Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reflections on the Nature of Evil or, Eichmann in Themyscira

By Naomi Graber[1]

The creative team behind Wonder Woman faced no simple task: they had to create a stand-alone film that would still fit neatly into the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), a franchise that includes 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder.[2] For the most part, Wonder Woman adopts Snyder’s visual and musical aesthetics, but morally, Wonder Woman grapples with very different issues. If Snyder’s Batman and Superman represent various incarnations of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Wonder Woman is faced with with a problem most famously described by Hannah Arendt: the banality of evil.[3] And while the basic material of Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score for Wonder Woman resembles Hans Zimmer’s scores for Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman (the latter a collaboration with Junkie XL), there are some key differences in the way Gregson-Williams handles the villains that speak to these different moral universes. While Zimmer constructs his heroes and villains from entirely different sound palettes, Gregson-Williams scores his characters---good and evil alike---with remarkably similar sounds, indicating that ordinary people are capable of evil under the right circumstances, a key component of Arendt’s moral philosophy.

Both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman focus on exceptional individuals who wield their power for either good or evil. The genocidal alien General Zod is defeated by the good alien Superman. The brilliant billionaire Lex Luthor leads others astray in his dastardly plot, only to be foiled by the equally brilliant billionaire Batman (with some help from Superman and Wonder Woman). Heroes may occasionally tiptoe across the line between good and evil (Batman’s branding of criminals for instance), but there is no question as to which people are virtuous and which are not. In all cases, evil is dispatched by exceptional individuals, who are allowed to operate outside the bounds of conventional morality in the name of protecting humanity.

This clear distinction between good and evil comes across on the soundtracks, in which heroes and villains inhabit completely different sound worlds. In Man of Steel, General Zod arrives accompanied by a blend of atonal electronic drones and whines, pulsing hisses, and low brass tremolos. These contrast markedly with the firmly tonal rising figure that accompanies Superman. That rising figure is almost always on a recognizable acoustic instrument, while Zod is primarily scored with electronic or electronically manipulated sounds. The result is that Zod sounds “alien,” while Superman (despite his Kryptonian heritage) sounds “human.” In Batman v. Superman, Luthor is accompanied by galumphing rhythms in the harpsichord, followed by strange pizzicato ticking, and manic baroque violins, betraying a complex, if fractured mind. Meanwhile, Batman is all low strings, brass, and percussion, indicating seriousness of purpose and single-mindedness. (Superman has the same theme as the previous film).

But evil in Wonder Woman is a more complex phenomenon. If in the earlier films, evil is something that happens to humanity, in Wonder Woman, evil comes from within humanity. Diana initially believes man is inherently good, but has been corrupted by Ares, the God of War. But she’s in for a shock when she discovers that Ares is not masquerading as the obviously malevolent General Ludendorff. In a particularly Arendtian twist, Ares turns out to be a mid-level official—just one cog in what Arendt called “the intricate bureaucratic setup of the […] machinery of destruction” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 211). Arendt realized the genocidal madmen of the world cannot succeed without the cooperation of ordinary people meticulously (but unquestioningly) carrying out their orders (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 153). The most dangerous evil manifests not as psychopaths like Zod, Luthor, or Ludendorff, but in the thoughtlessness of everyday routine. Indeed, Ares reveals to Diana that mankind’s pettiness, small-mindedness, and shallowness are at the root of the destruction; all he does is supply the tools. It is Steve Trevor who pronounces the moral of the movie: we are all to blame---not just the Dr. Poisons and Ludendorffs of the world, but everyone who turns a blind eye to suffering in the name of “just doing their job.”

Because everyone is to blame, the music for the villains (Ares and Ludendorff and Dr. Poison) does not come from a wholly different sound palette than the heroes. While Ares and Ludendorff/Dr. Poison are accompanied by predominantly minor, more chromatic themes, the instrumentation, tempo, and basic construction is largely in line with the rest of the score.[4] All themes tend to be constructed of three-to-five note fragments, usually in notes of close to equal value with little syncopation, and played in the strings or horns, usually (outside of fight scenes) in slow to moderate tempos. Textures tend towards murky, with slow or static harmonic rhythm. Compared with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, the heroes and the villains of Wonder Woman sound disturbingly similar.

But like Wonder Woman, Arendt wrestled with humanity’s imperfections and concluded that the world was worth loving. She wrote that an “understanding heart” was “the greatest gift man could receive and desire.” For it is only the human heart that “will take upon itself the burden that the divine gift of action, of being a beginning and therefore being able to make a beginning, has placed upon us.” This capacity for compassion “makes it bearable for us to live with other people, strangers for ever, in the same world, and makes it possible for them to bear with us” (Essays in Understanding, 322). This is the lesson Diana learns by the end of the film. Just as she is ready to wash her hands of humanity, she is reminded of the power of compassion through her feelings for Steve, imperfect as he is. “I believe in love,” she tells Ares as she strikes the final blow.

The thematic development of the cue “Pain, Loss, & Love” shows the power of compassion in a particularly Arendtian way. While the visual track would have us believe that Wonder Woman draws strength from her love for Steve, the score tells us that this “love” is something more akin to Arendt’s “understanding heart.” This theme represents Diana’s experience of loss and tragedy, first occurring at the death of Antiope.[5] Later, the theme accompanies the moment Diana discovers the slaughtered village of Veld, and realizes that Steve and her friends are just as much to blame for the tragedy as the Germans. Their narrow-minded devotion to the mission meant that they were willing to sacrifice Veld in the name of finding Ludendorff’s stockpile of gas, a decision Diana cannot accept. After that, she becomes increasingly disillusioned, eventually declaring her intention to give up on humanity. But just as Diana is on the verge giving in to her anger, the theme reappears in a triumphant form as she comes to another revelation: “They are all that you say,” she admits to Ares, “but so much more.” The fact that this theme (rather than the love theme) accompanies her epiphany indicates that the “love” she feels is not limited to Steve. By bringing back the music that played during Diana’s greatest tragedies (all wrought by a corrupted humanity), the score indicates she accepts humanity’s flaws, and affirms her commitment to “bear with” them anyway. Defeating Ares will not prevent another war, but she decides that humanity has earned a shot at overcoming their darker demons without his interference.

This “love,” or what Arendt would call an “understanding heart” differentiates Wonder Woman from Batman and Superman. Superman protects humanity from outside threats, and Batman roots out the bad apples. Only Wonder Woman grapples with the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving. Having faced that question, she insists on living in (and loving) the world as it is, enabling her to see the good in everyone, even Batman’s bad apples. Her “understanding heart” allows her to forge that new beginning that Arendt so prized.

Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.

[1] I’m grateful to Mark Graber for his help in clarifying the ideas of Hannah Arendt that occur throughout this essay.
[2] The 2016 film Suicide Squad is also part of the DCEU, but it’s themes are not relevant to this paper. In that film, questions of “good” and “evil” are less prominent than are questions of “normal” and “deviant.”
[3] Zack Snyder has stated that Batman v. Superman draws heavily on Frank Miller’s 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman plays a major part. On the Nietzschean aspects of The Dark Knight Returns (and Batman in general), see Tony Spanakos, “Governing Gotham,” 2008. As Marco Pellittier observes, the concept of the Übermensch is often mis-applied to modern superheroes (“Alan Moore, Watchmen and some notes on the ideology of superhero comics,” 2011). The “Nietzschean” issues at play in Snyder’s films are somewhat distorted. Nietzschean philosophy is slightly better represented (and critiqued with more nuance) in The Dark Knight Returns.
[4] The obvious exception is the “Wonder Woman” theme in the electric cello, which Gregson-Williams inherited from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score to Batman v. Superman, in which Diana/Wonder Woman plays a very different narrative role. Consequently, that theme rarely appears in the film. As Jessica Getman and Caitlan Truelove have observed in this series, Gregson-Williams composed a new theme for Wonder Woman that better captures the character in this context, and that theme is consistent with the rest of the score.
[5] This version of the theme is the one that accompanies Antiope’s death; the commercial release of the soundtrack is out of order.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Woman’s Voice (Wonder Woman)

By Jessica Getman

Despite Steve Trevor’s attempts to convince her otherwise, Diana continued to insist that Ares was behind The Great War. In the end she was right, and she saved the world.

Wonder Woman (2017, dir. Patty Jenkins) is remarkable as a film that employs narrative conventions from both the male superhero epic and the female coming-of-age story. As a classic hero’s journey, it narrates Diana’s origin story as she leaves her home on the protected Amazonian island of Themyscira, crossing a threshold into the “world of men,” facing the ordeal at Veld to confirm her true identity as a warrior, and emerging even stronger after the pain of Steve’s death and her choice to believe in humanity’s potential for love. As Robynn Stilwell has pointed out, “boys’ stories are outward and linear,” and require the main character to overcome obstacles as they complete their quest. Diana, too, quests outward and through several barriers, moving away from home without returning. In remaining true to this masculine narrative, the creators of the Wonder Woman film very purposefully position Diana as an equally viable and inspirational hero in the male-dominated DC Extended Universe.

But they also imbue the film with conventions of the girls’ coming-of-age narrative, which (again from Stilwell) “tend to be inward and circular as girls discover themselves, usually in relationship to others,” as part of a network of relationships. These stories follow the main character as she matures, and usually bring her back home in the end, either to her parents or to a new husband. While Diana does not return “home” in this sense, the film clearly depicts her growing understanding of the world and her destiny as the God Killer.

The film also—and most strikingly—emphasizes Diana’s voice. Unlike the typical girls’ narrative, in which the main character generally moves from assertive, to silent, and finally to expressing herself within the confines of a socially acceptable feminine identity (see Stilwell), Diana maintains her assertive nature throughout, loudly and without shame, despite attempts to confine her. She concedes to social norms (as in the shopping scene) only to clear the path she knows to be right. Diana’s insistence that she was born of clay, that her Amazonian clothes are necessary for fighting, that the life of the individual civilian or soldier is as valuable as the life of the general, and that Ares is in the world and at play, rarely falters. Try as the people around her might to correct and silence her, she refuses to be shushed. Even the structure of the film itself, which begins and ends with a voiceover by current-day Diana, moves against tradition to centralize her voice; as Kaja Silverman claims, female voiceovers in Hollywood film are historically rare, partial, and unreliable. Wonder Woman challenges the traditional trajectory of the maturing woman’s expression of self, presenting a female hero with a remarkably unshakable and audible voice, who sets out on her quest with no intention of returning home, and who, along the way, discovers her true nature in concert with those around her.

The film’s play with narrative conventions is paralleled by the choices of composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. As Grace Edgar and Caitlan Truelove (forthcoming) point out, Gregson-Williams inherited the project from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, who provided the soundtrack for Batman v. Superman (2016, dir. Zack Snyder), and who composed the striking electric-cello Wonder Woman theme employed in Wonder Woman’s “No Man’s Land” sequence and elsewhere.

Wonder Woman Theme (by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, heard in “No Man’s Land,” 3:20)

(See Grace Edgar’s post for a more complete transcription and discussion of this theme.)

Gregson-Williams faced the challenge of writing a score that employed this theme sparingly—in its full form, the theme is too far from the musical language of his score to be used more than a few times. (It should be noted, however, that as a composer at Remote Control Productions, Gregson-Williams did employ a number of Zimmerisms; see Frank Lehman’s essay on Zimmer’s aesthetic.) He also needed to express Diana’s development from a young, idealistic girl into the warrior who inspires this music. His response was to a write new theme for Diana, drawn from the Wonder Woman theme. He associates it with the Amazons of Themyscira.

Amazon Theme (from “Amazons of Themyscira,” 2:20)

The melody and chordal accompaniment of this theme remains, in whole or in part, connected with Diana throughout the film (notice the reappearance of the i – VI – III - VII progression in the Hero theme, below—a progression that notably hints at the relative major). It accompanies her long after she’s left the island, and is with her as she fights the German forces in Veld, as she defies Steve and attends the armistice gala, as she mourns the citizens of Veld after they have been gassed, as she later overcomes Ares, and as she stands at the top of a building overlooking modern London in the last shot of the film. It draws from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme first the rising third (adding a passing tone), and then the rising triad, lightly foreshadowing the power Diana will wield in those moments when we hear the Wonder Woman theme. But even after we hear Zimmer and Junkie XL’s distinctive theme in “No Man’s Land,” the Amazon theme remains. As with the strong sense of self and voice she maintains throughout the film, her scoring demonstrates that the powerful Diana who left Themyscira remains the same idealistic, Amazonian woman.

One of the refreshing musical choices in this film is the use of a powerful fanfare in Diana’s heroic moments, one that recalls the rising open intervals of Zimmer’s Superman theme. (An analysis of the gendered topoi in this soundtrack will unfortunately have to be left for another study.) In fact, Gregson-Williams applies this theme not only to her heroic feats, but to a number of heroic acts performed by various characters throughout the film—she shares this theme with others.

Hero Theme (from “No Man's Land,” 2:20)

This theme sounds in the string section when Hippolyta explains that Zeus used the last of his power to stop Ares, and then when Steve insists to his superiors in the war room that they should save their soldiers from Dr. Maru’s new mustard gas; we hear it again, this time in the horns, when Steve, his friends, and all the soldiers at Veld run after Diana into no man’s land. Thus, the heroism in this film is shared, and not wielded by Diana alone. This choice can be interpreted as emphasizing the collaborative nature of a superhero who works as part of a team and who inspires those around her, but it also could be due to the existence of Steve Trevor’s own full, heroic arc; this more general theme allowed Gregson-Williams to highlight his noble moments without centralizing him further.

The focus on Diana as the primary hero is maintained, as well, through the sparing use of the love theme. In Hollywood film, the love theme is traditionally assigned to the female love-interest and acts as her theme, equating that music with her primary purpose in the film (see Rebecca Fülöp’s work on the Feminine Romantic Cliché). In this instance, however—because the film’s primary hero is a woman and because her love interest is a man—Gregson-Williams inserts some distance between these characters and the love theme.

Love Theme (from “Trafalgar Celebration,” 2:32)

We hear the love theme only a few times in the film: in the caverns of Themyscira when Diana sees Steve stepping out of the pool; when she tells Steve about Clio’s treatises on body and pleasure; in Veld when Diana invites Steve into her room; and at the end of the film, after Steve has died, when Diana lingers over his picture. It is particularly striking that this is not the theme we hear just before Steve sacrifices himself in the plane. Here, Gregson-Williams has employed Diana’s Amazon theme instead; Steve comes to grips with his fate by remembering her, not their relationship. By reducing the connection between Diana and the love theme, Gregson-Williams removes a pitfall that could have condemned her to being defined through her relationship with Steve, and that might have undermined the powerful effect she has had on her audiences as a strong female superhero.

Diana’s Journey

As a feminist film, Wonder Woman is not perfect. Among other failings, it continues to stereotype its non-white characters, and it lacks a necessary intersectional approach. What’s more, Diana does choose in the end to strategically repress her voice in the service of humanity, living undetected in the human world, wearing the fashions expected of her and taking a quiet job as an archivist, only appearing again (so far) when the other superheroes cannot overcome a monster on their own (as in Batman v. Superman). But Wonder Woman also presents a strong woman who is unapologetic about who she is and what she aims to achieve, who can go neck-to-neck with the boys, surrendering her agency and sense of self only as she chooses. Gregson-Williams’ soundtrack emphasizes this, supporting a strong femininity that nurtures and inspires others while remaining confident in its own power.

Jessica Getman is the Managing Editor for The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work in film musicology focuses on television production, science fiction, and the original series of Star Trek.

Friday, June 23, 2017

From Sex Object to God: A New World for Wonder Woman

By Grace Edgar

In her first solo outing, Diana (Gal Gadot) faced the daunting task of defeating the very concept of war itself. Raised by Amazons on an isolated island, she is thrown into the thick of World War I when American spy Steve Trevor crashes his plane off the coast. She takes Steve’s description of “the war to end all wars” to mean Ares, the enemy of the Amazons, is to blame, and she leaves the island to fight him, believing overcoming the god of war will put a stop to the conflict.

Running parallel to this urgent mission are the three Herculean feats of the film. First, Wonder Woman buttressed the sagging DC Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise by providing it with a much-needed, critically-acclaimed blockbuster. Second, it was the biggest opening yet for a film with a female director (Patty Jenkins), highlighting Hollywood’s ongoing problems with structural sexism. But most importantly, Wonder Woman proved that superhero films starring women are commercially viable.

Laying the groundwork for this success was Gadot’s scene-stealing performance in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder), one of the film’s few elements to emerge unscathed from the pileup of negative reviews. Undoubtedly, part of what made Diana stand out was the earworm theme Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL wrote for her.[1] In its definitive form (“Is She with You?”), the melody is basically an arpeggiated E minor triad decorated by A♯/B♭. In combination with the D♮ of the bass line, this ear-catching ♯4 gives it an octatonic flavor. The transcription below (from “No Man’s Land”) consists entirely of pitches drawn from the OCT1-2 collection.[2] The very features that make this theme pop out—alongside the ♯4, the theme’s 7/8 meter (2+2+3), and electric guitar timbre (played by an electric cello)—exoticize the character.

Inheriting this material, Wonder Woman composer Rupert Gregson-Williams faced his own unique challenge in building a world around an aurally pungent theme designed for a cameo appearance. In what is probably a wise choice, he uses the full theme sparingly. Borrowing a strategy from Zimmer and Junkie XL, he uses the 7/8 meter itself associatively, structuring the music for some of the action scenes around the distinctive meter (and sometimes the theme’s bass line) rather than overusing the melodic theme. Repurposing another strategy, he employs a slowed-down form of the theme’s initial fragment for early appearances of the hero. Beyond these techniques, Gregson-Williams has certainly been influenced by the Zimmer model of film composing. He supplies the film with slow-moving melodies over ubiquitous drum patterns, at times to great effect—the early scene on the island of Themyscira is all the more striking with the Zimmer brand of mythic music accompanying it.[3]

Although Gregson-Williams’s manipulation of “Wonder Woman” relies on strategies from the previous film, the way he situates it in relation to the film’s other themes differs from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s precedent. In Batman v Superman, the chromaticism of “Wonder Woman” both exoticizes and eroticizes the character. We first encounter her through Bruce Wayne’s gaze at Lex Luthor’s party. As Bruce sees her, we hear a slowed-down form of the initial fragment, emphasizing the ♯4 with an indulgent portamento. Here the electric cello emulates the duduk, an instrument often used to represent the Other in fantasy and science fiction films. In this context, the theme’s chromaticism casts her as a potential sexual partner for Bruce—it is a modern version of the fallen woman trope Kathryn Kalinak has described (1982, 1992). Later, when Bruce finds a photograph of her from 1918, we hear the theme in its definitive rock idiom, and we recognize that the first impression was misleading. But even then, her theme stands in stark contrast to the brooding, primarily diatonic themes of Superman and Batman.[4]

Such is not the case in Wonder Woman. Gregson-Williams makes a number of choices that serve to “unmark” and desexualize the character. First, he detaches the slowed-down initial fragment from the male gaze. We do not hear it, for example, when Steve first sees her. Instead we hear it at the very beginning of the film, separated from all visual associations with Diana herself.

Second, and admittedly problematically, Gregson-Williams scores the opening cue (“Amazons of Themyscira”) with exoticist orchestration. In Batman v Superman, the duduk timbre of “Wonder Woman” worked in tandem with the theme’s meter and chromaticism to portray Diana as a mysterious, foreign love interest. In contrast, the exoticist orchestration of the Amazon theme lends the island the aura of Greek antiquity, establishing it as a place out of time. When this theme attaches to Diana, it suggests the exotic timbre of “Wonder Woman” derives not only from her status as a sex object but also from her Amazonian background. If we are troubled by this Orientalizing gesture applied to the Amazons as a whole, we are also relieved that exoticism connotes something beyond sex appeal.

Finally, Gregson-Williams repurposes the Wonder Woman theme’s octatonic implications for themes linked to her main adversary: Ares, the god of war. In doing so, he hints at her secret heritage and destiny: as a demigod, she is the only one who can defeat him. The idiom of her personal theme becomes the language of the otherworldly in Wonder Woman.

The first new theme in this idiom is a low-register octatonic ostinato (in this example, from OCT 0,1), sometimes accompanied by a chromatic descent (see transcription from “Ludendorff, Enough!”).[5] This represents the film’s human baddies, Ludendorff and Dr. Poison (aka, Dr. Maru), who unwittingly carry out Ares’s destructive agenda. Later, when Diana first confronts Ludendorff (“Fausta”), Gregson-Williams combines their themes vertically, drawing attention to their shared octatonic implications.
udendorff theme.png
The second theme is for Ares himself (see transcription from “The God of War”). Expanded from a three-note motive (bracketed), the climactic version sounds something like an off-kilter species counterpoint exercise. Like Wonder Woman’s and Ludendorff’s themes, Ares’s theme (the bass line) is drawn from the octatonic collection (in this transposition, from OCT 0,1) and emphasizes ♯4. As is the case with Ludendorff’s theme, the descant includes notes outside of the octatonic collection, although the repeated rising half steps suggest an octatonic inspiration. The idiom is perhaps best described as octatonic-infused minor. These three themes share an octatonic coloring because they represent powerful beings or, in the case of “Ludendorff,” the fulfillment of a god’s wishes.
res theme.png
In Batman v Superman, Zimmer and Junkie XL tapped into a long history of scoring love interests with chromatic music to mark Diana as Other. In Wonder Woman, Gregson-Williams draws more specifically on the theme’s octatonic implications, generating a small family of themes linked to gods. Although Gregson-Williams did not compose the Wonder Woman theme, he recontextualized it, and in doing so, he created a new world where Diana is no longer just a sex object, but also a god.

Grace Edgar is a third-year PhD student in the historical musicology program at Harvard University. Her primary area of research is the representation of gender in Hollywood leitmotif films scores from the eighties to the present. She has presented her work at annual conferences of the Society for American Music and Music and the Moving Image.

[1] Following Matthew Bribitzer-Stull (2015), I reserve the term “leitmotif” for themes that develop in tandem with the drama and play a role in defining the larger musical structure. I consider the themes in Wonder Woman to be associative themes.
[2] All transcriptions are mine.
[3] This is sometimes called the “Media Venture” Sound, referring to the name of Zimmer’s former studio (Buhler, Neumeyer, and Deemer, 2015, 401). For more on the Zimmer sound, see Lehman, 2016. The prevalence of drumming in Batman v Superman has attracted the ire of soundtrack critics such as James Southall.
[4] The most common version of Superman’s theme, initially presented in Zimmer’s score for Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), is a trio of rising fourths: E-A, C-F, E-A. Batman’s main theme is an ascending minor triad (ex. A-C-E) that then ascends to the tonic (E-F-G-G#-A).
[5] This theme is later transposed up a whole step to start on D.

Quick Takes on Wonder Woman

Today, Musicology Now begins a series of Quick Takes on the summer blockbuster hit, Wonder Woman.  Grace Edgar, Jessica Getman, Caitlan Truelove, and Naomi Graber will discuss the film, its score, and its overall soundscape in a set of interlinking essays that independently and together enrich our understanding of and appreciation for the film and for the superhero genre more broadly.

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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Quick Takes: Allegories of the Self in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

By James Buhler

About two-thirds of the way into the film, Ego (Kurt Russell) is trying to persuade his son, Peter (Chris Pratt), that they are two of a kind and deserve to be able to remake the universe in their own image. Knowing Peter’s fondness for popular music from Earth, Ego launches, like an irritating old rock critic, into a tiresome lyrical analysis of Looking Glass’s “Brandy.” Ego unpacks the lyrics only to find himself and his progeny: The two of them, Ego suggests, are the sailor of the song and the sea is the universe calling them to remake it. Peter, captivated, falls under Ego’s spell.

This is a strange turn for the film. Both Guardians of the Galaxy films make extensive use of popular music, of course, and Peter’s attraction to it is a defining element of his character inasmuch as it is bound up with the memory of his mother. If Ego found Peter’s mother attractive in part because she could recite the lyrics of “every song on the radio,” Peter’s relation to the music is, like the films, far more embodied: it moves him and his crew into action and into love. Drax (Dave Bautista) tells Peter that he and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are incompatible because music does not move her to dance; Peter insists there is something unspoken between Gamora and him; and Gamora does ultimately dance with Peter. Music for Peter is not about nuggets of wisdom spun into the lyrics to be decoded as allegories of the self but about, as the first film put it, being “hooked on a feeling.”

The climax of the film—which combines the spectacle of patricide and quite literal Ego destruction—confuses this point. On the one hand, popular music, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” returns precisely when Peter needs it to break Ego’s spell. What I find especially interesting about this moment is that when I sat down to write this post I could not recall which song was used here even as I remembered very distinctly the narrative, dramatic work of the music, which seemed to well inside Peter until it burst out as he freed himself of Ego. Running completely counter to Ego’s decoding lyrics as an allegory of the self, it is music not lyrics that is decisive here. 

On the other hand, the stakes of the music remain Peter’s ego and the representation of interiorization: the music, if it emerges like a feeling rather than an articulate thought, does not really relate to dance or even embodied action, as it usually does in the two Guardians films. The magical manic joy of Baby Groot dancing in the title sequence epitomizes the relation to music for the Guardians. Peter will eventually be moved to action, to reject the offer of divinity, and to defeat Ego, to be sure. But as Peter springs into action he does so not for the joy of musical movement or the intensity of feeling that the music conveys but to save a sense of self: to recover an ego that would not be subsumed by Ego. If Peter explicitly rejects the privilege of divine inheritance for the seeming embrace of the relatively mundane community of the Guardians, his self-made self, forged in the furnace of popular song, remains in its own way a distant reflection of Ego’s drive to find in popular song an allegory of the self.

James Buhler is on the faculty at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on music and media. He writes frequently on music and film and is the author of Hearing the Movies, now in its second edition. He is active on Twitter (@jimbuhler), where many of the ideas in this short essay were first broached.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Quick Takes: Foreshadowing and Mirroring in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

by Catrin Watts

As I watched the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu: the first three songs of Vol. 2 are used in exactly the same way as Vol. 1! Looking back at Vol. 1, the first three songs establish the connection between Peter Quill and his cassette Walkman, as well as the tight-knit and musical logic of the audiovisual editing style that persists throughout the film. So why would Vol. 2 mirror this introduction? And how does this mirroring anticipate the way popular music will be used in Vol. 2? I will compare the use of the first three songs in both introductions side-by-side to highlight their structural similarities and their meaningful differences.

Vol. 1 begins with a black screen and a sound advance of “I’m not in love” (1975) by 10cc. The title “EARTH 1988” appears in yellow on the black screen and then there is a cut to the cassette Walkman in Peter Quill’s (Wyatt Oleff) 8-year-old hands. He is in a hospital corridor waiting to go in and see his mother who is nearing the end of her life after a battle with a brain tumor. The writing on the cassette says “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” and the mix tape is tied to Quill as his possession. Now, Vol. 2 begins with a black screen and a sound advance of “Brandy (You’re a fine girl)” (1972) by Looking Glass. The shot cuts to Missouri in 1980, and this information is displayed as an overlay with each piece of information arrive in time with the music. The following scene shows Quill’s mother (Laura Haddock) and father (Kurt Russell) driving around listening to the song. In Vol. 1, it is revealed that Quill’s mother is the source of his mix tapes and so this opening sequence is returning origin and ownership to Quill’s mother. While Vol. 1, is the Guardians origin story, Vol. 2 is more focused on how Quill came into existence.

The next track in Vol. 1 is “Come and Get Your Love” (1973) by Redbone. Quill (Chris Pratt) is exploring the ruins on Morag in search of the Orb and once he reaches the interior of the ruins, he hits play on his Walkman and dances through the space. This cues the Guardians of the Galaxy title card and the credits. Cut to Vol. 2, and the second song used is “Mr Blue Sky” (1977) by Electric Light Orchestra. The Guardians are hired by The Sovereign to protect some batteries from an interdimensional space monster and Rocket is messing around trying to get the stereo system set up. Once the monster arrives and Quill, Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) rush off to fight it, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) plugs in the cable and dances around the scene of destruction. While we are aware that fighting is occurring in the background, the camera is positioned in front of Baby Groot for the entire song and the title credits appear. Again, Vol. 2 is moving away from Quill’s ownership of the mix tape and the music it contains. Rocket is the main instigator of playing music during the fight and Baby Groot is the focus on the dance routine, rather than Quill.

The third song in Vol. 1, “Go all the way” (1972) by the Raspberries, is heard emitting from the stereo in Quill’s ship after he escapes Morag. This song functions mostly as background music but it continues tying the popular music soundtrack to the mixtape and Quill. In Vol. 2, the third song, “Lake Shore Drive” (1971) by Aliotta Jaynes Jeremiah, is also heard playing from the stereo in Quill’s ship as they leave The Sovereign. In Vol. 1, there is a shot of the mixtape in the stereo with the label “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” and in the sequel, there is the exact same shot but the mixtape reads “Awesome Mix Vol. 2.”

This repeat of the Vol. 1 introduction formula in Vol. 2 appears to be stating that popular music no longer belongs to Quill exclusively. The first film has established the creation of the Guardians and now the sequel is working to show how the team has grown together, which includes a broader ownership of popular music. While Quill meeting his father (Ego), and discovering that he is half god – which cues the return of “Brandy” from the introduction – leads to the climactic battle of Vol. 2, the strongest character development occurs in scenes with Rocket and Yandu (Michael Rooker). In their scenes, popular music is integral to their plans of deception and escape in a way that it is not with Quill in Vol. 2 – aside from when he uses his powers to defeat his father. For example, when Rocket and Yondu are taking out the Ravagers to escape the ship, Rocket asks Yondu is her has any of Quill’s old music lying around and they use it as an epic background to their escape. By mirroring the introduction of Vol. 1 in Vol. 2, the film anticipates from the beginning that Quill himself is no longer the primary focus and that popular music will belong to all of the Guardians. 

Catrin Watts is a doctoral candidate in music theory at The University of Texas at Austin and a graduate of Queen's University, Belfast, where they wrote a master's thesis on the film collaborations between Joe Wright and Dario Marianelli. Catrin has presented papers on music and film at several conferences and their dissertation explores the relationship between musical characteristics of popular music and the kinetic action of contemporary action film.