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Interstella 5555
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

It took me a long time to cough up a review for this film. The problem is, Interstella 5555 is as much of a musical piece as it is a work of animation; in drafting the review, I try and try to concentrate on the animation, but my creaky music critic foibles won't let me do it. Interstella 5555 is a perplexing little movie, because its musical and visual ingredients are very distinct and very different from each other, yet they blend together surprisingly well.

Interstella 5555 came about because two French guys watched Captain Harlock on the TV when they were growing up. The catch is, those two French guys were named Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo. Thomas and Guy-Manuel grew up to form a dance act called Daft Punk, and managed to sell more than two million copies of their debut album. After the pair retreated behind an amusing public image that cast them as featureless cyborgs, they noticed that their newfound stature conferred upon themselves the ability to realize a lot more of their silly artistic ideas and notions. The duo had always wanted to create a music video that utilized animation by Leiji Matsumoto, who'd created their beloved Albator (which is what the French called Shelbyvill-- er, Harlock back in those days). Now that they had the clout, why not? And if a music video to the new album's leadoff single, "One More Time," works out well, why not animate the whole album?

It's a few years on, and we've got Interstella 5555, a 65-minute animated film synched entirely to the music of Discovery, Daft Punk's second album. Since Interstella 5555 is sort of a visual concept album, there isn't any dialogue-- there's just music, nonstop. This does present problems, mainly because it makes it a lot harder to establish the framework of a story-- comic nerds might try to tell you about the brilliance of that one G.I. Joe Annual about Snake Eyes that included absolutely no dialogue, but I read that comic, and it was awful. Fortunately, Daft Punk have the right idea and create a musical story about a rock band.

In fact, there's a fairly good chance that you've already seen Interstella 5555's opening sequence, since it's been a global hit for nearly two years. It's during this sequence that we're introduced to the Crescendolls, the hottest rock band ever to come out of a faraway planet where everyone looks vaguely like people from earth, only their skin is blue. Like giant Smurfs. Anyway, the Crescendolls are rockin' out in front of a packed house, when they're suddenly kidnapped by shadowy storm troopers who look like they marched right out of the Machine Armies of Galaxy Express 999. As the band's audience reels under clouds of knockout gas, the sinister alien who kidnapped the Crescendolls takes his prisoners back to his dreaded homeworld-- Earth!

It's interesting to watch this sequence in contrast with the rest of the film. It effectively sets up the movie's framework, but the animation is very simple and limited-- there's lots of digital pans and looping footage. To the animation team's credit, they do manage to synchronize the animation with the vocals, which is something that very, very few anime productions seem to do properly. But after this sequence fades and the next one begins, you'll get a sense of how the Interstella 5555 project evolved. The animation improves dramatically and remains glossy and good-looking throughout the movie's duration-- it's obvious that the first video was a trial run, and its success led to the rest of the project being given the green light, with the step up in quality that such a decision implies.

But let's get back to the plot of Interstella 5555. Ever seen Rock & Rule? Great, then you've seen Interstella 5555. That's oversimplifying things quite a bit-- the former is a weirdly charming 1983 outing from Nelvana (yes, the Cardcators people) starring Lou Reed (singing voice only) as an animated animal version of Mick Jagger, who kidnaps a singer in order to summon the devil. Interstella 5555's villian is a portly, sneering record producer, and he's the latest in a line of evil men bent on kidnapping alien pop stars and forcibly importing them to earth, winning lots of accolades and gold records in the process. But the crux of both films is all about musicians being pulled out of their comfort zones and forced to ignore their artistic urges to produce for the benefit of someone else.

Consider that for a moment, and consider some of the movie's imagery of the Crescendolls' transformation from aliens to Earthbound pop singers-- the process of dressing them up for consumption literally involves a factory assembly line. Their clothes and images are automatically selected for them by computer, and each member-- guitarist Arpegius, keyboardist/vocalist Octave, bassist Stella, and drummer Baryl-- gets their skin dyed in familiar earth skin tones and their memories swiped and replaced by... nothing much, really. Only their innate musical talent remains. The movie's villain, record producer Darkwood, specializes in this kind of exploitation. Later in the film, we're treated to a flashback of him and his predecessors, who seem to have used alien talent to drive their own success for hundreds of years. It's kind of amusing to see alien caricatures of Mozart and Jimi Hendrix transformed and dressed up like that; on the other hand, it makes Interstella 5555 an absolutely scathing commentary on the music industry.

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Surely the Crescendolls aren't doomed to live and die as vapid pop flavors of the month on Earth. Fortunately, their abduction is noticed by Shep, a scout for their race's space fleet. Shep, yanked out of a daydream about the attractive Stella, is furious over the kidnapping of his favorite band, and takes off in hot pursuit, piloting his guitar-shaped ship and causing me to briefly wonder if the whole thing would turn into a Boston album cover.

That's the plot of Interstella 5555. Equally important is the music, and it's pretty bizarre stuff. Daft Punk vacillate between exteremely slick, stylish dance pop and bizarre 80s throwbacks on the musical portion of the movie-- some songs have rightfully burned up the dance charts, while others sound like they belong on the soundtrack of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. This music isn't bad at all, but the problem is, it's going to age poorly. Snicker all you want about Saturday Night Fever's soundtrack-- as kitschy as it is, it's still a great dance album and a lot of fun to listen to twenty-five years later. I get the feeling that, fifteen years down the line, the majority of the music here won't sound nearly as fresh.

That's not to say it's all pap. The album's best tracks are indeed its first half-- "One More Time" is alluringly catchy, with a repetitive but surprisingly charming refrain and a thick, heavy backbeat. Much of the album is instrumental; of these tracks, "Bigger, Faster, Better, Stronger" and "Aerodynamic" are the standouts. Far and away the best track on the disc is "Digital Love"-- with the song, Daft Punk achieve the seemingly impossible feat of using a vocoder without overusing it. The tune is carried by some surprisingly good guitar work and the voices of Daft Punk themselves (they use other vocalists for the other vocal tracks).

The dub? There's no dialogue. None at all. There are moments when the characters are meant to be speaking, but it's drowned out by the music. There isn't even much in the way of sound effects. My only other comment on the production is that the DVD extras, while substantial, are presented really badly. The DVD menu where they're accessed uses "mystery meat" navigation-- you don't know what you're going to get when you highlight each featureless box and press the enter key.

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Interstella 5555 might not boast animation direction by Leiji Matsumoto-- that task falls on a trio of veteran Toei grunts anchored by Daisuke Nishio, who directed about a million episodes of Dragonball Z-- but it sports his usual visual style in spades. It's true that Matsumoto really only knows how to draw four or five people, but that's all that Interstella 5555 needs. Sure, Shep kind of looks like Arpegius only with shorter hair, and Baryl is the usual shrimpy, cherubic character that leaves me suspecting that he's Matsumoto's projection of himself onto the story, but you've got to admire Matsumoto's remarkably singular vision of feminine beauty. All of Matsumoto's women are leggy and willowy, with penetrating eyes and long, flowing hair, and Stella is no exception. Some of Matsumoto's famous females are tough and self-sufficient, but Stella has more of an earth mother vibe happening, much like Galaxy Express 999's Maetel. Witness her rushing to comfort the heroic but quite probably doomed Shep. During "Digital Love," we learn that Shep is completely smitten with his favorite rock star. He never tells her this, but we know that she knows.

Despite the frequently downright zany music, Interstella 5555 is a really fresh approach to storytelling, which is definitely something that anime as a medium could use. I have to say that this latest chunk of the Matsumoto Renaissance is perhaps my favorite yet-- it's engaging and downright fun to watch. Also fun is simply reading about how the project came to be, and Daft Punk's enthusiasm for the entire thing. There's a sense of joy and incredulity to Bangalter and Christo's words; it extends all the way to the film, in which the pair appear as themselves at an awards show. The movie's only big strike is its uneven music. Most of it is good-- some of it is great-- but as a whole, it has the impermanence of a novelty record. Ten years from now, not many are likely to remember most of the tracks from Daft Punk's Discovery album. I have to wonder how many will remember this rare and unusual treat of a film.

Added:  Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Related Link:  EMI Video
hits: 10142


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