by Jake Fauske
Great movies almost always have great soundtracks. Whether a Hans Zimmer score such as in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, or something like Kubrick’s haunting selections on 2001: A Space Odyssey, iconic movies garner iconic sounds to go with them. While scores and soundtracks are often written around movie scenes, in order to match the tone of what the director has shot or written, the reverse can sometimes be true as well. One style may not be better than the other, but in recent years, a blending of the two styles seems to be the perfect combination. The soundtracks of big budget movies, more specifically in the superhero genre, have proved to be vital success factors. While Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy carries more classic Zimmer scores, 2008’s Iron Man brought back the titular Black Sabbath theme song, and solidified the need for an iconic, moving defining track, or series of tracks, that can act as the hero’s calling card to moviegoers. While many movies in the hero genre have followed the trend, it is truly identifiable in the Iron Man Trilogy, Black Panther, both Guardians of the Galaxy, and most recently, Sony’s Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the newest Spiderman give audiences an excellent opportunity to understand how much better the movie experience can be when the movie and music are woven together seamlessly, and were developed hand in hand.
Let’s start with James Gunn’s 2014 epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. As early as 2013, when Gunn announced that Tyler Bates would be writing the score, audiences were tipped to an interesting feature about the movie. Gunn revealed that Bates would be writing pieces of the score before any of the movie was filmed, so he could, “film to the music” as opposed to the scoring around the film. Bates’ pre-score, as well as the hand selected 60’s and 70’s classic songs, would go on to help Gunn shape the movie, scene by scene. The process he worked by was simple: Gunn would build a playlist from half-remembered popular songs on the Billboard charts in the 60’s and 70’s, and then blast the songs on speakers around his house for days. From these listening sessions, he would then sometimes be inspired to create a scene around a song, writing each moment to a verse or chord. Other times he would already have a scene in mind, and would comb through that same playlist, replaying the scene with each song until he visualized a match. Peter Quill’s eccentric introduction is a prime example of Gunn’s auditory magic:
The first time the audience meets the character, Peter’s true intro comes after several minutes of long buildup as he treks through a seemingly deserted planet. Then, his Walkman clicks into place and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” starts playing as the title card appears and Star-lord begins to dance. Gunn admits that he wrote the scene with Blue Swede’s rendition of “Hooked on a Feeling” in mind, yet was fixated on “Come and Get Your Love” when he heard it, and reworked the dance when they realized it was a better fit. Regardless of which iconic song was used, as both end up in the film, moviegoers are unlikely to forget Star-lord’s introduction or the film itself, with such a memorable open. A half-remembered ballad from years ago, Gunn’s choice of Redbone’s song instantly has the audience singing along to a song they weren’t even aware they knew, and looking forward to what action, and music, the rest of the movie has in store. And let’s not forget, the climax of the film is a dance off for the galaxy!
Gunn and Bates repeated their dynamic combination for the 2017 sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, with Bates writing parts of the score first, allowing Gunn to film to the music. The pair also broadened their song selection, choosing some big-hitting famous classics and other, lesser known masterpieces that allowed Gunn to showcase not only his personal range for music taste, but also the emotional range of his characters and scenes, as they were built to reflect the soundtrack. Let’s look at the opening sequence to the sequel as well:
No longer an introduction per say, but a reintroduction to characters we already love, a quick catch up to let us know they are right where we left them. An adorable baby Groot replaces Star-Lord as the dancer this time around, with Electric Light Orchestra’s mega-hit Mr. Blue Sky taking the title card slot, and again Gunn has every audience member singing and dancing along with a baby tree, four minutes into the movie, with no hint of what the rest of the film is about. Music adds emotion, engagement, even a certain power to a scene, and Gunn acknowledges this at the end of the opening credits, when Drax falls through Groot’s speaker, cutting off our sing-along and enraging baby Groot to the point of attacking his own teammate. This wink at the audience lets us know that the director agrees, life is more fun with a good song attached. Though there are too many great examples to touch on, I would be remiss to not bring up the pivotal, dramatic team split-up moment in Guardians 2, as half the team elects to go with Peter and his newly found dad, Ego, while the other half stays to repair the ship. As Quill, Drax, and Gamora walk down the ramp, in tasteful slow motion, Fleetwood Mac wails The Chain in the background, as an auditory representation of the inner-team turmoil. In an post-release interview, Gunn mentions specifically picking that song to represent, “the bonds of love potentially breaking, or not breaking”. Because not only does he use the song there, but he brings it back again in the film’s climax, signifying to audiences that no, that figurative chain will not break, and that the Guardians will prevail. With the selection of The Chain, Gunn had two of the biggest moments of his film already set, waiting to be flushed out around those guitar chords and drum beats. I still can’t get that scene out of my head.
Here’s part of the interview:
For those of you that have seen the Guardians movies, what do you think of the soundtracks? Do you sing along? Is it too much?
For those of you that haven’t seen them, get on it.
Now let’s switch gears and talk about a film we viewed in class: 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In addition to a lovely score written by Daniel Pemberton, Pemberton and directors Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman curated a soundtrack released in conjunction with the film entitled Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Soundtrack from & Inspired by the Motion Picture). Not the most original name admittedly but, not only are these songs used in the movie as a backdrop to the heroic feats of action done by Miles Morales and his spider-compatriots, but they exist in his universe as well. In fact, the album was curated to “represent what a teen like Morales would listen to”. Each track is an attempt to represent Miles’ diverse background, the melting pot of his version of New York City, the current “pulse”, so to speak. Even the “alternate dimension” Chance the Rapper posters and billboards placed around the movie (his heraldic 3 hat switched to a 4 to remind us that this universe is not our own) speak to the musical detail placed in this film.
Take our first meeting with Miles, as he blasts Post Malone’s dream ballad “Sunflower” on his headphones, and sings along to ~ most ~ of the worst, if not all, just like we would to a radio hit when it comes up on shuffle or in the car on the way to work. From it, we can instantly identify with Miles, and maybe even begin to like him from the jump, if that’s your music taste (I know it’s mine):
“Sunflower” is used as a sort of focal point for Miles, as he is able to relax and worry less when he hears it, just as the audience does. It even helps him “unstick” from the ceiling in Doc Oct’s lab later in the movie as he and Peter B. Parker make a daring break-in. When all is said and done, and the day is saved, Miles is right back on his bed, headphones on, listening to Post Malone and Swae Lee again, the song reminding him that everything is right in the world. Throughout the movie, songs from the track list can be heard on radios, from cars, in headphones, and in the case of the super important (but not for the reasons you think) spider bite/graffiti scene, even on an old school boombox complete with an awesome master-mix of The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” meets Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours”. Music and art are some of the biggest parts of our protagonist’s life and the film runners do an excellent job of allowing the audience to experience each aspect right along with Miles:
I’m not sure about everyone else, but I was almost enjoying the graffitiing and song mix too much to be nervous about the freaky-looking spider. That’s how powerful music can be in film.
Its’ not groundbreaking news that music is powerful, or that the right song can make a movie scene unforgettable. But my goal here is to highlight how prevalent it’s become in the superhero genre, without even touching on heavy hitters like Black Panther, who used an almost identical style to Spider-Verse by letting industry heavyweight and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar curate an album to accompany the film. The industry is leaning hard into the emotional impact that the right sounds can illicit, both by creating new ones and delving back into the past to find the perfect match. I believe we will continue to see this shift, with big name directors enlisting the help of hot artists, letting them design the accompanying sounds tracks to drum up media attention and hone in on that perfect tone the movie is seeking. Who knows, it might even break out of just the super hero genre.
What do you all think?
What’s your favorite soundtrack? Not including musicals of course, otherwise the original version of The Lion King is always the best answer, (though I will always accept Lion King 1 ½ ).