Air curries favor in the sea of scores and soundtracks. Their work on The Virgin Suicides is beloved by more than a few, and that's not their only brush with Sofia Coppola—former drummer Brian Reitzell worked on Lost in Translation, and the band had a jam in 2006's Marie Antoinette. The rest of their discography—aside from Moon Safari, which was met with pretty much blanket acclaim—tends to suffer the inconsistent push and pull of music criticism. Some hate, some love, and in the end, we're plopped in the lukewarm middle. Soundtracks, though? Most can agree that when Air's work bleeds into the film world, it's a good thing.
Air's latest, Le Voyage Dans la Lune, was created to accompany a short film from 1902 that bears that same name. It's the world's first sci-fi flick, it's hand-painted, and it's really magnificent. Air makes for an ideal companion for this particular film and its spacey notions—they're cinematic, subtle enough and precise, and they've got lofty, cosmic dreams. The duo, comprised of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Duncke, managed to walk that tightrope between ludicrous and playful, over-the-top and not enough, quite well. There's a real sense of continuity in this score, tinged in all the right places with the appropriate atmosphere, but retaining the same backbone throughout.
Where Le Voyage Dans la Lune really succeeds is in its entire package, as in film and score. This is a record review, yes, not a place to gape over old-time cinema, but really, the best part of this album is that it's latched on to a for a semi-unknown work of art-- a brilliant one-- and brought it to the cultural forefront. In an era saturated with repurposing, remixing, borrowing and stealing, it's always worth noting when adding to something old is done well. The album can stand on its own—it's spacey, it's playful, and it's cinematic—but the best part about it is the whole package.
This remastered film, replete with hand painted, sepia-tinged jewel tones, is truly spectacular. It begins with a ragtag group of excitable folks, gathered in front of a meticulously illustrated observatory backdrop, gesticulating wildly as a mad scientist type with an insane beard hops around in front of a chalkboard. The fervor grows, and soon they're all swapping clothes and rushing outside to build a rocket ship. During this scene, Air treats us to slow, sultry, reverberating drums, pounding under few instrumental embellishments and the garbled talk of this scientist. They ease us into the score—this first track is easy, it takes its time. It's haunting, but sharply so. There's nothing muted about heavy drum or crisp, periodic guitar.
We watch this strange group get to work, underneath an upbeat track with a warbling melody and a working man, singsong-y sort of beat. Soon the ship is built, and a set of prancing young women load some fellows in as Air soundtracks the sendoff with proclamation-esque, drumline drumbeats coupled with tinkling, rising piano.
The rocket launches into space, where, unbeknownst to the men, it hit's the moon in his eye. Obviously. The men, outfitted in suits typical of the early 1900s (it's a majestic aesthetic, but perhaps not the best choice for a lunar voyage) tumble out onto the surface, hopping around in mute disbelief. Here, Air turns to a sound reminiscent of a heavenly choir, until a blast of mysterious red gas knocks the ragtag crew off their feet. Then, we're treated to a bass line more bluesy and a touch sinister—not unlike a Tom Waits riff, or drive in Twin Peaks. The men find their way into an orange jungle that turns their umbrellas (brought along in the event of a lunar rainstorm, presumably) into giant, rapidly growing mushrooms. Their understandable panic is soundtracked by a synthy, scary track laced with a sort of barbaric yawping, and the foreboding feel of the trance-jam just grows as a frog-like creature tumbles out of the foliage. During the short film's triumphal final scene, Air does a wonderful job once again of exercising precision and subtlety—there's this feeling, this celebratory air (ha) in the final moments, but they manage it without overdoing the triumph of the thing.
The soundtrack clocks in at a touch over 30 minutes, which is just about double the length of the film. The extra bits are interesting—“Seven Stars” features ephemeral guest vocals from Beach House's Victoria Legrand, and it's the perfect rainy day sort of song. Later on, “Moon Fever” is this lovely, delicate composition, this ultimate lullaby. The record is good—it's best served with the film it scores, obviously, but it doesn't fall down on its own. Whether or not you're on board with Air's Moogy, planetary aesthetic, this film, and the work they've done for it, is a treat for all.