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[The CHIRP Radio Movie Collection documents great movies that feature musicians or the use of music in storytelling.]
The Plot: In the cosmic depths of the Marvel Universe, a human scrapper assembles a team of thieves and bounty hunters to recover a weapon capable of destroying the galaxy.
[VERY MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
Look at it in the right light and Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie about the dark side of wish fulfillment. After all, what red-blooded American twelve-year-old doesn’t dream of taking to the stars and becoming a Flash Gordon-by-way-of-Han Solo style vagabond?
That’s just what happens to Peter Quill (who takes the name Star Lord to celebrate his transition from middle-schooler to space pirate) and, while he seems to enjoy gallivanting across the cosmos, he never manages to sever the connection between himself and what made the earth special to him: his family.
Guardians is a movie with two MacGuffins. First, there’s The Orb, known as the Power Stone to the greater Marvel Universe, a standard sci-fi plot device described as being able to “mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field.” It does a fine job of moving the story forward and it makes some seriously cool purple sparks when it’s activated, but beyond that The Orb is not all that interesting. Swap it out with, say, The Tesseract from Guardians’ sister film The Avengers and nothing really changes. Quill even breaks the fourth wall a bit mid-movie, mentioning that The Orb has a “Maltese Falcon, Arc of the Covenant vibe.” See also: The Holy Grail, the Death Star Plans, the One Ring.
The other MacGuffin is more interesting in no small part because it’s also the soundtrack to the film. When Quill is sucked into space, he’s holding a mixtape labeled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1,” a gift from his mother. It becomes his last tether to earth culture-to his past. Quill struggles valiantly to protect The Orb, but the only time he gets truly emotional is when he’s forced to fight for that mixtape. When he’s arrested by the Nova Corps and the Awesome Mix is taken away, it’s almost as though he degenerates back into his twelve year old self. “That song belongs to me!” he cries, his voice breaking.
For most of us, the music we listen to changes as we get older, but this isn’t the case for Quill. He missed his Heavy Metal phase. He missed discovering Hip-Hop and his snobby, Indie-rock 20s. He’s still listening to the same mixtape he had when he was thirteen, clinging to the memory of his mom. On the surface, these songs are a randomly compiled jumble of classic rock and pop, but consider the reason Quill is still listening to them when there’s an infinite frontier of space-adventures to distract him and it’s clear that, as much he hates to admit it, he still yearns for family.
It isn’t long before that yearning, encapsulated in the Awesome Mix, seeps its way into the plot. Quill risks everything to recover the Awesome Mix from The Kyln, and in the climax of the movie it’s “O-O-H Child” by The Five Stairsteps that distracts arch-villain Ronan the Accuser long enough for Quill to snatch The Orb. (The emotional MacGuffin trumps the plot-vital super weapon. Imagine that.)
Director James Gunn deserves a lot of the credit for embedding the Awesome Mix into Guardians of the Galaxy’s DNA. It’s hard to think of better example of a movie so seamlessly rocking its soundtrack back and forth between diegetic (Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” playing from Quill’s stereo) and non-diegetic (The Runaways’ "Cherry Bomb" playing as the backdrop to a “suiting up” montage) then dovetailing into the score.
That’s a wild trick, especially for a movie expected to Borg back into the same expanded universe as Captain America, but it all works in part because Awesome Mix Volume 1 is Guardians of the Galaxy. It represents Peter Quill’s loneliness, and, in a broader sense, the search for family. That makes it all the more poignant when, during the film’s wrap-up beats, Quill discovers Awesome Mix Volume 2 in an old package from his mother. New songs-a fresh start.
Quill is finally able to move on from his Han Soloish lonerism and find new life as a member of the Guardians. Profound stuff for a movie co-starring a machine-gun-toting raccoon. No wonder the sequel, planned for 2017, is called Guardians of the Galaxy Volume II.
Another mix = Another adventure. Rock on Peter.
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