Why Edgar Wright and James Gunn Made the Best Musicals of 2017
Oscar isn’t the only one celebrating a major birthday this weekend—2017 also celebrated the 90th birthday of the American musical. And just like Oscar, the musical has seen major changes since Al Jolson first sang at the piano in 1927’s The Jazz Singer.
For one, studios release musicals less often now. When sound talked its way into cinemas, musical releases crescendoed in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s to a frequency we’ll likely never see again. A quick scan on Wikipedia (a source I only recommend for big picture understanding) lists more than 50 musicals in 1937. Ten years later that number stays strong with nearly 40, but it wanes somewhere around 1960, and by the 1970s, the numbers pianissimo to fewer than 10 releases per year.
Wikipedia lists 19 in 2017, but that includes TV movies, a direct-to-video film, and the Trolls Holiday TV special. (Yes, apparently that was a thing.) And even the most significant ones pale in comparison to the legacy of great movie musicals. The new Beauty and the Beast was a box office monster, but it owes too much to the 1991 version to give it too much credit to its own merits. Coco earned rave reviews, but those who didn’t see it have probably forgotten about it. (See Frozen for the opposite scenario.) The Greatest Showman’s reviews were mixed. Pitch Perfect 3? Aca-puhleeze. (Sorry, Pitches.)
At first glance, 2017 doesn’t seem to be stellar year for the genre, but it’s nowhere near dead. It’s been deconstructed and transformed, and we saw two phenomenal modern movie musicals last year—two called Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Baby, Meet the Guardians of the Frickin’ Galaxy
Let’s get something out of the way: Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright) and Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn) have more in common than just strong summer box offices and Oscar nominations.
A young guy who is good behind the wheel and goes by a nickname looks for redemption from a life of crime while listening to music from another era on dated technology his mom gave him (including a song with special meaning to her) and living with his surrogate father figure after becoming an orphan as a kid.
So, yeah, you could say they share some beats. But where those beats really start syncing up is in their soundtracks, which are more than just catchy playlists to set the tone. Baby and Guardians use music like the storytelling stuff of full-blown musicals, telling the audience what characters can’t say in dialogue and deepening their setting, plot, and characters.
Still not convinced? Let’s see how this pair compares with bona fide movie musicals and see if we can’t tell the difference. For better comparison, I’ll only reference musicals made directly for the screen. While some pull their stories from books, non-musical films, or pre-existing songs and plays, none directly translate a stage musical or remake a previous movie musical.
And warning! Plenty of spoilers ahead for both Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Soundtrack as Setting
When the almost Best Picture winner La La Land opens, we know where we are. On a jammed freeway in LA, dancers, musicians, actors, and other artistic hopefuls sing the whole film’s story in the first four minutes, establishing our location in modern day California and the emotional premise. We’re no longer in the proverbial “sleepy town” West of Santa Fe these dreamers left behind—we’re among the “rhythms of the canyons” and the “ballads in the barrooms” that demand our hopefuls’ every desire and dollar. And no matter how many disappointments this place brings, it will always promise something a little better with “Another Day of Sun.”
When Judy Garland sings the title song of 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, we know our characters believe the “lights are shining” nowhere but the best home they will ever find. When we watch Belle run her morning errands in the ’91 Beauty and the Beast, we see how small and simpleminded her French village is.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, we know where we are better from the music than the title cards. As the team leaves The Sovereign planet, Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” plays off of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) Awesome Mix Vol. 2 tape. The Guardians have defeated a beast, and they’re off to their next stop. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pilots their ship out of the atmosphere, and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) sprawls on a window watching the planet grow smaller. Near a messy table covered with trash and a half-drunk glass of something I can only assume to be booze, Peter sniffs a shirt before changing into it. He bristles at The Sovereign’s comments about his father, banters with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and cringes when Drax (Dave Bautista) shares way too much information. All the while, Jeremiah sings,
“There’s a road I’d like to tell you about, lives in my home town
Lake Shore Drive the road is called and it’ll take you up or down…
There ain’t no finer place to be, than running Lake Shore Drive,
And there’s no peace of mind or place you see, than riding on Lake Shore Drive”
Just like our dreamers in Los Angeles or the village folk in France, this is another day for the Guardians. And just like Smith family and Jeremiah declare their love for their Midwestern homes, our heroes have never felt more at home.
A half hour later, we see Rocket in another state of home: Setting a trap to outsmart inferior intelligent life. Glen Campbell croons,
“Southern nights, have you ever felt a Southern night?
Free as a breeze, not to mention the trees
Whistling tunes that you know and love so.”
After luring Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) crew deeper into the forest, he assaults them with mine-triggered darts and bounces tree to tree to dodge their bullets. He nearly cries laughing as he bounces them up and down with an electronic force field.
“Southern nights, they feel so good it’s frightening,
Wish I could stop this world from fighting.”
Campbell’s ironic lines only fade when Rocket realizes Yondu may be a threat.
Baby Driver mirrors these scene-setters with its early musical numbers. The movie opens with “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and our hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), outsmarts the cops with his streetwise driving after a bank job with Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Elsa González). “Bellbottoms,” a track with few (and as best I can tell, nonsensical) lyrics, blares in his earbuds, introducing us to the story’s first setting: Baby’s internal world, which he creates with music to drown out the humming in his ears, his pain, and his conscience. When he faces an impossible choice or sees his conspirators kill, he escapes just like he did when he watched his parents fight as a kid. With “Bellbottoms,” he acts like someone who’s not robbing a bank, just someone who loves to make mixtapes in his free time. It’s not surprising his escapes are usually instrumental pieces—he’s tuning out as many voices as he can.
Then he’s out to grab coffee for the group’s shoptalk with boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), and we see his external world. We’re among the skyscrapers of Atlanta, where people are cursing jaywalkers, hailing cabs, dancing on skates, walking to work, playing instruments, checking their phones, and preaching the end of the world. Earl and Bob’s “Harlem Shuffle” narrates Baby’s maneuvers around their activities in his ears and in the graffiti on the walls and sidewalk:
“You move it to the left,
Yeah, and you go for yourself.
You move it to the right,
Yeah, if it takes all night.
Now take it kinda slow,
With a whole lot of soul.
Don’t move it too fast,
You make it last.”
In this world, Baby rearranges every move to accommodate others. He still tries to escape by crossing the street to avoid a police officer, but he almost runs into half the people he passes, sometimes causing them to hit their brakes or stumble:
“Oh, come on, baby, I don’t want you to stumble now,
You just groove it right here to the Harlem Shuffle.”
In its choreography, the film asserts each of these individual’s humanity. They all have lives to direct independent of Baby, but he’s constantly tripping them up when he chooses to move to the left or to the right, to slow down or to speed up. In his hands, he holds coffee for those whose fates he holds in his hands when he drives, but unlike his comrades in arms, he can’t ignore the people of Atlanta, even when he tries to deny his conscience with music.
Those lyrics contain Baby’s internal conflict of the film: Will he go for himself? Will he stumble? Or can he find a groove where he fits in this city and no longer risks his neighbors’ lives?
Soundtrack as Plot
Familiar with “I Want” songs? If that term doesn’t ring a bell, just think of any Disney Princess movie. Somewhere in the first 20 minutes, our heroine yearns for a dream in a song that explains her motivation for the whole story. In “When Will My Life Begin,” the opener of 2010’s Tangled, Rapunzel bemoans her lonely, repetitive life inside her tower and sings of her hope to see the lights that appear on her birthday. When Flynn Rider appears, we know why she enlists his help to leave.
George Harrison provides Peter’s voice in the “I Want” song for Guardians Vol. 2 as we land on his newfound father/self-described god Ego’s (Kurt Russell) planet for the first time:
“I really want to see you,
Really want to be with you,
Really want to see you, Lord,
But it takes so long, my Lord.”
This heavenly planet enchants the Guardians with its pillars of flowers, waterfalls, and rainbow-shimmering bubbles. After waiting 30 years, Peter has met his father, and he’s even cooler than the David Hasselhoff he imagined.
Baby’s “I Want” song comes when Debora (Lily James) enters the diner his mother used to work at. “So what can I get you this fine morning?” He stammers, they get to know each other, and they stumble upon a shared dream: To head west on 20 in a car they can’t afford with plans they don’t have, just them, their music, and the road. The Beach Boys instrumental track, “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” ends moments after.
Musicals can also move a story’s plot into the next movement with song. Scar mobilizes his hyena troops for his coup d’état in The Lion King’s (1994) “Be Prepared.” Hugh Grant wins Drew Barrymore back with his silly but vulnerable “Don’t Write Me Off” in Music and Lyrics (2007). And in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy and Co. follow the yellow brick road to the tune of, um, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”
Rocket requests “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & the Americans when he, Yondu, and Groot exact revenge on Taserface (Chris Sullivan) and the mutineers who plotted to kill them. While the song sings of José’s comeuppance to a man who flirted with his girlfriend, they slo-mo strut out into the cabin, and Yondu whistles his mind-controlled arrow through the vital organs of everyone on board.
“Then the music stopped, when I looked the café was empty.
Then I heard José say, ‘Man, you know you’re in trouble plenty.’
So I dropped my drink from my hand, and through the window I ran…”
It’s time for Taserface’s—the last survivor on this near-empty ship’s—comeuppance, too.
How do we narrow down the list of plot driving songs in Baby Driver? We can’t hit skip on Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” which plays after Doc sucks Baby back into his schemes:
“Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide from you, baby.
Just can’t get away from you, baby, no matter how I try.
I know you’re no good for me, but free of you I’ll never be.”
And we don’t want to shuffle past “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” by Sam & Dave, which we hear at the diner when Debora realizes something is wrong with her Baby because he arrives with Buddy, Darling, and Bats (Jamie Foxx).
“When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.
And if I know that she’s worried, I know I’d feel the same misery…
And if she’s got a problem, I know, I know gotta help her solve ‘em.”
Oh, and did I mention Baby is a Barry White fan? He starts the breathy track “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” to declare his love to Debora, but Buddy hijacks it to sing his intent to avenge his wife Darling’s death:
“Never, never gonna give you up, I’m never, ever gonna stop.
Not the way I feel about you, girl, I just can’t live without you.
I’m never, ever gonna quit, ‘cause quittin’ just ain’t my stick…”
And it’s no coincidence Baby connects with Buddy over his killer track, “Brighton Rock” by Queen. Integral to two scenes in the movie, they connect over a song about two lovers separated by circumstance. Yep, seems to fit.
Soundtrack as Character Development
Some musicals keep their character developing songs straightforward. In White Christmas (1954), we understand Betty and Judy’s relationship with the single stanza, “Lord, help the mister who comes between me and my sister, and Lord, help the sister who comes between me and my man.” Others show their characters implicitly. We discover one practically perfect nanny’s sweet view of life when she sings “A Spoonful of Sugar” in 1964’s Mary Poppins and one actor’s sunny outlook during the sopping wet title track of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.
I’ve seen thoughtful criticism of Baby and Guardians for their treatment of their female characters. Are they stuffing them in fridges to motivate our male protagonists? Is Debora a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she shows up just in time to help Baby fulfill his dreams? While I’d love to know more of Debora’s background, I think a closer look at the musical text reveals none of these women are objectified or devalued. These films use the implicit route to build their characters, especially our heroes’ offscreen mothers.
Peter carries his mother’s parting gifts, The Awesome Mixes Vol. 1 and 2, at all times. He bonds with his father over their shared memories of one of her favorite songs on Vol. 2, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass. Here we get the first clue Ego isn’t the father Peter hoped for. Ego sees Peter and himself as the sailors in the song…
“She hears him say ‘Brandy, you’re a fine girl,
What a good wife you would be,
But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea.’”
…who bring gifts to the pining Brandys, Peter’s mother for Ego and Gamora for Peter:
“At night when the bars close down,
Brandy walks through a silent town
And loves a man who’s not around.”
Ego insists they may love these women, but they’re nothing more than temporary distractions. When Peter rejects his father’s plot to take over the galaxy, he rejects his entire premise: That all others (including these women) are worthless, and that Peter and Ego share the same values.
Like Peter and his Awesome Mixes, Baby never pitches the cracked iPod his mother gave him or forgets her favorite music. When he believes he’s escaped Doc, he listens to “Easy” by The Commodores:
“Know it sounds funny, but I just can’t stand the pain.
Girl, I’m leaving you tomorrow.
Seems to me, girl, you know I’ve done all I can.
You see I begged, stole, and I borrowed…
I want to be free to know the things I do are right.”
We later learn the only cassette he worries about losing is a recording of his mother singing that song, one that resonated with her because of Baby’s abusive father.
And because Peter and Baby’s mothers influenced their sons’ tastes in music, they live in every other song we hear. Peter’s handpicked each song on the Awesome Mixes, and Baby’s inspired his love for making music, like his “Was He Slow?” mix. The playlists give us clues about their lives, relationships, and what they wanted their sons to know.
As for Debora? She snubs Beck’s misspelled, sexualized description of her in “Debra,” and identifies with T. Rex’s quirky, complex ode to her. Her motives may not always be clear, but her voice and musical taste inspires Baby, and she is always the one choosing her next step.
The Modern Musical
So with music designed to give us more insight into setting, plot, and character development than in the script alone, who’s to say Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t the very models of modern major musicals? They already share plenty of other traits with recent movies marketed and labeled as such:
Musically Aware Characters – Gone are the days when you could joke about how weird it is that characters are breaking into song and no one around them notices. Director John Carney’s most recent original movie musicals, Begin Again (2013) and Sing Street (2016), are all about musicians trying to make their careers. Their songs reflect their emotions and the story, but they’re performing for audiences, not for themselves. Even Disney has broken the fourth wall at times, like with their 2007 princess spoof Enchanted, when characters comment on their spontaneous compositions.
More Songs to Move Plot, Fewer Just for Fun – Musicals have become more judicious with their time. The mountain men in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) may have found time for dance breaks while raising a barn, but I don’t think they’d be so lengthy today. In 1961, Disney wanted the owners in 101 Dalmatians to sing to wrap up their adventure, but in 2013, there was barely any music in the last act of Frozen.
Fewer, Shorter, and More Instrumental Songs – Baby and Guardians have just as many or more songs than many recent musicals. Before the credits roll, they prominently feature 27 and 11, respectively. A more reasonable frustration with La La Land is its short song count, with seven songs only sung by three characters and a chorus. Lengthwise, they’re more like the standard verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus pop song than traditional show numbers. (That syntax was also done well in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!) Many of the musical heights and pivotal plot moments (the Planetarium date, the Epilogue) are instrumental only. Heck, even Mia and Sebastian never sing along with “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme.”
All modern musicals are deconstructing the original form of the American musical, and the rare singing in Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy is just an extension of the trend. Thanks to them, 2017 became a stellar year for the genre, transforming it into the next step in its evolution.