Over a century old, superheroes are inextricably rooted in nostalgia. We usually meet them first when we’re kids, growing up with them and building memories – which character we first rooted for, which villain we first hated, who we first dressed up as for Halloween (or any given Tuesday).
While it’s exhilarating to see characters from the page brought to life in a modern faddish flurry, something almost always gets lost in translation when some of them are “updated” for our modern world. Acknowledging that these are beings of another time, even ever so slightly, helps make these films feel like an experience instead of just another blockbuster.
A prime example? The Guardians of the Galaxy, which figured out a way not only to combine action, drama, humor and heart, but also figured out a way to infuse a great sense of nostalgia thanks to a soundtrack full of funky beats from the 1970s.
Obviously kids growing up during this decade will not directly relate to these “old school” tunes, but the fact that director James Gunn (who wrote almost every song into the script) and music supervisor Dave Jordan (who was tasked with getting them cleared) knew that going the old school route with the soundtrack would make Guardians feel (and sound) like it was pulled out of someone’s childhood.
So why draw music specifically from the 1970s? It not only speaks to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) childhood (as a kid growing up in the ‘80s), but it also speaks to the decade when the majority of the Guardians were created and works as a nice, subtle nod to their origins.
Music is a powerful force, especially when it comes to evoking memories or creating an emotional connection between audiences and the characters on screen. When a young Quill (Wyatt Oleff) faces the reality of losing his mom (Laura Haddock), you feel desperation for Quill, but using music to represent their relationship creates a palpable connection the audience can relate to, not just empathize with. It also allows for us to discover new dimensions of that connection with different tunes conveniently available for any kind of emotional scene.
There are certain songs that immediately take you back to the first time you heard them, making Quill’s obsession with the mix tape, “Awesome Mix Vol. 1,” his mom shared with him something that is easy to understand. We hang on to items left to us by lost loved ones because of the bridge they create, and the music she gave young Star Lord brings him right back into those memories.
Playing a sad song during a sad scene is not revolutionary, but playing one that a moody teenager going through a breakup is more likely to listen to (more than a young boy on the verge of losing a parent) makes things more interesting. 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” is not an obvious choice to play over a scene of a kid sitting in a hospital trying to accept his mom’s death, but the key is the song is not playing over the scene; it is playing through Quill’s Walkman headphones. This song is a part of the story he and his mom share. “I’m Not In Love” sounds sad and melancholy, and from that perspective, it is exactly the song a young Quill would choose to listen to in this moment.
When we meet adult Quill, he is still listening to that same Walkman, showing that it has become a staple of his everyday life. You may not expect an adult living in the outer recesses of the galaxy in 2014 would be listening to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” but knowing who introduced him to that song (and the undeniably catchy beat) gives it more meaning because, even when he’s dancing through toxic abandoned planets, it shows he’s still thinking about his family. He’s hunting for intergalactic treasure, but what he cares about most is already on his head and hip.
It’s easy to focus on the Infinity Stone as the MacGuffin, but it’s clearly the cassette that’s the most important object of the movie. Quill is alone with his aural memories in the beginning, content with incidental relationships with girls who he forgets are on his ship. Then, throughout an adventure he didn’t ask for, he grows close enough to his bizarre new team to share the most important sounds in the universe with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and then with everyone else. It signals his evolved willingness to open himself again to the kinds of relationships that hurt the most when they’re lost.
More than anything else, these 70s jams are not just songs Gunn and Jordan thought would make the soundtrack cool; they add up to a compilation of thoughtfully selected songs full of memories and meaning, and that is what makes it not only a hip, unique soundtrack, but one that is perfect when watching these superheroes brought to life. Quill hangs onto his childhood every day, and Gunn and Jordan bring that feeling to life with every song Quill chooses to share with us.