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SPIN Essentials

Air, ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ (Virgin)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 06, 2012
Label: Virgin

In the beginning, cinema documented reality, or something like it. As a Parisian theater owner and performing magician, Georges Méliès was naturally more concerned with illusion — he wasn’t the first to use special effects, but he soon became so good at his tricks that he is, arguably, film’s first experimental artist for the masses. He was to cinema what Les Paul was to the recording studio a half-century later: the guy who took a new form and through multiple exposures, editing, and other technological slight-of-hand created something more vivid and artful than naturalism. A Surrealist who predated Surrealism.

Méliès’s most famous work, 1902’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune — a 14-minute sci-fi milestone in which a group of astronomers journey to the Moon, combat a bunch of green Moon men, accidentally take one back to Earth, and are crowned heroes — was one of the first films to claim an enduring place in pop culture’s collective psyche. Footage from the film was featured in the video for Queen’s 1995 single “Heaven for Everyone”; Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video is essentially Le Voyage visually remixed (by the directors who would later make Little Miss Sunshine); more recently, both Méliès and Le Voyage are key motifs in Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-nominated Hugo. And now, Air’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin have created a new soundtrack for the award-winning restoration of a newly rediscovered color version of the film.

Like Méliès, Dunckel and Godin are deeply romantic conjurers: Air stands for “Amour, Imagination, Rêve” (Love, Imagination, Dream), and the Versailles duo play their vintage keyboards, guitars, and so forth as if they’re pulling rabbits out of hats. Still most beloved for 1998 debut Moon Safari, Air specialize in antiquated sonic visions of the future: Their pet theme remains inner and outer space, and man’s journey through them. (See “Surfing on a Rocket,” “The Vagabond,” “Universal Traveler,” “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping,” and “Kelly, Watch the Stars!”). Floating in the wonderment of a relatively quaint past and its idealized vision of the future, Dunckel and Godin draw from prog, early synthpop, Serge Gainsbourg, and ’60s European art-film soundtracks to create their own Gallic slant on steampunk.

Like all the duo’s work, Air’s contribution to Méliès’ masterpiece is lovingly fastidious and packed with special effects. Based on the only existing hand-colored print known to have survived, Le Voyage‘s current incarnation was made possible with digital tools, but it remains a decaying artifact. And with its synthetic yet folky sound, Air’s new soundtrack evokes not only the antiquated modernity of 1902 state-of-the-art cinema, but also its distinctly human imperfections. As the astronomers assemble in the opening scene, rolling tympani and belching Mellotron sympathetically pulse to the beat of color fluctuations in the hand-painted frames. And when the tarnished image momentarily glitches, the music warbles with it.

Dunckel and Godin’s mischievous humor also syncs with the filmmaker’s: They give head astronomer Professor Barbenfouillis (played with sweeping, magician-like hand gestures by Méliès himself) a backwards voice that morphs into animal roars. He and the other silly scientists are tended to by female servants played by dancers of the Folies Bergère, who push a phallic rocket into an enormous cannon; as keyboards twinkle and sigh, the bullet-shaped missile lands squarely in the Man in the Moon’s eye, an enduring image both whimsical and nightmarish, signifiying both the audacity of human imagination and its propensity to violate nature.

Air’s cosmic soundtrack isn’t above appropriation: “Lava,” which scores the scientists watching Earth rise in the Moon’s sky, starts with a gentle Mellotron flute riff reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Warszawa” before exploding in a slow-burning Pink Floyd-ian freak-out; here and elsewhere, the duo shrewdly allude to both Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth phase and Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The half-hour-long album version expands the soundtrack cuts, rearranges their order, and adds kindred tracks sung and co-written by Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Brooklyn trio Au Revoir Simone that flow with the languid, otherworldly pacing of Jean Michel Jarre and like-minded synth/prog gods.

Despite the obvious parallels to the classic and still-definitive Moon Safari, Le Voyage avoids anything as catchy as “Sexy Boy.” Since that initial fluke hit, Air haven’t abandoned pop songs: 2007’s Pocket Symphony was full of ’em, however low-key. But the duo’s forte remains soundtracks for films both actual and imagined, their delicate synth orchestrations and nuanced instrumental harmonies emphasizing emotion — cinema’s cornerstone — above hooks and nearly everything else. Just as Méliès was eventually outdated by daredevil clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Air’s subtle beauty has lost its cultural cachet to more instant-impact heirs like M83 and Caribou, but that doesn’t make this ride any less lovely. Listen closely and you can hear Dunckel and Godin physically merge with Méliès, enraptured by a spellbinder’s dream of what was, and could be.