Director James Gunn on How He Chose the Music in Guardians of the Galaxy

Photo: Marvel

Guardians of the Galaxy excels in its offbeat-ness: the clever quips; the machine-gun-wielding raccoon; the fighting, talking tree; the eclectic mix of ‘70s hits. The soundtrack itself seemed destined to be a favorite months before the film even hit theaters. The first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer, which debuted in February, treated us to a snippet of “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. The song has been used on the big screen before, most notably in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, as part of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s, but Guardians proved it had staying power: 24 hours after the clip debuted, the 1974 track’s digital sales had skyrocketed by 700 percent. Overall, the trailer was just a taste of what lay ahead: an odd two-hour sci-fi movie filled with fun pop-music references.

To find out more about the movie’s musical selections, Vulture exchanged emails with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. As the first-time Marvel filmmaker explains, he wanted the songs to help “ease the audience” into the movie. “We’re thrust onto a bunch of strange planets with strange landscapes, and the familiarity of the pop songs made it all a little more palatable. They simultaneously grounded us and provided a really fun juxtaposition.”

(Warning: Slight spoilers ahead.)

Gunn had a lot of songs to choose from
One of the reasons the music fits so well into the story is because Gunn included the songs in the script. So how did he go about deciding which ones would work best? The first thing he was looking for was accessibility. Essentially, he wanted the tracks to be semi-familiar — ones you recognize but might not be able to name off the top of your head (the only two songs that didn’t end up applying to were those by David Bowie and Jackson Five).

“I started the process by reading the Billboard charts for all of the top hits of the ‘70s,” explains Gunn. “I downloaded a few hundred songs, and from that made an iTunes playlist of about 120 songs, which fit the movie tonally. I would listen to the playlist on my speakers around the house — sometimes I would be inspired to create a scene around a song, and other times I had a scene that needed music and I would listen through the playlist, visualizing various songs, figuring out which would work the best.”

Speaking of Bowie …
You can’t have a ‘70s-infused space flick and not include Ziggy Stardust. A fun fact about Gunn’s use of Bowie’s tune “Moonage Daydream” is that it’s the only song in the film that was added in post-production. Gunn wasn’t even sure he wanted to use it in the first place. Though he does call the track “perfectly appropriate for the trippy entry to Knowhere,” the location that serves as the headquarters for Benicio del Toro’s blond-coiffed Collector, Gunn had a few other musical options on the table: “The two other songs I considered using in that scene were ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glenn Campbell or ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come’ by Three Dog Night.”

Gunn used happy songs in sad scenes
Yes, the film is hilarious, but that wit and ironic humor doesn’t just come from the dialogue; it also pops up in the music cues. Two scenes in particular use happier songs to help illustrate sadder, more complicated moments. There is really nothing like hearing “Hooked on a Feeling” during a prison sequence, or “Ooh-Ooh Child” when a group of heroes are about to fight a man hellbent on murdering everyone in his path. As Gunn explains: “The songs are a bit more ironic in those instances, but could also be seen as the underlying positivity of Meredith Quill that gets Peter through these situations.”

ELO was almost in the film
The synths and space-age tones of the Electric Light Orchestra would have fit well with the Guardians aesthetic. But Gunn couldn’t find a way to fit them into the movie. “There was one scene written around ‘Livin’ Thing’ by ELO, another montage, that was cut from the film,” says Gunn. “ I didn’t want to cut the sequence — I really liked it — but it seemed better for the overall film. The whole crew besides me and Kevin Feige thought it should stay. Who knows? I think ELO seems like the ultimate Guardians band, so I’m sorry none of their tracks are in the film.”

“Hooked on a Feeling” versus “Come and Get Your Love”
Considering the splash “Hooked on a Feeling” made after the trailer debuted, it was a bit surprising not to see it used in the opening credits, in a scene that features Peter Quill dancing around a musty, abandoned cave. But Gunn did think about using it there. “The opening credits scene was originally designed around ‘Hooked on a Feeling,’ but when I discovered ‘Come and Get Your Love’ — a song I only vaguely knew — I thought it was the better fit.”

Gunn played the songs while filming
“When you see the characters strutting down the hallway to ‘Cherry Bomb,’ they were actually strutting down the hallway to ‘Cherry Bomb,’” says Gunn. “‘Ooh-Ooh-Child,’ ‘Hooked on a Feeling,’ ‘Come and Get Your Love,’ and more were all played on set by our marvelous sound team. I find it helps the actors and the camera operators to find the perfect groove for the shot.”

So what’s on Awesome Mixtape No. 2?
We didn’t expect Gunn to give us anything definitive when we asked him about soundtrack plans for the already-announced Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Still, it was worth a shot. According to Gunn, he has “some ideas listed, but nothing for sure. When I’m approaching the sequel, I probably won’t structure the film in the exact same way. One of the reasons people like Guardians is because it’s fresh and different, so the second one will be fresh and different from the first one.”

How Guardians of the Galaxy’s Music Was Chosen