By Jim Lenahan
*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
It’s heartening to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” become the most popular movie on Earth. Not just because it’s a spirited comedic sci-fi adventure with heart. But mostly because amid all the explosions, space chases and witty wisecracks, it (like its predecessor) is a movie about the love of music. The emotional relationships between the characters may give these films their heart (so important in a super-CGI’d feature), but music — pop music — gives them soul.
If you’re a music fan, there’s so much to geek out on in “Guardians.” Some of it may go over your head (unless you have fast reflexes and can catch it):
Mixtapes … Mixtapes!
First off, these movies are centered around mixtapes. Let that sink in for a minute. These aren’t quirky little indie flicks. These are mega-budget summer blockbusters. And they honor the DIY “found art” form of expression that is the cassette mixtape. From a high-level perspective, the presence of the mixtapes gives the filmmakers permission to use pop music as the backing soundtrack, which grounds the far-out adventure in our reality. In “Star Wars,” the Cantina Band played a tune that sounded of a galaxy far, far away. In “Guardians,” our hero Peter Quill (Star-Lord) goes about his mission while listening (and dancing) to “Come and Get Your Love.” Yeah, he’s from Earth.
The mixtapes — called “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2” — are so important in the movies that Quill at one point risks his life to retrieve his Walkman and in another scene confronts a prison guard who has taken the device and pressed play on “Hooked on a Feeling.” Despite the threat of a tasing, Quill yells at him to take the headphones off. “That song belongs to me!” Not “that tape belongs to me!” “That song belongs to me!” Anyone who has ever been given a mixtape can relate.
Which brings us to Peter’s mother. Quill explains that she loved pop music and instilled that love in him (big ups to Mom for that). The crucial scene: On her deathbed, she gives young Peter a gift. Mere moments from taking her final breath, Mom presents … a mixtape. Dying of cancer, she selected, sequenced and transferred songs to cassette for her only child. Press play. Goosebumps. Chills. Stop. Rewind.
Most movies that use popular music as scene setters tend to pick from a diverse crop; it’s the best way to connote a range of feelings and emotions. But what sets the “Guardians” films apart are those mixtapes. We are told these are all songs that Mother Quill loved. More ups to Peter’s mom; her varied tastes show that she’s a true music fan, with selections ranging from mainstream pop (Jackson 5, ELO, Fleetwood Mac) to funk (Parliament’s “Flash Light”) to avant-garde (
David Bowie’s “Moonlight Daydream”) to quasi-punk (the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”) to some lesser-known gems of the era (Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive,” Silver’s “Wham Bam Shang-a-Lang”). Mom dies in 1988, so most of the music comes from her formative years in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but she reaches back for to the ‘60s for a little R&B from Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell too. Her record collection must have been pretty stellar.
What makes this even better, for the music-geek viewer, are the incongruous moments between screen and speakers, with an action sequence set to light pop. Peter Quill’s high-stakes Walkman-retrieval mission is set to the yacht rock of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” When Yondu stages a successful defense against an ship full of mutineers, the audience enjoys the doo-woppy “Come a Little Bit Closer.” From a filmmaking perspective, this music helps take the edge off the violence, but from a music geek’s perspective, it’s just pure sonic joy.
Spreading the Love
As the sole “terran” (a person of Earth), Peter Quill is the only character with the knowledge of our music. It’s a thrill to see that love of music spread. This is exactly what we imagine would happen if we met beings from other planets. Just as people behind the Iron Curtain couldn’t wait to get their hands on Elvis and Beatles records, so too would aliens dig our backbeats and grooves.
And so … Baby Groot becomes a dancing machine. Rocket Raccoon assembles speakers so the gang can have tunes while fighting a big battle. Rocket later puts on some Glen Campbell while setting traps for bad guys. And the ravagers on Yondu’s ship dig out old Peter Quill tapes for their adventures. Just like life, not every character gets into the spirit, but as Drax says, “There’s two types of beings in the universe, those kinds of people: those who dance and those who do not.” Truth. Sadly, Drax labeled the wrong group “pathetic.”
Music Changes the World
… Or the galaxy. In “Vol. 2,” new character Ego is enthralled by “Brandy” and quotes the lyrics in an effort to convince Peter to embrace his vision, leave the band of Guardians and join his mission. “My life, my lover, my lady … is the sea.” Not sure one-hit wonder Looking Glass has ever had such profound impact.
Likewise, at the end of the first “Guardians,” Peter sings and moves (“Dance off, Bro!”) to the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child,” urging evildoer Ronan to listen to the hopeful lyrics. OK, maybe it was really just a distraction tactic, but it worked. Music saves the day!
The Day the Music Died
A key character is killed in “Vol. 2,” and I’m not talking about that guy. No, the audible gasp that came from seat E10 in the Starplex Cinemas theater was me witnessing Ego crush Peter’s Walkman. Cutting off his hand would be less painful.
But much as Luke Skywalker gets a bionic hand in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Peter gets a technological replacement for the Walkma
n when ravager Kraglin gives him something he acquired from Earth. It’s what everyone there is using these days – a Zune.
Ha, it’s a funny joke (to those who even remember Microsoft’s blink-and-you-missed it response to the iPod). Music sentimentalists might have preferred that Quill take the next logical step to a Discman, but that progression wouldn’t have worked. He’d need CDs, and there are no Sam Goody’s on Xandar. A Zune already loaded with tunes will get Star-Lord across the galaxy and back a few times. But an even better reason for making the jump to MP3 player is …
… that moment with Baby Groot. A Zune comes with earbuds, not those old-school headphones, so Peter could share his listening experience in a tender moment with the little stalk. We’ve all been there: One earbud for me; one for you. Press play on Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” Awwww. Stop. Skip back. Repeat.