[Star-Lord’s entire journey is right here.]
James Gunn set a new trend in film a year before Guardians of the Galaxy even released into theaters, and it all started with the AWESOME MIX VOL. 1. When the film’s teaser trailer released, thousands of digital purchases for the song “Hooked on a Feeling” immediately followed. The obscure but fun oldie contrasted and complemented the sci-fi visuals so succinctly that audiences immediately were on board with a movie starring a talking tree and machine-gun-wielding raccoon. Seemingly overnight, popular action movies like Suicide Squad and Star Trek Beyond also had classic pop songs in their trailers. As James Gunn put it, “Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.”
AWESOME MIX VOL. 1 is far more than a series of catchy tunes. They lay out Star Lord’s entire emotional journey, as well as the arc of his understanding and acceptance of love. Guardians is not a musical. It’s too busy being an sci-fi adventure comedy. But James Gunn did something absolutely brilliant. He gave the background music the same level of significance that songs in a musical have. Every – single – song in Guardians of the Galaxy has a message about love. And that message matures as the film progresses.
Don’t believe me?
Presented below is the soundtrack in chronological order, (as in the movie, not the album). YouTube links are provided for each. Let’s take a musical journey together!
I’m not in love / So don’t forget it / It’s just a silly phase I’m going through
The film opens cold on young Peter Quill in a hospital waiting room, listening to this song as he waits for his mother to die. In moments, Quill will be abducted by space pirates and flown off to live an adventure in the stars. But that’s not the film’s inciting incident. The most important thing that happens to him this day is that his mother dies, and he refuses to take her hand as she goes.
Quill discovers at this very young age how much it hurts to love people. People that you love go away. It’s better to pretend you’re not in love. He will go on pretending for a very long time.
What’s the matter with you? Feel right / Don’t you feel right baby? / Hail, oh yeah / Get it from the main vine, all right / I said a-find it, find it / Go on and love it if you like it, yeah / Hail (hail) / It’s your business, if you want some, take some / Get it together, baby / Come and get your love
We find Quill going by the name of Star Lord in a galaxy far far away. (No! Not THAT ONE!) He’s currently betraying his alien caretaker/kidnapper Yondu by stealing a valuable MacGuffin out from under his nose. Star Lord has been raised by self-serving space pirates, but he’s taken it to the next level and turned on his adopted family for personal gain.
As Star Lord looks out for Number One, he listens to a song that he clearly doesn’t understand. This is one of two times in the movie that the soundtrack clashes with his internal journey, and that’s because this particular song serves as the movie’s Main Theme. (You can tell, because it plays over the opening credits and title card.)
So what is Guardian‘s theme?
You deserve to be loved. Love is out there. Go find it.
I never knew how complete love could be / Till she kissed me and said, / “Baby, please go all the way”
After Quill’s daring escape, he discovers a romantic partner on his spaceship. He totally forgot she was there and what her name was.
Of all the songs on the AWESOME MIX VOL. 1, “Go All the Way” has the most hilariously shitty message about what it means to be in love. Basically… it’s totally sexual and completely self-indulgent. Currently, this is how Quill feels about “loving” other people. He’s moved on from pretending not to love people. Now he pretends to love them in order to get sex.
What a scoundrel!
Lips as sweet as candy / Its taste is on my mind / Girl, you got me thirsty / For another cup of wine / Got a bug for you girl / But I don’t need no cure / I just stay a victim / If I can for sure
Star Lord meets Gamora, who he thinks is pretty hot. Unfortunately, she’s more interested in his MacGuffin and tries to kill him for it. They end up in prison, along with Rocket and Groot.
He’s still pretty sure he’s got a shot.
In this situation, Peter has lost control. He’s into a girl that’s not reciprocating. It’s going to take more than a shallow act if anything is going to happen between the two of them… especially since everyone in prison wants her dead.
So I waited with high hopes and she walked in the place / I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face / It was my own lovely lady and she said, “Aw it’s you” / Then we laughed for a moment and said, “I never knew.”
I didn’t realize until owning this soundtrack that the actual title to “The Piña Colada Song” was “Escape,” so it makes way more thematic sense that this would be played over a jailbreak. What’s fascinating is that the song is all about a selfish couple, both ready to stab each other in the back, trying to escape a boring life, and realizing that they both wanted more. Their understanding of their mutual needs allows them to continue their relationship.
To be clear, they are both still selfish people. They’ve just realized that backstabbing isn’t always necessary to get what you need. Sometimes helping others helps you as well. The soon-to-be-Guardians aren’t necessarily friends yet, but they realize that mutual cooperation will help them escape from prison. For the first time, we see Star Lord act in a team and it works out pretty well for him.
Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me / The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be / Make me baby, make me know you really care / Make me jump into the air
As the Guardians head to Knowhere (a giant head in space), a truly psychedelic Bowie tune plays with tons of crazy sci-fi lyrics. At the core of this song is a plea for truth. This is the first time we’ve seen Star Lord ever trust anybody else, and in the back of his head, he’s worried that his new acquaintances might not have his best interests in mind.
After a lifetime of betrayal and selfishness, trust is all he has right now. This simultaneously scares him and gives him the first glimmer of hope in humanity (alienity?) that he has felt in a long time.
It used to be when I’d see a girl that I liked / I’d get out my book and write down her name / But when the grass got a little greener on the other side / I’d just tear out that page / But then I fooled around and fell in love
Quill immediately finds himself needing to rely on his new friends again. After setting up a meeting with the (not to be trifled with) Collector, he stands to acquire significant monetary gain… if everything goes right.
At this point in the, Quill has recognized that there is something special about Gamora and the rest of his new friends. He sees the chemistry and he sees the potential for relationships more meaningful than many others that he’s had. A microcosm of this is shown when he comes on to Gamora. It doesn’t work out, but he believes enough in the potential relationship to not give up.
Star Lord doesn’t yet know what it means to actually love someone, or how to express it if he did, but he’s already there. He just doesn’t know it.
Things, of course, go terribly wrong with the exchange with The Collector. After an explosion and a run in with big bad Ronan the Accuser’s army. Quill is presented with a life and death scenario, and he decides to die to save Gamora.
I saw you out there. I don’t know what came over me, but I couldn’t let you die. I found something inside of myself, something incredibly heroic. I mean, not to brag, but objectively…
Without realizing what’s happened, Quill suddenly began caring about somebody else more than he cared about himself. He fooled around and fell in love.
Of course they are “saved” in the nick of time by Yondu and the Ravagers.
Hey, street boy, want some style? / Your dead end dreams don’t make you smile. / I’ll give you something to live for. / Have ya, grab ya til you’re sore. / Hello Daddy. Hello Mom / I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -cherry bomb!
After helping Yondu come up with a good excuse not to kill him, Quill takes the next logical step in any romantic affair and brings his new baes home to the folks.
“Cherry Bomb” underlies more than just awkward introduction of a rowdy new partner. As Cherie Currie sings, “dead end dreams” have nothing on the purpose that this relationship has to offer. While The Runaways’ song likely wasn’t referring to achieving the courage to stage a suicide mission and save the known universe, it’s clear that Star Lord wouldn’t have been able to take on Ronan without knowing he had friends who legitimately had his back.
The Ravagers kindly provide our heroes with a wardrobe update, and for the first time, they wear matching uniforms because they chose to… not because they’re in the same prison together.
Some day, yeah / We’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done / Some day / When your head is much lighter / Some day, yeah / We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun / Some day / When the world is much brighter
I don’t think there’s ever been a song more hopeful than “O-O-H Child,” yet here it stands, beautifully contrasting the wreckage of our heroes’ horribly failed mission. The Nova Corps have been obliterated. Groot is dead. And Ronan has touched down, ready to obliterate Xandar with a gesture.
Yet here Peter Quill stands, using the one thing he has left to protect the innocent – sweet moves.
Of course, he doesn’t really expect to vanquish evil with the power of dance. “I’m distracting you, you big turd blossom!” Quill wouldn’t have had the hope to dance if he didn’t believe that his friends would follow through for him. And after a timely rocket (from Rocket) knocks the Infinity MacGuffin from Ronan’s grasp, they come through yet again to save Star-Lord from its power and defeat The Accuser.
There’s a moment in this beat that clearly ties Peter Quill’s arc (and my thesis) together. When Gamora reaches out for him, what he sees is his dying mother, and when he takes her hand, what he receives is his second chance to accept love. For Peter, this is the last step to recovery. Despite his history of greed, deep down he wants to be a good person. For years though, what Star-Lord The Legendary Outlaw has been even more afraid of than loving, is being loved, and the pain of loss that inevitably, some day, will come from that.
It’s not a stretch to say that Star-Lord has nothing to lose in this moment. He is literally moments away from being vaporized by an eternal intergalactic power. But y’know… sometimes that’s what it takes to convince people they need love.
My love is alive / Way down in my heart / Although we are miles apart / If you ever need a helping hand, / I’ll be there on the double / Just as fast as I can
Peter Quill turned away from more than his mother’s grasp on the day she died. He refused to open the present she gave him – AWESOME MIX VOL. 2. But his refusal wasn’t a sign that he didn’t love his mother. The VOL. 1 tape is his most prized possession, which he risks everything to reclaim during the Kylin prison break.
What Peter was really refusing was the acceptance of his loss. In doing so, he prevented himself from processing his grief and finding new love. He also missed out on the opportunity to learn the lessons his mother had for him on the next tape. It should be obvious by now that Elizabeth Quill had more in mind when forging the first mixtape than how catchy the songs were. The whole process of learning to love is on here. Who knows whether or not she shared these same feelings when learning to love Peter’s extra-terrestrial father? She clearly wanted him to see that love comes in all kinds of forms, and that it grew all the more depending on how much you’re willing to let in.
The saddest part is that by not opening AWESOME MIX VOL. 2, Peter missed out on the most important song, and the pinnacle of the collection – selfless love – the kind of love that his mother had for him. “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” is an anthem to selfless love overcoming all odds. The love of little Star-Lord’s mother transcended her death, and it helped him when he needed it most. It’s the kind of love he only now realizes he needs to survive this crazy universe.
Oh baby, give me one more chance / (To show you that I love you) / Won’t you please let me back in your heart / Oh darlin’, I was blind to let you go
As Baby Groot dances over the end credits, the Jackson 5 sing another song to bookend the theme of the film. Guardians of the Galaxy is about running from love because it hurts, and the long difficult process of realizing that you can’t live without it.
Little Michael Jackson reminds us that while refusing to acknowledge love causes us to lose it, it’s never too late to try to make amends. Whether or not the spirit of Elizabeth Quill was there that day or was merely imagined, I think it’s safe to say that Peter has allowed himself to accept her love in the hardest way possible.
He finally grew the courage to say “good-bye.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters May 5, 2017. Rumor is that Kurt Russel plays Star-Lord’s dad, but more than anything, I’m excited to know what his mom said next on that second mixtape.