I know this is going to make me sound like a crotchety old lady who can’t lighten up and have fun, but we need to talk about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack. After the first movie blew up and its playlist hit the top of the Billboard charts, I ranted against the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 soundtrack. As time passed, I worried that, by calling the songs overdone and overplayed, I might have been missing the point. Maybe they were supposed to be like that? In college, when it would get nice out and everyone would sit outside on blankets on the lawn with tiny radios to play music, my friends and I started piecing together what we called The Generic Mix Tape, with those decade-agnostic tracks that transcend musical taste, like “Sweet Home Alabama” or “The Hurricane.” Maybe I’d overlooked some subtle nuance, and director James Gunn had been commenting on those kinds of songs with his Guardians needle drops.
Enter Vol. 2. Nope, I was right the first time. (Warning: The rest contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)
Again, it’s not all bad. “Brandy You’re a Fine Girl” is an inspired choice, and I got a kick out of Ego Quill’s lyric analysis. And I give Gunn credit for using “The Chain” in a way that works thematically, but doesn’t actually describe what happens on screen (more on that in a minute).But then there are the Generic Mix Tape songs, which are churned up again in ways that don’t claim them as unique to Guardians. I agree with Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey that “Mr. Blue Sky” will forever and always belong to Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Not only did director Michel Gondry get it first, he did it better. Eternal Sunshine gives the song a depth of emotion that Vol.2 does not. Also, Baby Groot’s dancing (though delightful, as is everything about Baby Groot, which, as the mom of a toddler, is spot-on in its observance of kid behavior) didn’t seem to really match the beat of the song. I’d assumed the sequence was set to a track that they ultimately couldn’t get the rights to, but then I read in Rolling Stone that Gunn actually lobbied ELO to use “Mr. Blue Sky” specifically. The sequence is funny, but, if you aren’t going to use the pounding rhythm of “Mr. Blue Sky” for Groot’s actual movements, literally any other ELO song would’ve worked better to make the scene feel more unique—unless the only point was to get people who don’t really listen to music to say, “Hey, I know this song from Eternal Sunshine!” (It’s fitting that, for the descent into Ego’s planet, Gunn uses George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a song that got the former Beatle sued for essentially being a copy of something else.)
But more than serve up another helping of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s, the Vol. 2 soundtrack fails because everything is just so on-the-nose. Want to reveal that a character is actually a celestial god? There’s that use of “My Sweet Lord.” Rocket’s drawing bad guys into a trap as they creep toward his camp? There’s “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. And then there’s “Father and Son” by then-Cat Stevens. (Didn’t I warn you about using Cat Stevens last time? DIDN’T I?!) Holy hell. There’s an on-the-nose song with on-the-nose lyrics used to score a scene about—get this—fathers and sons. (But again, Baby Groot crawling into Quill’s lap to share his headphones, A+.) I get that the obviousness is the whole joke, but isn’t it kind of a surface-level joke, and shouldn’t we not praise it so much?
Only that Hasselhoff track at the end delighted me with its genuine weirdness, and that is something that can only come from the circumstances of that specific movie. It’s a shame it was buried after five post-credits sequences.
Leave it to someone smarter than me—Time’s Stephanie Zacharek—to phrase this whole thing more concisely in her review:
Great movie soundtracks can revitalize old, semi-forgotten songs. Sometimes our brains have to change shape to accommodate music we thought we knew well, and the effect can be staggering: Anybody who’s ever seen David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, for example, is never going to hear Roy Orbison’s 1963 “In Dreams”—that is, the “candy colored clown” song—without feeling a shiver. But the songs in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are just zombie footsoldiers—they’re let loose, blind and stumbling, one after another. Freed from their original contexts and given flimsy new ones, if any, they toil in the service of a movie that’s invested in little beyond smirking at its own jokes. These songs, good and bad, are prisoners of their own self-proclaimed awesome mix. If they were genuinely awesome, we’d know it without being told.
Exactly. And you can extrapolate that out to the movie in general. You can tell me this is the “funny” Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, but the more you have to tell me, the shallower the humor feels. And you can name your movie after your mix tape, but if you fill it with songs that any Dorito lover with headphones can bop their head to in appreciation without acknowledging that you’re making the Generic Mix Tape, you can’t call it clever.