Guardians of the Galaxy is perhaps one of the most interesting and unique superhero films in recent memory. The tenth instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film manages to take characters many were completely unfamiliar with, and turned them into cultural phenomenons almost overnight. Despite the unfamiliarity many had towards these obscure characters, writer/director James Gunn managed to make both the characters and the setting of the film feel incredibly familiar, and I think it's worth examining how Gunn uses music in the 2014 film to create this sense of familiarity and nostalgia.
What I find so fascinating about Guardians of the Galaxy is how the film uses nostalgia as a powerful tool, and to great effect. The film essentially crafts its narrative and its characters around nostalgic themes, musical queues or moments in order to take possibly Marvel’s most abstract comic book property, and evolve them into characters which feel like they’ve been in the public consciousness for decades.
Nostalgia, in its simplest definition, is a 'sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past', and we see this notion used heavily by Gunn throughout the film. Whereas many other properties would use the nostalgia of their own past, Guardians doesn’t have the same luxury, and instead chooses to use a type of nostalgia which evokes our own memories and forces us to reminisce in the same way the film does.
One of the most notable ways that Guardians uses nostalgia is through the film’s soundtrack, Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1. Almost exclusively made up of popular hits from the 1960's and 70's, such as Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’, released in 1969, Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’, released in 1974, and most notably, Blue Swede’s 1974 cover of B.J. Thomas’ ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, a song which originally dates back to 1968, harking back to the decade of the original incarnation of the Guardians’ first appearance.
The use of such specific eras of music for the film was explained in the film, with the songs featuring on main character Peter Quill’s Sony Walkman cassette player, but the decision to incorporate nostalgic music was more entrenched in the concept of Guardians than just Quill’s character; James Gunn explained that when writing the film, he took inspiration from the Billboard charts of the 1970's, and included these songs within the script of the film, essentially making nostalgia a core concept within Guardians of the Galaxy.
Gunn, as a filmmaker, understands that integrating a soundtrack as a plot device without it appearing contrived requires a clear understanding of the importance of movie soundtracks, and their ability to service the narrative the film attempts to project. His choice of musical queues throughout the film demonstrate this from the very first trailer, the world’s formal introduction to the Guardians’ use of ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, to opening scene’s use of ‘Come and Get Your Love’ to set the adventurous, space-opera infused tone of the film, to the final scene’s use of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, a song which lyrically evokes themes of heroism, highlighting both Quill and the Guardians’ progression, from a band of self-described ‘A Holes’ to bonafide superheroes.
|He may be an... "a-hole". But he's not, and I quote, "100% a dick"|
What I find especially intriguing about the use of the popular music within the film is that the themes discussed in the songs helps to craft not only the Guardians, but also of a character we see very little of, the person who created the mixtape - Peter Quill’s deceased mother. Many songs used by Gunn in the film evoke a heavy theme of romance and young love, such as the aforementioned ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's ‘Ain't No Mountain High Enough’ signify this (a theme further explored in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
However, the subtle brilliance of the soundtrack is found in how it builds the main narrative of the in sequel, the mystery behind Peter Quill’s father. The only direct mention we witness in the film is of Quill’s late-mother describing him as a ‘being of pure light’, and the use of tracks such as ‘Spirit in the Sky’, and David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ help to subtly craft the mystery of the character we now know to be Kurt Russell’s Ego, in the aforementioned sequel.
And through the use of what Gunn described as ‘semi-familiar music’, the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy feel strangely familiar themselves. Despite being one of the most unknown and abstract concepts Marvel could turn into a franchise, and by fusing these characters (particularly Star-Lord) with such heavy themes of nostalgia, it subconsciously blends our experiences with this nostalgia to our understanding and familiarity to the characters.
In many ways, Star Lord himself is nostalgia; his mannerisms remind us of Indiana Jones, his progression from arrogance to hero remind us of Han Solo, and the heavy focus on 1970's culture through his trusty Walkman remind him of many of us, carrying with him the memories of his childhood and the life he left behind, and using his experiences to create his self, becoming more than just Peter Quill, the same way we feel nostalgic towards elements of our past, and seek to blend them with the current and the modern.
James Gunn’s decision to put such a heavy focus on nostalgia in Guardians of the Galaxy not only helps to set the mood of the franchise, but also helps to ground this epic space-opera very close to home, and that’s what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so awesome.
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