Friday, June 16, 2017

Quick Takes: Chains of Nostalgia in The Guardians of the Galaxy

By Brooke McCorkle

Among the many Marvel Cinematic Universe films to grace the summer screens over the last decade, The Guardians of the Galaxy stands out for its unique jouissance. Amidst epic space battles and fantastic aliens, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and its recent sequel, Vol. 2, reveal down-to-earth characters and situations. For example, the main character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a charming man-child scarred by the death of his mother; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) play competitive sisters whose bickering takes sibling rivalry to new heights. Even Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) cannot help but evoke memories of an adorably frustrating toddler. In other words, under a sleek CGI veneer, Guardians of the Galaxy includes an utterly relatable cast, albeit in fantastic situations. The compiled soundtrack complements the narrative’s charm and leans into the film’s definitive component: nostalgia.

Director James Gunn along with music supervisor David Jordan convey this nostalgia by means of popular American and British music from the 1960s to early 1980s. Throughout both films, Peter listens to mix tapes made by his mother on an outdated Sony Walkman. By Vol. 2, his music has thoroughly infiltrated the ears of his crew, particularly Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot. For Peter, the music signifies the essence of childhood, his relationship with his mother, and an idealized Earth brimming with 1980s pop culture. In both films, the mix tapes’ tunes float with ease between the realms of the diegetic world and the nondiegetic one; more than the orchestral score (composed by Tyler Bates), the pop songs do the musico-narrative heavy lifting.

Several scenes in The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are striking for their playful use of music; in the opening number the camera foregrounds Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the team battles a battery-eating inter-dimensional monster in the background. A later scene shows Yondu (Michael Rooker) slaughtering mutineers with a flying laser-arrow, in audiovisual counterpoint to Jay & the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer.” But two songs stand out not only for their contribution to the nostalgic ether but also the narrative: “Brandy” by Looking Glass and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the latter.

“The Chain” operates on a meta-narrative level, alluding (for those in-the-know fans) to the complicated relationships between Fleetwood Mac’s members. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were at romantic odds with each other while recording the album Rumours, along with the failed marriage between John McVie and Christine McVie; Mick Fleetwood’s marriage was also floundering. In other words, “The Chain” is a musical moment in the career of a highly successful band that highlights interpersonal struggles and relationships, relationships forged of love, anger, hate…in essence that of family.

The song appears twice in Vol 2., first when Peter, Gamora, and Drax depart with Peter’s long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell), leaving Rocket, Groot, and Nebula behind on the planet Berhert. The familiar opening dobro riff echoes in the diegetic world but by time the chorus kicks in, “If you don’t love me now/then you will never love me again/I can still hear you saying/you would never break the chain,” the music has entered the nondiegetic realm, enveloping the sound world as the Guardians family rifts physically and emotionally.

The song surfaces again at a climactic turn in the finale; Peter, having discovered Ego’s bent desire to destroy the galaxy and his treacherous murder of Peter’s mother, desperately fights his father. Yondu urges Peter to fight with his heart rather than his head. The sound world settles in a moment of quiet respite. Peter’s rage at the failure of his dream, his desire for a father explodes into a rousing fortissimo of chorus for “The Chain.” With no apparent source, this incarnation of the song seems to echo in Peter’s mind as meta-diegetic music. The song indicates the failed relationship between Peter and Ego; while the lyrics “damn your love, damn your lies” are not intoned at this moment, the music still resounds with the pain of a broken dream, a nostalgia for a David-Hasselhoffesque father that never was. But at the same time, “The Chain” also signals that the links between Peter and his true family, the Guardians, will never break. “The Chain” here encapsulates all the complexities of family ties at the core of the story.

For Peter and the others, music is the tie that binds them together. Yet the music is also a nostalgic dream; it fills the empty space left by wicked parents or departed loved ones. The stylistic juxtaposition of 1970s soft rock against rollicking space mêlées infuses The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise with a pleasurable retro pastiche. Yet for all the fizzy gloss, it is important to be wary of luxuriating in nostalgia. As we seek out escapism in summer blockbusters, we must not only “run in the shadows.” We must break the silence and interrogate the ways nostalgia, musical or otherwise, functions beyond the Cineplex. The fetishization of an idealized past is, at its core, as corrupt as Ego’s planet. It is time to break that chain.

Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.

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