By Charlie Brigden
So, Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s pretty great that Marvel are so confident in their filmmaking universe that they can start to introduce some of the real crazy elements of the comic books, and Guardians is certainly crazy, what with the walking tree and the raccoon with an attitude. Music has been an important part of the film since the first trailer debuted, with the prominent use of Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, so it’s no surprise that it has the longest soundtrack of any Marvel film so far, with a deluxe album that contains two discs of music from the picture.
There are actually three albums available, with the first two – one featuring songs from the film, named “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”, and the other featuring Tyler Bates’ score – combined into one for the deluxe release. Unlike many “music from the motion picture” albums, Awesome Mix actually has a functionality in the story, as lead character Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, keeps a Walkman with the tape in it, being that it was made by his mother before she died, and it’s his only link to her. Connecting to someone passed through music is something I empathise with (listening to Billie Holiday brings back intense thoughts of my mother), and it also seems a neat hook for the story and a way to integrate music without it feeling superfluous.
The mix kicks off with ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, and it’s a perfect fit for the slightly goofy nature of Quill and the film in general. It’s worth noting that this is the “ooga chaka” version, as featured in the trailers, and it’s a fun start to the action. You have a variety of songs from the 60s and 70s, including the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’, and two genuinely great soul songs, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ and my personal favourite, ‘O-o-h Child’ by The Five Stairsteps. The latter duo ends the album, and to be honest, they’re far and away the best songs on it, to the point where they overshadow the rest of the songs, especially since among them is a cut I absolutely loathe: Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’, although the tracklisting insists it’s not actually in the film.
As mentioned earlier, the second album (and disc two of the deluxe edition) features Tyler Bates’ score for the film. Bates has been something of a hot potato over the last few months, given his previous work, the music in Marvel films in general, and much of the goodwill from the two Brian Tyler scores of last year (Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) being used up by the lukewarm (and in some cases overly negative) reaction towards Henry Jackman’s music for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Given the strong showing of blockbuster scores this year (Godzilla, Maleficent), Guardians Of The Galaxy certainly has to make an impression. But does it?
It does. I’ll be frank, this is the best work Tyler Bates has ever done, and what I like about it is that it has a sense of scope, of scale. Considering Guardians is a space opera, it needed something to match the tone, and Bates has delivered that admirably. Certainly from the trailers the films seems to guarantee lots of big action, and as such the score is full of fury and violence, and you imagine the orchestra probably had sore limbs afterwards. The score also raises some interesting questions about the music of the MCU as a whole, something I’ll talk about later. But it’s definitely more than just action beats, with the second track – ‘The Final Battle Begins’ – immediately bringing in the Guardians theme after chaotic fragments and tense strings slowly morph into its reveal. And the theme is heard throughout the score, usually in single refrains, at least until the last parts where it comes into its own, as you’d imagine. But thankfully the material that gets us there is very rarely filler, and while again, a lot of it is frenetic action music, Bates is able to bring material that has its own idiosyncracies and colour that doesn’t make you want to hit the skip button.
‘Morag’ opens the album in a strangely portentuous way, with a meandering violin line that has a sense of mystery, and a choir that adds a bit of wonder in the way only the space opera genre can. ‘Ronan’s Theme’ brings some of Bates’ more recognisable elements into the fray, namely the distorted electric guitar, combined with threatening percussion and a fun brass line to make it an appropriately menacing piece for the villain of the film. ‘What A Bunch Of A-Holes’ plays around nicely with time signatures, while ‘Ronan’s Arrival’ again brings distortion with a Terminator-esque anvil and a choir that makes the whole thing big and quite scary. The aforementioned scale is a big thing in this score, and while there are moments of straight action that do capture it – ‘Everyone’s An Idiot’ and its choir for instance – it sacrifices scale for intensity, which is no bad thing. ‘The Pod Chase’ is pretty big, but it’s more about those brass bursts amongst the sawing celli, with little danger motifs and a real sense of tension and urgency.
The scale comes with the bigger renditions of the Guardians theme, and helps add the atmosphere of majesty and wonder, important elements with scores like this. The theme is versatile and while it has attitude, it feels at home in the Marvel universe. When you get a bunch of anti-heroes, some composers tend to want to go overboard on guitars to demonstrate their “badassness” but thankfully Bates ignores this trope. ‘The Kyln Escape’ is a great example of the theme being rendered in different ways, with more dissonant and harsher versions throughout the furious strings before the melody comes in proper at the end. ‘The Ballad Of The Nova Corps’ uses the theme to display urgency and it grows and grows, along with a wonderful choral section, and has a bit of a rock opera feel, while ‘The Great Companion’ gives a proper soaring rendition.
Like with a certain other composer in the MCU, the choir is used a lot. ‘The Collector’ is a great example of the way it’s used for atmosphere, with an eerie and ethereal choir to give a real sense of being lost, until it segues into a heavy and downbeat male choir, along with little synth elements that give it a retro-futuristic kind of feel, before a massive choir comes back in to finish it off. ‘Groot Cocoon’ probably has the most choir of any cue but uses it so well, putting a female and male choir together, something which is utterly magical, and in tune with the film, cosmic. As you can probably tell from the title, ‘The Big Blast’ is one of those ‘it’s gonna blow’ tracks, which also works in choir to its advantage, along with a wonderful ending crescendo. The second half of the album is killer with some brilliant cues – ‘Guardians United’ in particular is a great piece, with militaristic percussion and a Jaws-style string line, moving from a big brass version of the Guardians theme to a grittier rendition – and the finale duo of ‘Black Tears’ and ‘Citizens Unite’ have a surprising level of emotion that many probably didn’t expect from Bates (or the film for that matter).
Now as I mentioned before, Guardians Of The Galaxy is not just a fine score in its own right but also signifies more of an attempt on Marvel’s part to be successful at something they’ve seemingly tried for a while: unification. Bates’ score has a similar sound to another composer working for Stan The Man – Brian Tyler. To those who pay attention, Tyler is now the uber-composer of the MCU, having garnered lots of praise from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World and now announced to compose the big one, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Tyler has a definite style that is matched with Marvel’s “wall of sound” feel, and he has an ability to write very well for a more toned-down style of brass and aggressive strings, something that Marvel have really encouraged since the beginning, but which became readily apparent with Patrick Doyle’s Thor. Bates writing style fits with Tyler well, so is something that works for Marvel, and also something I have no issue with.
One thing I would like would be to hear the songs and the score integrated. I’m assuming the songs are spread out in the film, so you would imagine that Bates perhaps wrote some of the score to complement their inclusion tonally, and with them having an actual story interest, I’d be fascinated to see how the two work together. Together they run over one hundred minutes, so it may need a little pruning, but hey – at least that’d be a reason to get rid of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.
Guardians Of The Galaxy has a soundtrack and score that seem to fit the nature of the film – at least from what I’ve seen from the trailers – like the infinity gauntlet. While I’m not infatuated by all the songs, it’s still a fun listen, but the score is really where it’s at, which is as big a surprise to me as anyone. Bates has done a fine job here, and while I can definitely see it working excellently alongside the film, on it’s own it’s a big winner. Maybe Marvel had a plan after all.
Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Score, Awesome Mix Vol. 1, and Guardians Of The Galaxy: Deluxe Edition will be released on July 29th by Hollywood Records