s more than I suspect, because a film this brilliant and joyful shouldn’t ever be taken for granted.