The story goes that when James Gunn first pitched himself to steer the Guardians of the Galaxy ship, his focal point was the Walkman and the soundtrack. Meanwhile, back here in the present tense, I can’t decide what to watch and spend all night skipping around to my favorite needle drops on every streaming service that hasn’t cracked down on password sharing yet.
I’m Clint Gage and this is not my attempt at a definitive list of the best needle drops of all time. This is just my Timecode Party.
A good soundtrack can of course just be a collection of good songs. In this house we do not begrudge a collection of bops, no matter the flimsy excuse for their being grouped together. A great soundtrack however, needs to have a bigger purpose. One of the surest ways to elevate a soundtrack is by perfecting the needle drop, using the right song for the right moment to create something memorable that’s more than the sum of the two things. And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a variety of ways the great ones pull this off*.
*At least four that I can think of, but you’re welcome to discuss more than that in the comments.
Stop Number 1 – Guardians of the Galaxy (2012)
A movie from a franchise that is kinda defined by great needle drops, Guardians of the Galaxy invigorated a new wave of soundtrack movies so my first stop in this Timecode Party is from their first outing in the MCU. For my money Vol. 1’s music beats the subsequent films by a mile because for all the weight that a Cat Stevens track playing over a funeral at the end of a film about daddy issues has, music cues like that can be a sort of cheat code. It’s like putting an animal in danger during an action sequence to juice the tension. It can absolutely be effective, but it might not be the most thoughtful bit of filmmaking. Such is the hole that lyrically-on-the-nose song choices dig for themselves where I’m concerned**.
But James Gunn created no such holes in his first outing with the Guardians. In fact, I’d wager the movie doesn’t even own a shovel or frankly, know how to dig. Awesome Mix Volume 1 is a soundtrack so thoroughly woven into the plot that my choice for the best needle drop in the film doesn’t even actually get properly featured in the film.
After Ronan the Accuser’s ship, The Dark Aster, crashes into the surface of Xandar, the Guardians are scattered and hurting. We can barely hear “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps playing on Quill’s busted tape deck in that echo-y, hollow way that says “things have gotten pretty bad for our heroes.” During the dance off to save the planet that ensues, it’s Quill himself that’s singing the lyrics, and even then it’s not many.
It turns out “O-o-h child” is a simple song with only one refrain repeated as the music soars to inspirational heights. “Things” the song repeats, “are gonna get easier. Things will get brighter.” The song on a mixtape Star-Lord’s mom made for him, that he treasured and listened to for 30 years, is the key to the climactic showdown with the film’s big bad. It’s a song promising things will get better for a kid that was abducted by aliens and then, by the end of the film, things have indeed gotten better for him.
Even though it’s not a needle drop technically, it does everything a good music cue should.
**I’m also looking at you “Paint it Black” in Black Adam. It’s on the nose but also in the wrong way. Just having the word Black in the title of the song is not enough and it had to be crazy expensive for an otherwise pointless 40 seconds or so on screen. End footnote rant.
Stop Number 2 – The Harder They Come (1972)
One of the things that makes the Guardians’ soundtrack so great is the nostalgia of it. A collection of classic rock hits from a different era would be all for show without a story-based reason for it. But this is just another thing that makes soundtracks great. If the tracks get you nostalgic for another time, it also means that a great batch of songs helped define that other time in the first place, and that brings us to the second leg of my Timecode Party.
The Harder They Come is a sorta-based-on-a-true-story crime film in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, where the main character is loosely based on a sensationalized legend of a real-life criminal with liberties taken left right and center. The film follows Ivanhoe Martin, an aspiring musician who, having been put through the ringer of the local music scene in Kingston, turns to crime to leave his mark.
The first half of the film follows reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff as Ivanhoe, chasing his dreams of a successful music career. Right about the halfway point, he plays the title track for the kingpin record producer. The Harder They Come lyrically outlines the struggles both he and Jamaica faced in the ’70s, where graft and corruption oppressed the poor in every sphere including the music business. In short, the song is the point of the movie and it’s perfectly placed in the middle.
After this sequence Ivanhoe turns to crime with abandon and becomes a wanted man on the run. There’s a wonderful satirical streak in the film as well. The idea that he’s getting what he always wanted, fame and fortune, through becoming a notorious gangster instead of a famous singer, is a part of the film that’s front and center right up to the end.
More than anything though, the film is great because of its soundtrack. Featuring plenty of Jimmy Cliff alongside Toots and the Maytalls, with that title track working like a fulcrum in the middle of a thematic see-saw*** between the two halves of the film, the record sold around the globe and had no small hand in introducing reggae to the world outside of Jamaica. The film presents a time and place to an unfamiliar audience in which this music is completely fresh and exciting, which… scrolls back up, re-reads intro… yep, that’s the point I wanted to make with this section!
Incidentally the track “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, which is featured in the title sequence and a great scene at 1:19:00 where Ivanhoe is driving a convertible around on a golf course, is one of the main bops in the Guardians of the Galaxy offshoot I Am Groot on Disney+. And on a personal tangent my four-year-old wandered around the house for a little while singing it, until it was recently supplanted by “Peaches” from The Super Mario Brothers Movie so… thank you The Harder They Come!
***This is a terrible metaphor, but I won’t apologize for it.
Stop Number 3 – The Brothers Bloom (2009)
Before we go any further we need to acknowledge the tracks that just get you moving. Maybe they’re not thematically aligned with a character arc or specifically indicative of a time and place or all that boring film school stuff. Maybe the f****ng thing just rocks. A ton of Martin Scorsese’s work belongs in this conversation. Mean Streets is best watched loud as hell, and Goodfellas covers decades of music from Bobby Darin to Derek and the Dominos. But for the next cocktail in my Timecode Party, I love the mix of Rian Johnson and Rod Stewart in the opening titles of The Brothers Bloom.
In 2009, the post Brick, pre-Looper, pre-pre-Last Jedi world of Rian Johnson included two masters of the big con. Stephen, the older brother, wants to give Bloom, the younger, everything he wants, but does it via elaborately fabricated confidence schemes. But that imitation of a life is wearing thin on Bloom. Before we get to any of that, though, there’s a prologue to the film, which finds the Brothers as foster kids cooking up their first big score, 30 dollars’ worth of bomb pops, which leads directly into the title sequence.
It’s a hip and stylish introduction to the Brothers, setting the tone for a fantasy tinged with sadness. They’re the main characters in a grimy but charming fairy tale about noble crooks, even as children. Then on our way to the title screen, which itself is a literal explosion of lights, the crunchy guitar riff from The Faces’ version of (I Know) I’m Losing You kicks in and it… just… rocks.
It’s a great example of a needle drop employing a fun little meta narrative in addition to just nakedly rocking. For starters, this song is a cover. The parenthetically confused song was originally written and performed by The Temptations. Like the roles Stephen writes for Bloom, it’s a performance of somebody else’s art. Lyrically the song is about a relationship coming to a close, but in the film it’s used at the very beginning of the titular Brothers’ journey as con men. In that sense the song title is speaking to Stephen’s lifelong concern that his brother will one day leave him, and that these cons are the only chance he’s got at keeping him around.
Of course the other great thing about this drop is that none of those lyrics are actually heard in the cue. The rock comes and goes like the popping flash bulbs that make up the film’s title card. It’s a track that’s employed in such a brazenly rad way, any connections you want to make to the movie and the story as a whole are entirely up to you. The phrase that gets thrown around about art that “really sticks with you” usually applies to darkness, difficult topics that leave you pondering. In this case, it’s a swaggering rock ’n’ roll energy that sticks with you. Something badass is afoot and it just f*****g works.
****There weren’t any footnotes. I wrote a swear word and the asterisks are the ‘bleep’ of the written word.
******These footnotes are getting ridiculous, I think.
Stop Number 4 – Wayne’s World (1992)
This final stop is about Wayne’s World, but really it's a dealer's choice. Whatever you guys want. One of the truly great things about movies is the combination of art forms. It’s photography and theater and music and montage all baked into a pop culture pie. A great needle drop then, is something that hits you at the exact right time. So for the anchor leg of this Timecode Party and at the great risk of sounding like a cop out, find your own damn needle drop!
For me, because I’m (covers mouth, mumbles) years old, Wayne Campbell, Garth Algar and the rest of the Mirth Mobile lip syncing with animated fervor to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is burned into my memory. I grew up with Wayne’s World on Saturday Night Live, and their movie was a formative event for me and there is less than a zero percent chance I can hear Bohemian Rhapsody and not start headbanging during the hard rock section in the back half of the song. It’s physically impossible for me to avoid and, before you ask, no I will not go see a doctor about it.
The truly great needle drops hit all of us differently. Lloyd Dobbler holding his boombox while Peter Gabriel blasts out of it in Say Anything, What’s Up Danger and Miles’ Leap of Faith in Into the Spider-verse, a bus full of grumpy rockers coming together over a Tiny Dancer singalong in Almost Famous. Old friends getting back together after a funeral and washing dishes to Ain’t Too Proud to Beg in The Big Chill (that’s my mom’s favorite, FYI). The Pixies and buildings exploding in Fight Club, Eye of the Tiger and a training montage, Tom Cruise in tightie whities set to Bob Seger… They’re all songs and images that are forever inked in somebody’s mind. Even if it’s not mine, I get it and I love it and I’m glad you love it too.
Let me know what your Needle Drop, Soundtrack Timecode Party would look like in the comments! And for even more, check out our Guardians Vol. 3 Post-Credits Scene and Ending Explained, what will happen next for the Guardians, how to watch Guardians 3, and Every Guardian of the Galaxy Ever.