As a storytelling device, music is necessary, but tricky. If a film depends too heavily on a soundtrack, it feels like hand-holding; if the music is miscued, it can ruin the pace; if music is too scarce, a film can feel listless. If there’s one superhero franchise whose soundtrack has effectively managed to straddle the line between narrative functionality and subtle resonance, it’s Guardians of the Galaxy. While the emotional manipulation of a soundtrack can feel artificial, the music of Guardians 2 works primarily because it is used against its protagonist, as well as its audience.
In the first Guardians movie, Peter’s music was something for his ears only, his first Awesome Mix mostly confined to the headphones of his Walkman. In the second film, Vol. 2 plays loudly through the speakers of the Milano at any given point, including in the midst of a Sovereign-fueled space fight. Even some of the other Guardians formulate their most effective plans with his music on their minds. ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” provides the backdrop to an adorable introduction to Baby Groot, of course, but it also represents the other Guardians’ tacit acceptance of Peter’s tunes as their battle anthem. Not all of the movie’s music cues serve to elicit a sense of community, however; one of its most persisting ballads is equally nostalgic and sinister.
While the Guardians find themselves operating differently under the influence of Peter’s Earth tunes, the film’s most devastating storyline unveils that Quill’s father is weaponizing familiar, beloved songs to manipulate his own son into sympathizing with his twisted vision of the universe. Looking Glass’s “Brandy” tells the linear story of a barmaid and a sailor, but Ego uses it to spin his own tale of courting Peter’s mother, putting himself in the shoes of the wandering lover in order to make it all seem more romantic. In his mind, Ego genuinely considers himself a man in love, and for a brief period of time he’s able to convince Peter of that narrative too. It’s what makes him as dangerous a villain as he is a tragic paternal figure. The idealist in Peter wants to believe that his parents did have a genuine, albeit short-lived, love story, and perhaps a piece of Ego’s infinite being did harbor something resembling love for Peter’s mother, but it was eclipsed by the shadow of his scheming.
Ego’s manipulation of Peter’s remaining tie to his mother–the music she left behind– makes his pivotal betrayal heart-rending, perhaps even more than the physical destruction of Peter’s old Walkman. Until that moment, those carefully curated songs were also a glimpse into a world that Peter lost the day his mother died, music she associated with happy memories. With the reveal that he was the one who created the tumor that eventually led to Meredith’s death, Ego retroactively casts the film’s initial sunny flashback in a much more ominous light. Audience reactions to this twist are frequently audible, visceral. We have been deceived too, and that changes the course of the film. As we reassess the dynamic between father and son Peter must also reconsider his own identity: how does he relate to the soundtrack of his life, even as he grows in his relationships with his new chosen family, including Yondu, the unlikeliest of adoptive fathers?
Most of the music in this outing highlights Peter evolving beyond his earthly ties and reevaluating his personal definition of family in the wake of a emotional upheaval. In a sense, the music of Guardians 2 intrinsically shapes the audience in many of the same ways that it influences the Guardians. Ultimately, Peter’s music becomes much more meaningful when he stops keeping it to himself and starts playing it for his friends. In doing so, he alters his associations that were once tainted by the betrayal of his father. He can’t change the fact that Ego used his mother’s mixtape to manipulate him, but he can look to the future and redefine those familiar songs with those he truly cares about.
One of the most unexpectedly powerful moments of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t actually a scene where the music is particularly rousing. Significantly, the first track Peter chooses to listen to on the Zune that’s replaced his destroyed Walkman is a song he picks for himself, without any ties to the past. The song, “Father and Son”, gives the Guardians and the audience by proxy permission to sit back and take stock of everything that’s just happened. “Just relax, take it easy,” Cat Stevens soothingly croons, and Peter does. Looking out at the galaxy, surrounded by his new family, Peter thinks about the father he never had as well as the father he never knew he had all along.
The Guardians Cast Make Their Own Awesome Mix:
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