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Guardians of the Galaxy: The Art of Awesome Music

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The mega-hit’s retro soundtrack leaves sci-fi moviegoers hooked on a feeling...

I personally like to think of it as a rather expensive, two-hour ode to the mix tape.

The word “awesome” gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes, though, it’s the perfect fit. Like the feeling you have listening to a great mixed tape, one made by someone else just for you. Awesome mix tapes — whether on actual tape or more “modern” burned CD — have become pretty much obsolete in our age of digital music listening. Until last year, that is, when Guardians of the Galaxy brought back the genre with its soundtrack, Awesome Mix Vol. 1.

I know that Guardians of the Galaxy is a Hollywood superheroes-in-space movie from our friends at Marvel. But I personally like to think of it as a rather expensive, two-hour ode to the mix tape. Because the real reason this album topped the Billboard charts (becoming the first No. 1 soundtrack ever that didn’t have any new songs on it) is because the very concept of the mix tape was at the heart of the movie.

 “That song belongs to me!”

As the many, many moviegoers who helped earn GotG more than $700 million worldwide will recall, the film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, the swashbuckling space salvager who was abducted from Earth at age eight. In the very first shot of the film, a young Peter is clutching a Walkman, and listening to a cassette mix made by his dying mom. Throughout the movie, adult Peter will keep this tape player near, even risking his life for it. It represents not just the memory of his mother, and of home, but the power of an intimate relationship with the music itself. There’s a special connection to be had with the tunes we listen to on our mobile devices; they become the running soundtrack to our own experiences. Quill gets this. As he cries out to a character who would dare snatch away the Walkman, “That song belongs to me!”

The songs themselves are mostly soft-rock hits from the 1970s and 1980s, with a few big names (David Bowie, Jackson 5) alongside acts mostly lost to the sands of time. Tracks such as “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” no doubt inspired waves of nostalgia for viewers over 50 who grew up with them on the radio. But the collection as a whole hit the mark for several generations of music lovers, who bought the soundtrack en masse when it hit record store shelves and iTunes last summer.

Chalk that up to the way in which these songs were used in the story, reminding us how much music plays a part in our own road trips, our fitness training, and of course, that sweet moment when you place your headphones onto an object of your affection to share a favourite song. The music in GotG is woven into the action; the songs matter to the scene. There is also a proper score (composed by Tyler Bates), but it’s the pop music that provides the soundtrack.

Director James Gunn picked the songs himself, and by all accounts was given surprisingly free rein to place them in the film’s storyline. He isn’t the first to use older, somewhat obscure music in this way, of course. Quentin Tarantino is a master of the technique, as seen/heard in his films like Reservoir Dogs (which also tapped “Hooked on a Feeling,” funnily enough) and Pulp Fiction, which had no traditional score at all. But Gunn has a distinctly different approach from Tarantino’s. Not cool … just awesome.

...it was eventually released as an actual cassette – something that Disney hadn’t done since 2003.

Awesome Mix Vol. 1 sold so well on CD, vinyl, and download that it was eventually released as an actual cassette – something that Disney hadn’t done since 2003. It might surprise the generation who tossed their Walkmans into Goodwill bins decades ago that young consumers are re-embracing tapes. New punk and indie bands have been putting out their music on cassette and there’s even a Cassette Store Day celebrating the format. It’s not crazy to wonder why anyone would want to consume their new music on the most inconvenient, low-quality medium possible, but there’s no denying that the art of the music mix is uniquely suited to cassettes. And nostalgia for the early days of portable music is not misplaced.

 “All those days as a child I spent locked in a room listening to AM radio were not wasted!”

Reacting to the news that his soundtrack had been nominated for a Grammy, Gunn commented on Facebook: “All those days as a child I spent locked in a room listening to AM radio were not wasted!” Indeed, and if the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy is any indication, we just might be in for a Volume 2. Awesome.

Liisa Ladouceur is a Toronto-based author and journalist.