This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Benjamin’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Lots has already been said here about Ego, the structure, the characters etc. I’m going to touch on a part of the Guardians films I see get much less attention.
The music. Of course, the music in both Guardians films is a widely praised element. But, again for both films, that praise basically all boils down to “Gunn made a great mixtape”. Today, I want to talk more about the ways in which, Guardians 2 specifically, utilizes its fantastic soundtrack to influence character decisions, character arcs, tone, drama and comedy throughout the film.
For anyone, who needs a refresher on the film, It follows Peter Quill(Starlord), and his band of misfits directly after the events of the first film and features Peter meeting his father and everything else effectively stems from there. I’m going to go through the film, focusing specifically on every scene in which music plays a large part and dissecting the ways in which Gunn uses this music to further his story.
The film opens with “Brandy” playing over a bit of exposition providing us a decent look at the relationship between Ego(Peter’s Dad) and Meredith Quill(Peter’s mom). Brandy establishes immediately that this film will have a slightly more folksy soundtrack, and the backdrop of a car-ride through a field when this song first plays is not a coincidence. If Guardians 1 was about Peter coming to terms with turning away from his mother in her final moments, this is about reconciling the man he is trying to become with his heritage. This opening scene establishes all of this. The folksy Brandy, not only perfectly encapsulates Ego’s goals, it establishes the Earth that Peter would like to remember. This is immediately juxtaposed with a magical alien flower that Ego plants on earth. The alien flower blossoms and begins to spread across the ground. Like Ego himself, the flower is beautiful yet holds great destruction. The beauty and extravagance of the alien flower begins to corrupt the natural simplicity and purity of the perfect Kansas that Peter never even knew.
This leads directly into modern day, as Peter and the Guardians prepare to fight a gigantic tentacle monster. What is brilliant about this scene, is that once the monster actually shows up, baby Groot finally succeeds at turning on the music, and most of the rest of the sequence is dedicated to baby Groot dancing around to Mr. Blue Sky. The choice to focus not on the monster, but on the adorable antics of baby Groot make it clear right away that this superhero movie isnt that concerned with its action, it cares about how its characters are feeling. Throughout the scene every main character gets to have an interaction with groot. These interactions highlight both the good and the bad of their personalities at the same time. Gamora, even when death is on the line can no longer ignore the pain of innocents(which will play in again towards the end) and pauses to give him a little wave. Rocket makes sure hes safe and okay but does so in a rather aggressive and unkind way. Drax is the only one who doesnt get to have a true interaction with groot in this way, and this is because Groot seems to have some fear of drax(which will also come back by the end of the film). And so, what could have been a cool looking but ultimately generic CGI superhero battle, is instead something that sets up the character arcs for every main character, and still manages to be delightfully fun to watch.
Much like Brandy, The Chain also comes back later in the film and serves to symbolize Peter’s Journey. When it first plays, he reluctantly goes with Ego, He is looking for love. Looking for something he thinks he needs, something he thinks he never got before. And this is symbolized by the song. Playing this as he makes the choice to go with Ego cements this as Peter’s anthem of sorts. The lyrics of the song basically spell out Peter’s problem. He, (and yondu), need to break the cycle of abuse, and at this point he is too enamored by the idea of a father that he cannot break the cycle. By the time it plays again, he has grown. He has realized who he is, who he loves, who has always loved him and who is family truly is. He is ready to break the chain.
I really want to talk about Gunn’s use of music in his fight scenes. The first great fight scene in the movie, at least IMO, comes when Rocket is left alone in the forest to fend off an army of Ravagers. The song “Southern Nights” plays underneath a fight scene that features rocket sneaking around, placing traps, and going out of his way to toy with his enemies. There are a bunch of things that make this great. First off, the fact that he picked a very folksy song like Southern Nights is very in keeping with the theme, and tone of the film and gives the fight a very specific vibe. But more than that it establishes right off the bat that despite Rockets efforts to distance everyone from him, he has taken a liking to Quill’s music and by extension Quill. Tonally its brilliant as well, because Southern Nights is an explicitly loving compassionate song, and in a bit of brilliant juxtaposition the fight scene showcases Rocket’s pure viciousness.
The absolute BEST part of this is that it directly parallels Yondu later. Yondu’s fight on the Ravager shop set to “Come a little bit Closer” is a fight set to a deeply joyous and loving song, featuring outlandish and overtly cruel violence, as two of our characters(Yondu and Rocket) are given association by their music, and their actions. Later the film will directly and openly acknowledge how similar they are. It serves as one of the emotional climaxes of the film. It would work fine even if they hadn’t been connected via a parallel within the films visual and audio language, but since they were it hits even harder.
The one side of the musical choices in Guardians 2 that we have yet to talk about, with the exception of its use of brandy, are the songs Gunn picks to play over slow scenes, most notably, Yondu’s Funeral, and Quill and Gamora dancing. Gunn fully understands that there need to be slower, softer moments in his film and that those moments still need music. His use of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on home to me” is used to further emphasize Quill’s fragility and childish behavior. He exaggerates, making extreme claims, like that Sam Cooke was the best earth singer of all time, in an effort to talk up and share something that he loves with the woman he loves. This song, and his love of it is used to show how he has not thrown off his childish behaviors yet and leads to a confrontation with gamora that further reinforces this fact. The use of this song also represents a moment of profound character growth for Gamora, as despite her better interest, despite her annoyance with Quill, and despite her being described earlier in the film as “Not a dancer”, in an effort to participate in the thing Quill wants to share with her, she dances. Its just a little dance. But she dances. She recognizes his attempt to share and responds. This subtle little moment indicates the two of them both trying to acquiese to each others needs. Quill by sharing something personal, and Gamora by listening. It is a very solid moment in their arc towards solving “that unspoken thing”.
The Funeral scene is arguably the movies most famous moment, and the use of Father and Son in this moment is almost shamelessly manipulative, and yet at the same time perfectly encapsulates Quill(and rocket)’s journey. It underscores a beautiful moment beautifully and lends even more weight to Quills journey.
I mentioned earlier that I think Gunn has created much more than simply a kickass mixtape. I think thus far I have proved this, and yet at the same time it truly is a kickass mixtape. Even moments that have less thematic relevance like My Sweet Lord set the tone in a palpable way. Hell, a strong argument could even be made for My Sweet Lord having some thematic significance in that the lyrics tie into Peter's hope that this all isn't going to come crashing down upon him. And even if we wanted to simply see the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 as a kickass mixtape, it is absolutely worth noting that creating a hard-hitting mixtape isn’t easy. There are so many films that try to include licensed music, but have no idea how to play it, when to play it or why to play it and the music itself is rarely congruous. The Shrek soundtrack is most notable for being effectively everything the filmmakers thought that they could throw at the wall and have stick. By comparison, every song in Guardians 2 feels more or less in the same vein as the others. This continuity helps stabilize the film, especially as it struggles to find its feet in the first act. It builds tone, and atmosphere almost better than anything else in the film.
And this is where Gunn shines. He successfully uses music to establish character, tone, theme, and even connect characters two each other through a shared love of music. Sure, Gunn may have made a kickass mixtape. But he also made a kickass film.