James Gunn’s & Star-Lord’s Mixtape

Hello and welcome back to My Geekology! I’m Ash and today we will talk about licensed music and its role in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy! For many, the films of James Gunn bring about an expectation of visual flair, characters with heart, and maybe the most essential ingredient: fun! While not shying away from serious topics or content, the films always manage to sprinkle in just the right amount of humor that allows them to provide adventure with significant societal commentary. We will explore why Gunn’s usage of licensed music seems to work so well while other, even recent, examples can take audiences out of the film. We hope you have fun—see you on the other side!

As a bonus, find out which track you are!

Which Guardians of the Galaxy Track Are You?

Guardians Of The Galaxy comic characters.
Guardians of the Galaxy comic characters.

A Little Background…

One of my first movie dates with who would become my wife was Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). At the time, she knew way more than I did about superheroes and fantasy, but even she wasn’t too familiar with the heroes that were the subject of this film. The main appeals that got us in the theater that day were the cool trailers that looked unique and the fact that I saw Benicio del Toro in it, which I am a huge fan of. The film began with…a dance number to “Come and Get Your Love,” by Redbone. I had a moment of “What is happening right now?” but in the best, most amused way possible. The film that unveiled itself afterward was full of visual delight, humor, and all of the characteristics we have come to affiliate with the work of James Gunn. It was a joy; I think that’s one of the best things a film can be.


Guardians of the Galaxy 3.
Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

The final movie of James Gunn’s Marvel Cinematic Universe trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy 3 (2023), is now out for everyone to experience in theaters. It is receiving acclaim and challenging audiences’ emotions. It also illustrates that franchise fatigue is more of a myth than a definite fate of ongoing franchises. What people want from franchise films is often respect for the source material and just as important: heart. Audiences can easily feel when the latter is absent. Gunn has always had a penchant for understanding how to make characters and stories appeal to the soul.

One of the signature elements of Gunn’s films with Marvel Studios has been his utilization of licensed music. As other entities have indicated, music makes the film more fun and entertaining when done well, however, I think it also (in Gunn’s case) can further shape and emphasize the theme. In the same way, the great symphonic themes of film composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer can further shape and enhance a scene. Licensed music has this potential but is often not employed in a manner that allows it to operate in this way.

Awesome Mix Volume 3.

Many licensed song choices push the tempo of a scene for excitement, but ignore the greater conflict or theme present in the actual story. These are rarely listed among the great scenes that involve licensed music. An excellent example of this is the car chase at the beginning of Adam Sandler’s remake of The Longest Yard (2005). Jet’s 2003 radio hit “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” plays over the scene. The track’s inclusion serves to place the scene in a moment in time, however, it does not do anything to enhance the scene or further illustrate the destructive tendencies of our protagonist.

Another example to consider that furthers an idea present in the film but puts the audience at risk of being pulled out of a film is the inclusion of Electric Light Orchestra’s mega-hit “Mr. Blue Sky” in The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023). The placement does emphasize the idea that Mario is happy and content with the state of the world and his place in the finale. However, it was odd to further this with a licensed track instead of the many bright and soaring compositions available throughout the mighty Mario franchise canon.

An example of a more successful usage of licensed music furthering the theme, while also not pulling an audience out of the film, is the implementation of The Pixies’ 1988 track, “Where Is My Mind?” in David Fincher’s psychological thriller Fight Club (1999). The track encapsulates the brutal dissonance of the moment. The cheery guitar refrains over the grunge bed rock of distortion and an unpredictable vocal melody with lyrics about losing your mind linked with the violence and contentment found in the film’s finale. It is harsh but beautiful in a way that feels at home and the bedrock of David Fincher’s film.


"Come and Get Your Love” dance scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 1.
“Come and Get Your Love” dance scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 1.

Gunn’s choices of songs have consistently furthered the themes present in the film series. Song choices like “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone help us place Peter Quill in a place and time pertinent to his backstory. The film also justifies the involvement of these songs in the storyline by connecting them to his memory of his mother. So, this world of sound is also the ambiance of Quill’s world as well as an expression of his mental space.

The choices of the tracks “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie and Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” get at the heart of the surrealism of feeling alienated in an alien world that lives at the heart of Peter Quill’s journey. A bitter beauty between beautiful vocal melodies and dissonant distorted musical bedrock.

In a video titled “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Pitch Meeting – Revisited!” for the Pitch Meeting channel, Youtube film-centric comedian Ryan George notes what he calls James Gunn’s “cheat code.” This “cheat code” is Gunn choosing to have his characters dance. This act is prevalent across most of Gunn’s filmography including the Peacemaker television series.

I think this toolkit of incredibly carefully crafted playlists that exemplify the film’s themes as well as a fearless point to show his characters experiencing joy (often shown by dancing) and grief get at the core of why Gunn’s contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe worked so well. It all comes back to the heart.

Set list for Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

Thank you for coming on this journey as we explored some of the elements that make James Gunn’s work so special! We hope you had fun, and we’ll see you here next time at My Geekology!