Great Soundtracks Aren’t Just Awesome Mixtapes

Why ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ work and ‘Atomic Blonde’ doesn’t.
Baby Groot Music
By  · Published on August 3rd, 2017

Why ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ work and ‘Atomic Blonde’ doesn’t.

Great soundtrack albums, like great albums in general, are more than the sum of their parts. They’re not just compilations of great songs. That’s something easily forgotten in the era of digital downloads and shuffled music libraries. Great soundtracks can be an extension of, sometimes even an adaptation of, their respective movies. Listen to them after seeing a movie, and scenes are recalled through the songs they feature. Characters’ personalities are encountered again through the music that represents them.

This year’s two most notable soundtracks are special not just because of the tunes they collect. The music of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Baby Driver are tied very specifically to their main characters. They are songs on tapes and iPods played in the movie by those characters. They’re not always played in a diegetic manner — that is, in the story and heard by people on screen rather than overlain — but they all have a diegetic existence, which gives them a pseudo tangibility in their films.

Compare those to the soundtrack for Atomic Blonde. I love all the songs in this movie, but I hate them as used in the movie. Why? There are a few reasons. I find the use of German pop songs that became hits in America, such as “99 Luftballoons” and “Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)” to be lazy representations of “the 1980s” (both came out six years ahead of the 1989 setting) and “Berlin.” The movie’s music choices reach full embarrassment, though, when “London Calling” plays when a character arrives in London.

The soundtrack doesn’t properly represent the specific time or places of the movie, nor does it relate to any of its characters. The background punks of East Berlin maybe managed to listen to bootlegs of “Fight the Power” in the fall of 1989, and maybe much of the GDR was embracing more tunes from the West, but a lot of the curation of songs seem misguided. Want to represent East Germany with music? Play some Frank Schöbel — the movies The Lives of Others and This Ain’t California know better.

What happens is there’s little connection between song and scenes when you listen to the soundtrack. When you hear “Mr. Blue Sky” on the Guardians 2 album, Baby Groot’s dance and the action in the background may play back in your mind. Same for “Bellbottoms” and “Neat Neat Neat” and their respective action scenes in Baby Driver.  When you hear “I Ran (So Far Away),” you probably don’t have any remembrance of what is on screen in Atomic Blonde as it plays. The only track with any significant connection is “Father Figure,” as it plays diegetically during the most memorable action sequence in the movie.

Many soundtracks are commercially successful because they’re compilations of good songs. The Big Chill‘s soundtrack probably did so well without having any new original tunes because it collected a lot of oldies that carried nostalgia, sure, but also because most had been known individually as singles, and only previously owned in that manner if at all. But those songs also represent the characters’ own nostalgia and what they’re listening to diegetically in the movie. The same goes for the oldies compilations of the American Graffiti and Stand By Me soundtracks. They work because most of the songs are also what are heard by the characters listening to the radio.

Great soundtracks aren’t always the most enjoyable albums if they aim to fit the movie and its characters. Nobody would ever make a mixtape that goes from Mista Grimm to Liz Phair to Rage Against the Machine, but in Higher Learning these artists are heard one after another as part of the introductions to very different characters in succession. It’s a little stereotypical but it works in an almost Prokofievian way. The soundtrack album rearranges the placement of songs to make things go together a little more fluidly, but even if your taste in music is broad enough to appreciate the songs and artists on their own, it’s still an intentionally jarring grouping of varied sounds.

The overbearing soundtrack for Suicide Squad attempts a similar design by introducing characters to the tune of obvious music choices — a character from the swamps of Louisiana? play some Creedence Clearwater Revival, but try to be subtle by not going for the most appropriate, “Born on the Bayou.” Suicide Squad also seems to be going for the wall-to-wall soundtrack concept that people love with the two Guardians movies, yet it doesn’t have the narrative purpose that they do. Even when songs are diegetic, they don’t seem to be.

When critics list the best soundtracks of all time, they tend to go with Pulp Fiction instead of the better Quentin Tarantino movie choice of Reservoir Dogs, which represents its “super sounds of the ’70s” radio station motif. And diegetic soundtrack scenes like Mr. Blonde cutting off Officer Nash’s ear to “Stuck in the Middle With You” make more sense and have more character significance than Mia putting on and dancing to an Urge Overkill cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.”

Not all great soundtracks have to follow a rule of memorable diegesis. For one thing, there are some filmmakers who do a great job of choosing music that just tonally compliments their visuals. Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson come to mind. And Tarantino sometimes (his anachronistic use of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out Fire),” which interestingly enough is an original title song written for the movie Cat People, in Inglourious Basterds works so much better than Atomic Blonde‘s inclusion). Also, there are plenty of soundtracks that work as great compilation albums on their own while their songs also fit well enough in their movies – — examples include Dazed and Confused and Trainspotting.

There are talented music supervisors in Hollywood who can find the perfect songs for certain movie scenes and also curate awesome mixtapes in the process. See the credits of regular Sofia Coppola collaborator Brian Reitzell, for example, and Randall Poster, who’s worked with Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle, and Wes Anderson. But then there’s the situation of Baby Driver, where the soundtrack was so pre-planned by filmmaker Edgar Wright that licensing had to be locked before they started shooting.

Not every song Wright wanted could be in the movie, though (he admits dance and hip-hop tracks are particularly difficult to clear). It’s likely that director James Gunn had some rejections with the Guardians movies (though he says he was a fighter and had to go directly to Jeff Lynne about “Mr. Blue Sky”). But neither would have allowed a random swap or fill-in. Baby in Baby Driver does seem to have wide-ranging music tastes, so maybe it’d be hard to tell there, but when we listen to the Guardians soundtracks, we have to be able to accept them as representing Meredith Quill and her relationship to her son through the picks, because they are mixtapes she made for him.

I’d love for Baby Driver and Guardians 2 to have influence on future movie soundtracks, but with good reason. Their albums are awesome mixtapes but not just. And no movie should just try to ape what they do in a superficial way with characters having literal mixtapes or always listening to music that fits the scene. Wright and Gunn hit on ideas that are sort of similar but also distinct to their own movies. It will take another very clever filmmaker to find his or her own unique soundtrack device in order to compare.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.