We all love music. We all love movies.
Many people have tried to bring these two worlds together, but have been met with varying results. Music, when used effectively and almost surgically, can be used to tell a story. There are ways to do that in a powerful way. There are others so bad the music drowns out the message of the film, and that’s never good.
There are various types of soundtracks that occur in movies. Consider this the beginning of a blog series to tackle them all.
Think about Baby Driver, GOTG Vol. 1 and 2, or any Tarantino film. These are what are considered “Music-Structured Movies.”
We understand there are other ways to use music but helps shape and convey a story in ways other films are not capable of doing.
For example, let’s take one of my all time favorite movies: Guardians of The Galaxy, Vol. 2, which does everything a music structured movie should do.
The music clearly enhances the action and emotion of each scene, while simultaneously allowing particular songs to become thematically relevant or cue character change.
A great music-structured movie uses its music to tell a story as effectively as a great cinematographer uses visuals to tell a story.
The film opens with “Brandy” playing over a bit of exposition, which provides a glimpse at the relationship between Ego (Peter’s Dad) and Meredith Quill (Peter’s mom). This scene looks, sounds, and feels great because of the music. We are introduced to several plot details, all connected to the 1972 Looking Glass song.
Of course, we discover later in the film when Ego and Peter bond over the song, they are truly bonding over Meredith. This is a bit of subtext that is never directly stated in the movie, but anyone who cares to look a little deeper at it understands the reference.
Ego suggests “Brandy’ is perhaps Earth’s greatest musical composition. Peter looks joyful and almost tears up. He has conflated his mother with the songs she introduced to him as a child. Ego does too. And all of this is communicated in repeated uses throughout the film. That is the power of music in a movie.
Runnin’ Down the Avenue
Music, as we see and learn in GOTG Vol. 2, is great for setting mood and tone.
Right after that opening scene involving with Ego and Meredith, we get one of the most famous scenes from the movie: a fight scene with an inter-dimensional tentacle monster set to “Mr. Blue Sky.”
There are many brilliant things about this scene. First and foremost, the choice to center it around Baby Groot dancing to the music in the foreground rather than the fight happening in the background. Immediately, this movie is distinguished from most action films, which are, obviously, concerned with action.
GOTG Vol. 2 establishes the journey into emotions, specifically about family. “Mr. Blue Sky” establishes a perky, fun tone in this scene where we see each member of the Guardians serving as a parent to Baby Groot in one way or another. Rocket gives him tough love. Peter is sweet. Gamora waves sweetly at him. Drax continues to fight, but is not really accepted by Baby Groot at this point (this will be important later).
An opening action sequence with very few words, set to another ’70s classic, and focusing on a dancing baby tree sets up basically all of the emotional tension for the rest of the film.
Fighting Back (Again)
Much like “Brandy” did in the opening scene, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” comes back later in the film to symbolize Peter’s journey. When it first plays, he reluctantly goes with Ego, leaving Rocket behind him. Why? He is looking for love, which is something he thinks he needs, something he thinks he never has received before. This is symbolized by the song.
By the time it plays again, he has grown up and understood his place in life–who he is, who he loves, who has always loved him, and who is family truly is. This punctuated best by Ego shouting: “If you do this, you’ll be only human!” You remember Peter’s words later in the film to respond to that: “What’s so wrong with that?”
As we run through each of these songs, their repeated use, and tonal importance in the film, we hope it is clear how James Gunn structures his movie around the music. It’s masterful how he incorporates music to tell this story.
This includes how well he adapts the music to all the fight scenes. The first great fight scene in the movie, at least IMO, comes when Rocket is left alone in the forest to fend off an army of Ravagers.
The song “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell plays underneath a fight scene that features rocket sneaking around, placing traps, and going out of his way to toy with his enemies.
There are several things that make this scene great. First off, Gunn chose a folksy song to keep with the movie’s theme he established. This gives the fight a very specific vibe. It establishes that despite Rocket’s efforts to distance everyone from him, he has taken a liking to Quill’s music, and by extension, Quill.
Tonally, this is brilliant because “Southern Nights” is an explicitly loving and compassionate song. With some excellent juxtaposition, the fight scene showcases Rocket’s pure viciousness while we listen to Glen Campbell.
The absolutely best part of this directly parallels Yondu later.
Yondu’s fight on the Ravager ship, set to “Come a Little Bit Closer,” is a fight featuring outlandish and overtly cruel violence, as two of our main characters (Yondu and Rocket) are given association by their music and their actions. Later, the film will directly and openly acknowledge how similar they are.
It serves as one of the emotional climaxes of the film. It would work fine even if they hadn’t been connected via a parallel within the films’ visual and audio language, but since they were, it hits even harder.
Overall, James Gunn (along with people like Tarantino and Edgar Wright) knows how to structure his films around his music. It is proof that particular songs connected with the storyline can sustain the film’s interest, tone, and pacing, while also providing thematic connections between characters and symbolizing character growth.
It is without a doubt the best example of a music-structured movie and proof why music really matters in film.