Music in Film: Wish I Was Here & Guardians Of The Galaxy

Wish I Was Here, Boyhood and Guardians Of The Galaxy take a mixtape approach to their soundtracks. Ivan looks at what makes them so great...

“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear,” a girl (Sam) in a doctor’s waiting room once said to a boy (Andrew) who looked a lot like Zach Braff. Then, she placed a pair of headphones over his ears and played him The Shins.

Garden State’s soundtrack became a must-have for all fans in 2004 thanks to its effective use – and curation – of indie artists, acoustic ditties and mild electronica. It was an album that showed a jukebox soundtrack (traditionally the territory of Tarantino) could do something different, whether that was introducing people to obscure bands they hadn’t heard of or connecting you with others who also liked the movie’s music.

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10 years later, filmmakers are still chasing the same thing: the ultimate mixtape.

2014 has been a goldmine for gathering tracks together into uber compilations. Leading the pack, arguably, is Wish I Was Here (in cinemas now). Much like Garden State, it features a typically Braffy (that’s an adjective and I’m sticking with it) mix of old and new indie pop, from Radical Face and Bon Iver to Badly Drawn Boy and Hozier. Some tracks are infectious – Aaron Embry’s Raven’s Song haunts you with its shimmering piano, while Cat Power and Coldplay prove a surprisingly excellent pairing on Wish I Was Here – while others (remember Gary Jules from Donnie Darko?) fail to tug at your heartstrings.

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That feels like it’s partly the function of Braff’s idiosyncratic jukebox: to tell you which emotions to feel, in a way that doesn’t always seem as subtle as an instrumental score. It’s telling that Rob Simonsen’s gentle synth music, heard during the film’s fantasy sci-fi sequences, isn’t on the soundtrack album at all: the emphasis is on the songs chosen by Zach. Look at the artists’ names. Listen to the lyrics. Aren’t they all so prescient and expertly picked?

Tying the film back to Garden State is The Shins’ new song, So Now What.

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Braff says in an interview with Grammy: “[The Shins’ frontman] James Mercer [said] that he thinks the song he wrote for the film, So Now What, is one of the best things he’s ever written. That made me feel wonderful. But it’s a different kind of song than New Slang. He’s not really writing so much in the style of the Shins anymore. But his music really works for me, it always has. And the fact that he said that about the new song is really cool for me.”

That comment seems crucial to Braff’s approach to film music: he asks people that he likes to write songs inspired by his work or contribute existing numbers to the mix. It is, for better or worse, a Zach Braff playlist. 

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For a mixtape to truly work, though, it must mean something to both the giver and the receiver – “Oh, you like pre-1960s dixieland jazz from Canada made by divorced, middle-aged men too? Then you have to hear this!” The great jukebox movie soundtracks are more than the director picking cool tunes. They are diegetic, not just stemming from the narrative, but resonating with the characters on-screen. When Sam shares The Shins with Andrew, she hands him the headphones – and we hear what he hears. When he takes them off, the music stops. Garden State’s musical power, alongside its communal effect of bringing together new lovers of indie pop, is in that moment: it is Andrew and Sam’s playlist.

It’s what makes Tarantino’s early mixtapes so effective. Reservoir Dogs’ torture scene, complete with in-the-room radio, or Jackie Brown singing along in the car are both far more effective as character-driven compilations than Kill Bill or Django Unchained’s director-driven vinyl collection. Wish I Was Here’s most moving musical moment, meanwhile, occurs when Kate Hudson’s wife sings Sweet Baby James to Braff’s husband as they cuddle in a garage.

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This theory is only backed up further by the year’s most surprising hit, Guardians Of The Galaxy. James Gunn’s sci-fi comedy is no classic, but it’s certainly a lot of fun – and much of that comes directly from the thrill of tapping your toes along to its tunes.

Tyler Bates’ score is solid stuff, but never stands out as particularly memorable. The main theme, a fanfare that hovers cheekily around a perfect fifth, feels like a playful riff on The Avengers’ signature melody, which could well be a neat nod to Marvel’s wider universe, but it also bears a similarity to The Hunger Games’ theme for the Capitol. The Pod Chase, meanwhile, recalls Bates’ own work on the videogame God Of War Ascension (The False Prophet), from the sliding string background to a rising minor third melody that is repeated almost note for note. Composers revisiting work is no bad thing and echoes of other music is often unintentional or unavoidable, but that familiarity stops Guardians‘ enjoyably bombastic accompaniment from becoming truly great.

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That is, until you listen to the other tracks on offer. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s triumph is in making its mixtape a part of the plot. The film may be about an Infinity Gem, but the most powerful MacGuffin in the room is a plastic cassette belong to Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.

We’re introduced to the tape in the very first scene, when Peter listens to 10cc to distract himself from his sick mum – an escapism that becomes literal when he is abducted and flown off into the stars. There, the tape becomes a connection to his home planet; a remnant of humanity in strange new worlds.

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It was an idea that came from the character, quite literally. 

“I don’t normally listen to 70s pop songs,” Gunn told us earlier this year. “I downloaded like five hundred 70s pop hits, like every song that hit the top 40, and then I listened to all of them, then I whittled that down to a hundred songs, then 20 songs, and I would just listen to that list all the time. Sometimes I’d be inspired by the song to create a scene, sometimes I had a scene and I needed a song.”

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It’s the opposite of Quentin’s personal record highlights. When Hooked On A Feeling plays over Guardians‘ prison sequence – another organic development, with the scene stemming from the song – the juxtaposition of happy pop and violent, talking raccoons is funny, but in a way that Peter Quill would appreciate. It’s a joke that takes place solely inside the screen; Marvel’s target audience of teenage boys weren’t around when these 1970s hits were released, but it doesn’t matter. The scene relies on Peter knowing the track, not the audience.

“Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier,” he sings to the villain, an exchange that is as heartfelt as it is silly. Even the end credits scene, in which Groot dances to Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, uses the character-driven nature of the compilation for its laughs, while the promise of Awesome Mix Vol. 2 is perhaps more exciting than anything else Marvel has to offer.

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The year’s best mixtape, though, belongs to another, equally special album: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

A film with no other music whatsoever, it relies on its soundtrack to be exactly that: a soundtrack to Mason’s life. We see him grow up, listening to Coldplay’s Yellow in a field as a boy before going home to tolerate his sister singing Britney Spears in the bedroom.

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But while some tracks are explicitly shared, Garden State-style, between people – Ethan Hawke’s dad highlights the simplicity of Wilco’s Hate It Here (“I do the dishes, I mow the lawn. I try to keep myself occupied…”) while they drive in his vintage car – Boyhood’s brilliance is in understanding that not all music is actively consumed. We’re All In This Together crops up during a viewing of High School Musical, while The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize?? is heard for just a few bars as Mason climbs out of a vehicle. 

If Tarantino’s mixtapes are defined by their overt presence, Linklater’s is music as it is in reality: a background thrum to our existence. The effectiveness of the songs comes from our recognition of each one, the shared emotional attachment we have to it, no matter what memories it triggers – but this is never addressed explicitly. The songs are always put on by the people in the film, not by an external force nudging you and reminding you how much they like a particular band.

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The result is a bizarrely moving experience. You play spot the year as the chronological compilation unfolds, but you don’t realise you’re doing it; each track is a fleeting, unspoken connection between us and the characters, before life moves on to another beat. It’s not hard to imagine Mason, who is a photographer, growing up to make movies himself, only to come up with his own compilation soundtrack. How many of the songs that have accompanied his life would make their appearance?

Boyhood is a masterful demonstration of how to integrate pop songs into a movie in a way that invites you in, rather than distracts – an approach that James Gunn’s superhero flick also understands. Can a movie soundtrack change your life? Garden State certainly made a lot of waves among fans 10 years ago. But what makes Boyhood and Guardians Of The Galaxy so powerful is that, like Andrew and Sam in the 2004 hospital waiting room, they show us how much music can change other people’s, rather than consciously trying to influence our own. That’s the hidden track on an ultimate movie mixtape. And it’ll have you putting on your headphones to hear them both for hours.

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