If there were any worries that Peter Quill & Co. didn’t get enough money, praise, love, etc. this weekend, everyone can rest assured knowing they were also a hit on the music charts: The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack album, cutely titled Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 (awww), apparently debuted at No. 3 on The Billboard 200.
Now, I love the use of music in this movie. I appreciate that it focused on the pop-rock (and not disco) hits of the 1970s, a genre that hasn’t been done to death in recent movies the way 1980s pop has. I feel grateful that they were at least thinking of a way to ground the movie on Earth while the characters deal with space mumbo-jumbo. I also admire the way happy songs are used during sad or serious scenes, skirting right up to the line of irony without really crossing it—or, at least, without hitting the irony button too much.
[Note: Thar be spoilers beyond this point.]
Okay, I know I (we?) complained about this in the podcast already. (Did you listen to the podcast? You should listen to the podcast. Podcast, podcast, podcast.) But it’s just that half of these songs are brilliant choices used in an original way, and half are kind of the lazy, obvious picks.
Let’s start with the good: The opening sequence, with “Come and Get Your Love” is perfect. It immediately establishes Quill’s character, it’s a song that’s well known but not overused, and it just works with the scene. Similarly, “Moonage Daydream” is a smart choice for the trip into Knowhere. David Bowie gets used a lot in movies—and by soundtrack masters like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, too—and “Moonage Daydream” works well in the scene and feels unique to Guardians. And I feel like “The Pina Colada Song” is actually underused in movies, considering how effective it is at getting at that Lite-FM vibe.
But then there’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” Sigh. I love “Hooked on a Feeling.” I can remember where I was the first time I heard “Hooked on a Feeling.” (Muhlenberg College—go mules!) And, even though there’s a big moment for the song in the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer (and more it’s effective there than in the movie), to me, “Hooked on a Feeling” will always belong to the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. And, in Reservoir Dogs, the song is used for a similar purpose: to recall those 1970s radio songs—aka K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s. What is Awesome Mix Vol. 1 if not an attempt to be K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s? And why would anyone even invite that comparison?
You can’t just trump Tarantino when it comes to calling dibs on a song. He takes tracks that are known, but maybe not necessarily beloved—”You Never Can Tell,” “Little Green Bag,” “Across 110th Street”—and he uses them in a way that lets them shine so much he makes them beloved.
The songs in Guardians of the Galaxy, half the time, just make me think of other movies. There’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which has been used in tons of movies that need to quickly convey “we are having a good time,” including the motley triumvirate of Remember the Titans, Sister Act 2, and Stepmom (and also The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Bridget Jones). There’s “O-O-H Child”—a song I loathe, not that it’s the movie’s fault—which had a big scene in Boyz n the Hood (and, uh, that SNL sketch with Lena Dunham). There’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which is used, oh, in every movie that has any kind of flying ever, and was better used in This Is the End. And “Cherry Bomb” is in Dazed and Confused, which is not a movie where people ignored the soundtrack, you know? I kept expecting “Don’t Stop Believin'” to rear its ugly head (which, thankfully, it didn’t).
Even that cutesy title, “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”, is almost a word-for-word re-creation of a visual joke from Boogie Nights. Alfred Molina’s character, the drug dealer, has a tape titled “My Awesome Mix #6″—and he’s listening to a just-shy-of-ironic uptempo song, “Jessie’s Girl,” during a serious and violent scene. (“My Awesome Mix #6” is actually a funnier title than “Awesome Mix Vol. 1,” but I can see why they went with “Vol. 1” in Guardians for story purposes. But again: It’s like this other thing I know, but not as good.) Speaking of Boogie Nights, Gunn says instead of using “Come and Get Your Love” for the first scene, he almost used Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which is on the Boogie Nights soundtrack, one of the staple soundtracks in the video store I worked in during high school.
I know it seems like I’m being super-nitpicky. It’s not like movies should never use any songs that have ever been in any other movies. But the songs I’m complaining about here are either used really prominently in movies that paid extra attention to their (excellent) soundtracks, or songs that are carelessly thrown into lots of movies with obvious (terrible) soundtracks. Both are bad. If a movie is going to put its soundtrack so front-and-center, it should at least try and not compete with some of the best movie soundtracks out there—or make sure the songs are used in a different way than they are in those other movies. (Not to future movie music supervisors: If you use “Wild World” by Cat Stevens, you have to work so, so hard to make me forget Skins.) Even then, originality is better. And it’s frustrating, because Guardians of the Galaxy achieves that originality half the time—”I’m Not in Love” and “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” are more good choices—and just doesn’t the other half of the time. I can’t help but feel that it could’ve been as good as the Pulp Fiction soundtrack if it worked a little harder, but it fell short.
This is actually how I feel about Guardians of the Galaxy in general. I had a great time at the movie. I laughed out loud, and often. But, while it’s really, really good at doing what it does, what it does isn’t a mind-blowing revelation, or even all that original. Even the things I like about Guardians of the Galaxy remind me of other movies. It sticks to the Marvel formula. And the parts I didn’t like—the non-punchline punchlines that Jesse has taken flak for complaining about in the podcast (podcast podcast)—seem like they could’ve been better if someone had put a little bit more elbow grease into the movie. (I don’t even know if “I’m distracting you!” is supposed to get a laugh, but, even if it wasn’t, it’s a terrible line. How did that make it into the movie? Let’s have fewer characters narrate what they’re doing as they do it, please.) In short: I liked Guardians of the Galaxy a lot, I had a great time, but I don’t truly love it—which is extra frustrating, because I feel like it was possible to make a version of this movie that I truly loved with just a few tweaks.
This is especially frustrating at the moment, when the movie’s big box office is responsible for launching 1,000 what-studios-should-take-away trend pieces, attributing things to Guardians that Guardians took from better movies. Make a funnier, campier, more colorful comic book movie with a relatable hero that still has an emotional punch—isn’t that what Sam Raimi was doing in his Spider-Man trilogy? And didn’t people complain about the silliness of it? Especially about the scenes that include a certain 1969 pop song? YOU PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT.
Except Dancing Baby Groot. Everybody wants more of that. The song choice for that was perfect. That’s all Guardians, and it is genius.