Shelf digging: The Story of TRON

TRON is not a good movie, but it’s one of my favorites.

For most of my adult life, I credited the video game for fostering that affection. I could never get past the third level, but it didn’t stop me from dropping quarters into the machine when I could.

I’ve watched TRON a number of times in the past few years, the most recent a television broadcast. The movie looks great, its art direction forward-thinking enough to overcome the dated computer graphics. The actors do their best with the dialogue, but the story from 1982 has a naivety that pales next to the future that came after it.

For all its faults, TRON holds a tight grip on my imagination. I never really examined why till my mom unearthed a vinyl record: The Story of TRON.

Before VCRs and the home theaters it would spawn, Disney understood not all families could make a night at the movie theater, so it released condensed version of its movies on record with narrators describing the action between snatches of dialogue and music from the soundtrack.

I desperately wanted to see TRON in a theater, but my parents wouldn’t budge until it played on a second run at a theater on base. So it was some months after the movie’s opening that I got to see it on the big screen. Well, kinda — I forgot my glasses, so most everything was a smudge.

Until that day, I had to content myself with The Story of TRON. That might have ultimately ruined the movie for me.

I played the record after more than 30 years and actually enjoyed hearing most of the story shaved of its cruft. In a way, listening to The Story of TRON is actually better than watching the movie.

And I think I may have realized that when I finally got to see the movie. I had hoped for a life-altering experience similar to Star Wars. It didn’t happen. TRON fell off my radar as I got older, and I wouldn’t really develop fondness for the movie till I saw it again as an adult.

At that point, I had to rib my younger self for falling for the onslaught of marketing at the time, but I had completely forgotten how The Story of TRON fueled much of that anticipation.

When I moved out of my parents’ house in 1997, I took my record collection with me, but The Story of TRON was left behind, then subsequently forgotten for 22 years.

It’s back in the collection again, its role in influencing my life full acknowledged.

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Shelf Digging: Wendy Carlos, TRON

[Wendy Carlos - TRON]

I usual like to credit Art of Noise for starting me on the path to wannabe modern composer. Music magazines liked to describe the band as rock music’s answer to musique concrète, and of course, I had to look up what musique concrète meant in my dad’s music appreciation textbook.

In reality, the seeds were planted far earlier, unbeknownst to me.

In 1982, TRON hit theaters, but Disney built hype around the movie months before its release. By the time my family went to the theater to see the movie, I had already played The Story of TRON to death, essentially spoiling the plot. In addition to the narrated story, I twisted the arms of my parents to get the soundtrack by Wendy Carlos, which I also played day in and day out on the turntable.

The music of the movie was also tied closely to the arcade game. To this day, I can’t hear the “TRON Scherzo” without visualizing the completion of a game within a level.

In essence, the Disney marketing machine had me in its grip.

I was too young to appreciate the mechanics behind Carlos’ score. To my 10-year-old ears, it was futuristic music played on tomorrow instruments. It wasn’t John Williams or Star Wars, and I didn’t care.

Three decades later, listening to the soundtrack reveals how much of Carlos’ advanced score sank into my consciousness. The whole tone scales, the limited modes of transposition, the polyrhythms — the shadow of Olivier Messaien’s arm looms long over the score.

My parents bore it with some grace, but the angular music must have sounded absolutely noisy to them. I’ll admit to some impatience with the portions of the soundtrack that weren’t in the video game, but I internalized it nonetheless, not realizing I was preparing myself for a lifetime of listening to atonal music.

Film scores these days amount to little more than wallpaper, so it’s rare when a soundtrack such as TRON, AKIRA or The Piano can be decoupled from its source.

I’m mystified TRON hasn’t yet entered the orchestral pops repertoire. If Seattle Symphony ever performed the score live, I’d cut a bitch to get tickets. The orchestra musicians might appreciate the challenge.


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