When Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn began assembling the soundtrack for his Marvel superhero flick, he wanted familiar hits but not overplayed radio staples. In the movie, now officially the biggest film of the year, these songs would connect lead character Peter “Star-Lord” Quill – who was abducted by aliens just after his mother’s death in 1988 – to his old life and the era his mother grew up in.
“The tape is really the character of Quill’s mother,” Gunn tells Rolling Stone. “The Walkman and the compilation tape inside of it is the heart of the film.”
As he worked, the director compiled a playlist of tunes, most from the Seventies, that he thought the character would have liked. David Bowie, the Runaways and the Jackson 5 all make appearances, complemented by tracks from lesser known acts like the Raspberries (“Go All the Way”) and Blue Swede (“Hooked on a Feeling”). “I think most of the songs, although slight hits, never truly had their day in the sun,” Gunn says. “That time is now. I also think people are hungry for good, old-fashioned, well-crafted pop songs that exist outside of any sort of imposed hipness or irony.”
It turns out, he was onto something. A week after its release, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 topped the album charts, becoming the first soundtrack ever to do so without having a single original song. “When I heard the news, I was like, ‘Holy crap,'” Gunn says. “Maybe that childhood spent locked in my room listening to pop hits on FM radio wasn’t all for waste.
“I’ve spent my whole life compulsively collecting music and making all sorts of mixes for my siblings and friends and girlfriends,” the director continues. “I feel like this soundtrack was an opportunity to make a mix CD for the whole world.”
When writing his screenplay, Gunn carefully chose the songs that would appear on that mix CD and wrote them directly into the story, a risky move considering that licensing songs can often be difficult.
“Most times when the film is finished, none of the songs that were suggested are included,” Guardians producer Kevin Feige tells Rolling Stone. “James’ first draft of the script had the songs that were with us at the end when we brought the film to theaters – a rare and often impossible feat.”
“I picked Seventies music because that would be Meredith Quill’s era,” Gunn says, referring to Star-Lord’s mom. “To me, there’s also a very pop art, spacey and fun feeling to those songs that seemed to fit well with Guardians. The unexpected contrast of those songs to our aliens and outer-space apes also made it fun.”
The director says that for the most part, the cast and crew enjoyed his song selections – even if lead actor Chris Pratt eventually complained about the number of times he had to hear Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” Redbone’s grandiose “Come and Get Your Love,” on the other hand, was a set favorite, especially when Pratt was forced to dance along.
“Chris was very self-conscious about dancing,” Gunn says. “I would just scream at him – not in an angry way, just in a way to get him out of himself and focused on something else – so he could feel free to get his groove on. It was also important to keep his dancing mellow. He’s not supposed to be entertaining anyone but himself in the movie, so it was important not to have him overdoing it.”
Still, some of the people overseeing with the film questioned Gunn’s choices, suggesting that he make the soundtrack a little more contemporary. “One of the Marvel folks who gave notes on the script kept saying we were crazy to put Seventies songs in the movie, that it was going to be alienating to kids,” the director says. “I guess he thought Quill should have learned how to download Beyoncé and Ke$ha off iTunes. Now I see little kids all over the world singing me ‘Hooked on a Feeling.’ Nothing could make me happier than to have folks take a second look at these songs.”