Summer came to a close this past Labor Day weekend, and with it so too did the summer movie season. Emerging at the top in both box office intake and critical acclaim is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The motion picture soundtrack is also faring well.
The “Awesome Mix” of cheesy ‘70s and ‘80s pop hits (cheesy in the best way) reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart last month. Hollywood Records was smart enough to release a deluxe edition album featuring the throwback tunes on one C.D. and the film’s original score on another.
How are the double discs? Put on your stereo headphones, fire up your Sony Walkman, and let’s find out. (Yes, all musical lingo for this critique will be era accurate.)
DISC 1: THE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK
Guardians of the Galaxy (hereafter referred to as G.O.T.G.) is a fun, odd sci-fi romp and this set o’ songs is no different.
Would you ever expect to hear “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” in a comic book flick overflowing with spaceships and alien cultures? Neither would I, yet it meshes well with Star-Lord’s rescue of Gamora. Also a good fit is Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which accentuates the couple’s flirtations.
A dancing tree. A gun-toting raccoon. A tattooed tough guy who literally takes every spoken word LIT-te-ruh-lee. The Guardians are not your typical, mainstream heroes and their eclecticism is reflected well in this equally eclectic compilation. It’s because of this think-outside-the-box approach, however, that the album suffers from a couple of obvious picks such as Blue Swede’s famous “Hooked on a Feeling” cover.
Now don’t get me wrong — I like to ooga-chaka as much as the next listener. I liked it better, though, before it became the go-to soundtrack choice for music supervisors everywhere, re: Reservoir Dogs, Ally McBeal, the definitive oeuvre of David Hasselhoff. What would’ve been more refreshing to include is the less known, attitude-infused “Hooked” remix heard in the G.O.T.G. trailer.
As overplayed as the song may be, it’s still a great, catchy earworm. What’s not so catchy is David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.“ The Ziggy Stardust jingle is appropriately creepy and surreal for the scene it accompanies — a jaunt inside a Celestial’s decapitated head hollowed-out by an interstellar black market. Having said that — and this would be the part of the review where, despite trying, yours truly is unable to maintain an objective frame of mind — the song makes my ears bleed.
Even with these reasons to fast-forward your cassette, this pop song collection is still a success due to its reason for being. I don’t mean its function as a corporate cash-grab. That’s a given. I mean its service to the movie.
The soundtrack is entitled “Awesome Mix vol. 1” in honor of the don’t-leave-home-without-it mix tape that Star-Lord, A.K.A. Peter Quill, A.K.A. Chris Pratt, plays throughout the film on his Walkman. The music choices are his music choices (more accurately his mom’s). They’re not “choices” inflicted upon the filmmakers that result in parent-company-approved up-and-coming musicians normally wedged into albums like these.
This is why calling it vol. 1 doesn’t feel like a commercial for vol. 2. As anyone would know from seeing the movie, a second volume actually does exist and we’ll get to hear it in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which will hopefully not be named Guardians of the Galaxy 2 due to Sequel-title-itis.
DISC 2: THE MOVIE SCORE
Chris Pratt’s character isn’t the only one blissfully stuck in the 1980s with his Awesome Mix and Alyssa Milano–named starship, so too is composer Tyler Bates, frequent collaborator of director James Gunn. Bates makes his M.C.U. debut with melodies right out of a Cheese Whizzed sci-fi B-movie and that’s not an insult.
The Last Starfighter and Masters of the Universe, guilty pleasures in heavy rotation during H.B.O.’s early years, are tonally felt throughout G.O.T.G., both in picture and sound. (So too is Disney’s The Black Hole, as evident by the two-tiered guns given to Pratt by Gunn.)
Gunn and Bates seem to take their cues most notably from 1980’s Flash Gordon, a camp classic of provolone proportions. With its combo of Queen rock songs and psychedelic instrumentals, Gordon put the opera in space opera and that tradition continues with G.O.T.G.
Right from track #1 (“Morag”), Bates delivers a cheeky self-aware score that hits all the right notes (pun… intended). When the movie calls for noble heroics, Bates comes through with “Ballad of the Nova Corps.” When the stakes are raised to life and death levels, he gives us the appropriately creepy “Ronan’s Theme” replete with ominous choir.
The Guardians’ main theme isn’t as hummable as a John Williams leitmotif, but it more than gets the job done. Listen to “The Final Battle Begins” (track #2) back to back with “Black Tears” (track #27) to hear what I mean.
What’s the difference between good cinematic cheese and bad cinematic cheese other than a wink to the audience? One word — emotion.
Unlike Masters of the Universe or even Marvel’s own Thor: The Dark World with its unintentionally cheese curdling compositions, G.O.T.G. has heart. This heart is shared by all five Guardians, but most notably by walking/talking Ent-like Groot. His core sentiment shines through in tracks #23 and #26, a pleasant surprise given how unappealing their names are — “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon.” Eww.
All in all, the deluxe albums for Guardians of the Galaxy compliment not only the film, but also each other. Songs and score never clash. Instead they work together like the Guardians themselves eventually do… to save the galaxy… one note… at a time.
Did that closing line make you want to slice up a block of Cracker Barrel extra sharp cheddar?