In 2016, DC had its true launch of its MCU-rivaling cinematic universe and, in doing so, made two films with obvious Marvel counterparts. They actually managed to beat the Feige machine to the Hero-vs-Hero punch by a month with Batman v Superman, and then attempted their own a-hole antiheroes adventure, á la surprise 2014 smash Guardians of the Galaxy, with Suicide Squad.
It’s almost universally agreed that Guardians was, by a long way, the superior film – from its characters, to its dialogue, to its use of a pop soundtrack that Suicide Squad went out of its way to emulate. That the Guardians soundtrack is markedly more effective than Suicide Squad’s is notable, and raises the wider issue of how licensed music is utilised by good or great directors, as opposed to bland ones.
First and foremost, Guardians’ music choices are superior and more emotionally resonant because they’re based on character. We’re not just hearing snippets of David Ayer’s driving playlist cut over a rapid-fire montage; we’re listening to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music alongside him. Every song is handpicked by our hero for the situation that he’s in, and through his choices, we learn about him. His relationship with the Earth he left decades ago is defined by his mother’s favourite ‘70s tracks, and yet what could be a tragic collection of tunes is kept uplifting by the clear joy Quill gets from treasure-hunting to a soundtrack.
Using a space rat as a microphone to karaoke ‘Come and Get Your Love’, escaping from a prison to the Piña Colada song, and saving the galaxy with ‘Ooh Child’, Quill’s music defines the tone of his character as well as that of the entire movie. James Gunn has so clearly put so much love and effort into picking out the most effective soundtrack that it makes Suicide Squad’s tonally and thematically incoherent tracklist look like an embarrassing afterthought.
This is where the separation between good and mediocre directors really lies in terms of music choices. ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’ complement the scenes they’re used in by possessing the same rhythm and vibe as the action around them, whereas Ayer deploys his songs based on deeply uninspired lyrical similarities. When we first meet Suicide Squad’s true villain, Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, we have to know that she’s a conflicted bad guy, so the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ plays. Lyrically, it’s an on-the-nose choice, but one that basically works; rhythmically, it doesn’t match up at all.
Waller’s entrance is a slow motion glide through rain-slicked city streets into a fancy, dimly-lit restaurant, entirely at odds with the incredibly bouncy, always Vietnam War-conjuring tune surrounding it. Another Vietnam-era track, CCR’s ‘Fortunate Son’, is used with a similar lack of scene-to-song cohesion as we meet Killer Croc. Killer Croc is unfortunate, because he’s a crocodile, so the lyric “I ain’t no fortunate one” rings out over scenes of him eating meat in a prison sewer – even though, again, there is no pacing in this sequence that justifies this song choice.
Compare this shoddy work with the twang of space-age discovery in the first guitar riff in Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ and how it perfectly suits the Guardians’ first flight into Knowhere, a deep-space colony built in the skull of a mysterious and gargantuan ancient being. The lyrics to the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ are about a breakup, largely irrelevant in their literal content to the aftermath of killing an all-powerful alien terrorist, but with such a triumphant blast of happiness in every chord, what else could cap a ludicrously entertaining sci-fi romp?
If you were to conduct a survey about which director has the best soundtracks, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese would undoubtedly top your list, and they, of course, both recognise that songs’ lyrics are far from the most important thing when matching them to their films. Obviously, both are masters of the happy song-gruesome event dissonance, and have inspired countless pale imitations of the same technique, but there’s something a lot deeper to both of their song-choosing work – especially when considering Scorsese.
Take, as one example among very many, the FBI dismantling of Stratton Oakmont in The Wolf of Wall Street. A lesser director may have picked a lyrically obvious choice (Suicide Squad would have no doubt dropped in ‘I Fought the Law’), but Scorsese instead chooses the Lemonheads’ cover of ‘Mrs. Robinson’. Actually written specifically for an entirely different film, the way Scorsese paces the scene and matches the music to it makes for one of the most remarkably satisfying fits in soundtrack history. It’s the perfect example of recognising the rhythm of your film and how music can elevate it – a test which Suicide Squad fails miserably, while Guardians of the Galaxy passes with flying colours.