Becoming a Guardian of the Galaxy: Star Lord and the Importance of Music
For those who have seen The Guardians of the Galaxy, it is difficult to imagine Peter Quill AKA Star Lord without his Walkman and the tape full of classic pop songs that his mother mixed for him. An unforgettable album, including every classic featured in the film, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became #1 on the Billboard 200 quickly after its release. Many are calling this diegetic soundtrack “the movie’s emotional core.” It certainly holds a special place in Peter’s heart.
Peter’s obsession with Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it a double-edged sword; while it may keep Peter’s identity strong as Yondu threatens to convert him into a full-fledged ravager, it also prevents him from moving on. His decision to finally open Awesome Mix Vol. 2 marks the peak of his growth in Guardians of the Galaxy for this very reason. Confronting the reality of his mother’s passing never meant denying the importance of the memories they made together when she was still alive, or that he would be broken for the rest of his life. He is truly ready to embrace his role as a guardian of the galaxy when he understands that.
Music both influences our perception of Peter and directly affects his path toward self-definition. Some of the tracks which accompany scenes that demonstrate this include “I’m Not in Love,” “Come and Get Your Love,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Together, they represent the culmination of Peter’s efforts to free himself from his ravager identity and the trauma of losing his mother. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 provides great insight into Peter’s developing identity as Star Lord, not in an explicit story told through lyrics but in his reactions to it within context.
“I’m Not in Love”- 10cc (1975)
It is out of necessity and respect that the audience is immediately exposed to this haunting moment from Peter’s past before diving into the fun.
The film opens with “I’m not in Love,” granting Awesome Mix Vol. 1 a position of importance in Peter’s life right away. Young Peter turns up the volume on his Walkman not only to avoid the sounds of the hospital around him, but also because he can relate to the lyrics. Broadly speaking, this is a song of ultimate denial. The speaker is afraid to admit to his true feelings for fear of rejection and loss. Similarly, young Peter suppresses his emotions, tuning out reality with his headphones as his mother’s health deteriorates.
Just as this scene marks a rare moment of true anguish in film, so too is this song incongruous to the otherwise fun and upbeat tracks. It’s hard to imagine him in this moment connecting with any of the other songs that have yet to be heard in the same way. Hearing “I’m Not in Love” of Awesome Mix Vol. 1 play in a scene from the past reinforces the Walkman as a nostalgic treasure and comforting companion. Peter’s need to commiserate with a song like “I’m Not in Love” establishes an undercurrent of turmoil beneath the confident, easy going attitude that we later observe in Star Lord.
It is worth noting that this song too becomes suppressed; although it is played in the distant past, it never pops up in the mix when Peter listens to the same cassette in 2014. Perhaps it is so closely connected to that painful memory that Peter does not wish to play it again, and has learned when to skip around it. Thankfully, the other songs keep him bonded to his mother, lift his spirits, and provide him with something familiar and reliable to hold onto after he is abducted from Earth.
“Come and Get Your Love”- Redbone (1974)
The words “26 years later” appear on the screen, followed by a scene on the abandoned planet Morag where a strange masked man is hunting for treasure. We don’t need his explanation to Korath, follower of antagonist Ronan, in order to know who he is. Hearing “Come and Get Your Love” blast through the ruins that serve as sanctuary to an infinity stone is clear enough confirmation that this is indeed an older Peter Quill. The Walkman has already surpassed his mask as iconic prop. The subtle message is that although his face may have changed, his heart has not.
Awesome Mix Vol. 1 creates the feeling of a victorious entrance for Peter, who dances freely to the rhythm, but when the title hits the screen in giant letters the audience is unaware of the significance of his groove. To the viewer, who has nothing with which to compare this job, it seems as though he is just having fun with his assignment, not celebrating his independence. The audience does not know that ravagers come in fleets, and that Star Lord has betrayed them in working alone.
Individuality isn’t something Yondu particularly values in his ravagers, which has limited Peter’s opportunities for personal growth. Even though Peter Quill has grown into an adult, he has not been able to pursue an identity separate from the lifestyle his abductors have thrust upon him. One way that he has managed to defiantly claim his identity has been to go by the name “Star Lord.” He gets away with this by calling it his “outlaw name” rather than revealing that it is the name of endearment his mother gave him. Whoever Star Lord has the potential to be, Peter’s kidnapping has inevitably led him into the life of petty thief and Yondu expects him to be grateful for it all.
Peter has other plans, however–plans to set himself free. Peter shamelessly dances his way through the ruins of Morag because what should be a hauntingly abandoned planet is for him a blissfully empty stage that he can leave whenever he wants. He can practically taste freedom here, away from the rest of the ravagers. “Come and Get Your Love” is a song to eliminate doubt and propel him forward with confidence. Did he plan to have this song playing before he arrived? Maybe. In any case, he does not object to the song, and lets loose until it is time for the tricky part—actually stealing the orb.
“Hooked on a Feeling”-Blue Swede (1974)
It tells a lot about Peter to know that when he hears the threats directed at Gamora he can put his own vulnerability out of his mind.
When Groot, Rocket, Gamora, and Star Lord are arrested by the Nova Corps, they face many bullies in prison, some of whom are supposed to be upholders of justice. Peter regards bullies with intolerance, a trait that has always been central to his identity. It has led him to be a guardian for the innocent despite being brought up as an outlaw. During the first scene of the movie, Peter is seen with a black eye that he got while standing up to bullies who killed a frog for the fun of it. It significantly reveals a side of him that has always been there and has persisted in his heart even after his abduction. This time, he begins by standing up for himself, and selflessly defends Gamora from corruption and blind hatred.
Peter may be a prisoner, guilty as charged, but that doesn’t mean anyone has the right to ransack his belongings. It would have been bad enough to have had his music sent to impound, but it is especially infuriating for him to see that a guard has thieved from him. When Peter sees the Nova Corps guard tauntingly bobbing his head to HIS song, he charges toward him with no thought for his own safety. He is subsequently tazed and thrown in with the rest of the prisoners, making a big step backward on his way to achieving the rights that come with being a free man.
“Hooked on a Feeling” plays over the following montage, louder than anything else, and clearly stuck in Peter’s head. He obsesses over the song, willing the memory of it to distract him from the chaos around him until something hits him in the head that was meant to hit Gamora. Then the music abruptly stops, replaced by the clamorous jeers from the other blood thirsty prisoners with an axe to grind.
Peter’s problems seem small then. To the other inmates, Gamora is a heaven-sent scapegoat for exacting their revenge upon Ronan. Once again a guard acts unjustly. Not only does he not intervene with the prisoners’ plot, he even gives a bit of advice—to commit their crime down by the showers where the mess will be “easier to clean up.” At this point, Gamora only knows enemies. She doesn’t expect anyone to take her side, but Peter respects her claim that she meant to betray Ronan the whole time and watches out for her.
When Peter rescues Gamora by reasoning with Drax, the prisoner most consumed with revenge, he hides his intentions. He does not trust his new companions well enough yet to show his softer side. Instead of calling himself heroic, as he will do later when he saves Gamora from space exposure, he opts to play it off as something an outlaw would do for love of money, rather than out of compassion. As Star Lord, legendary outlaw, Peter can pretend that he is only interested in protecting her to receive a portion of the profit the orb fetches, but there is a hero within Star Lord that cannot sleep when an innocent is outnumbered by bullies.
“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”- Rupert Holmes (1979)
Peter’s quest to retrieve Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is counterproductive to his escape and demonstrates just how far he is from moving on from his mother’s death.
The guard who stole Peter’s most prized possession apparently enjoys it as much as everyone who helped make it the #1 album in America. When Peter discovers that his Walkman was never returned to impound he risks his freedom to retrieve it. The audience cheers him on as he goes back, guns blazing. There the culprit sits, listening to “Escape” while the future guardians of the galaxy fittingly await the completion of their own upon Star Lord’s return. It doesn’t take long before the headphones are back to where they are meant to be–safety over Peter’s ears.
This is the song that celebrates already having that for which one searches, something Peter has yet to learn. By the end of the movie, we realize that the message of this song is meaningful for Peter in two ways. For one, he is looking for an identity when he has already been working with his future team. For another, even if Peter loses Awesome Mix Vol. 1, he still has Awesome Mix Vol. 2. The problem is not the positive message that the music gives him, but the fact that Peter risks it all to go back for it. The scene is very telling of how far he is from moving on from his mother’s death. He still thinks that losing the music means losing what the music has meant to him all these years, when his bond with his mother is something no one can take from him.
The audience cheers on Peter’s successful return to his ship with Awesome Mix Vol. 1, but Drax revokes his praise when he sees the device in his possession. As much as no one wants to hear it, he does make a valid point. After all, the orb is the item that is truly worth something (4 billion units to be exact) and Peter’s actions were incredibly reckless. Drax cannot, however, comprehend metaphors, and that makes it difficult for him to understand why Peter does what he does. In actuality, Peter risks the future for the past by going back for Awesome Mix Vol. 1. If Drax were to understand music as the symbol of Peter’s relationship with his late mother then he might have acknowledged their similar values sooner. Instead what Drax sees is an “imbecile” who risked his future for a piece of plastic that makes noise.
Drax criticizes Peter, but he will later make the rash mistake of putting himself and everyone else in harm’s way to challenge Ronan. The difference between the executions of their risky actions is that while Peter keeps the others at a safer distance when he goes to retrieve his Walkman, Drax attracts danger to them all. Rocket criticizes Drax for putting them all in needless danger: “Everybody’s got dead people. But it makes no excuse to letting everyone else [including yourself] get killed along the way.” Both Peter and Drax have difficulty in letting go of the past and focusing on what is worth protecting in the present, but this is an important way in which they can relate to each other.
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love”-Elvin Bishop (1976)
Like Drax, Gamora does not understand why he went back for the music when he could have made a quicker getaway without it. Here, he has a hard time saying that it was given to him by his mother before she died. Instead he says that he had it on him when he left earth. Both are traumatic events in his life that he is not in a habit of sharing with other people. Gamora also shares a personal story. She tells Peter that Thanos killed her whole family in front of her and forced her to work for him. Now she wants to sell the infinity orb so she can have the means to create a new life for herself.
Their stories are parallel, yet even though Gamora has suffered much worse she still hasn’t become twisted and consumed with bitterness as one might expect. Her story is an inspiration to Peter, who can’t help but be attracted to her enduring heart. While Peter has used his music to retreat to a safer place, Gamora has set up emotional barriers. She takes out her knife on him when the music threatens to compromise those barriers. Still, the two inevitably bring out the best in each other, and their true growth is seen when they realize that they are more important to each other’s happiness than their coping mechanisms.
Unwrapping the Future
Bonding with the guardians of the galaxy is Peter’s way of creating a new family from scratch—something these “losers” all need. Out in space, Peter is as much an alien as everyone else he’s ever met, but he is not alone. Only when he realizes this will he have the freedom to embrace the future. The weight of Groot’s use of the word “we” when he makes his last stand cannot be overstated. The guardians of the galaxy are in this together until the end, not out of obligation, or coercion, but love.
The significant correlation between friends and family—that kind of strong bond that involves personal sacrifices—is epitomized in the moment when Peter himself is close to death. As the infinity stone threatens to make him burst into nothingness, the same way as when Carina took hold of it, Peter sees his mother calling to him to take her hand. Of course, Peter is only delirious; the moment has been playing on repeat in his subconscious, and the one really calling out to him is Gamora.
The fact that someone cares about him, someone who needs him as much as he needs her, someone who wants to give him strength in this dark hour, is enough to make the parallel in his mind and bring the memory of his mother to the surface. He takes Gamora’s hands, Drax clasps his shoulder, and Rocket grasps Drax’s finger. The infinity stone bends to their combined wills and turns upon the malicious Ronan. It is by enduring the pain together and redistributing it amongst themselves that they ultimately trump one of the greatest powers in the universe.
Victorious, living up to the name of a hero rather than that of an outlaw, and surrounded by new friends, finally the moment is right for Peter to sit down and break through that wrapping paper. Peter hasn’t exactly been saving the gift as a reward for saving Xandar. In reality, opening it, along with the hand written note that comes with it, marks the first time he feels comfortable enough to do so. Because his mother told him to open it after she was gone, not doing so has prolonged Peter’s acceptance that he was alone in the world. Now that he is safe, however, surrounded by people who truly care about him, Peter does not fear that opening this gift means that he is losing the only person he loves.
Peter doesn’t realize that a gift that will keep giving, Awesome Mix Vol. 2, is waiting for him beneath the wrapping paper along with a priceless letter. Its mysteriousness symbolizes the unknown future that he only now has the courage and freedom to embrace. When he finally opens it, it hits us as a no-brainer that if there was a Vol. 1 then there must at least be a Vol. 2. Likewise, life goes on, and Peter is able to see that his future direction has been there all along. Music is his secret weapon in this way. Instead of opening Awesome Mix Vol. 2 in his darkest hour, he is able to gain strength just knowing it is in his possession. He opens it when he knows his mother would be proud of him, because he is proud of himself.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1967)
Since “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” is the first song on Awesome Mix Vol. 2, it communicates the inherent significance of being the first song Peter was supposed to hear after her death.
Peter once feared that closure was a ravager that would take from him the memory of his mother, but Awesome Mix Vol. 2 provides him with the same promise that she makes in the letter: “…I will always be with you. You are the light of my life. My precious son. My little Star Lord.” It is no mistake that the first song of the new mix, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” echoes this message. These lyrics especially send a special message meant for Peter: “My love is alive way down in my heart / although we are miles apart.” Even death cannot separate them because she lives on in him.
Gamora has already reminded Peter that Yondu was not, in fact, the only family he had, and she could just as easily have been referring to his mother’s voice behind Awesome Mix Vol. 1 as to herself and the other guardians. Gamora arrives on the screen with “If you need me call me, no matter where you are, no matter how far” and the connection between ally and family is once again emphasized. Then, everything settles into an uplifting ending, making it clear that the next part of Star Lord’s existence–the part as a guardian–is upon Peter.
A Guardian at Last
Being uprooted from Earth at an early age would have caused Peter Quill even more emotional trauma had he not been abducted with music in his backpack. The ravagers threaten to stunt his growth as a free-minded individual, but he does not relent. His way of fighting back is subtle. Listening to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 over and over again is his way of escaping from the present and making a small rebellion against the ravagers’ demands of him. Furthermore, music represents a connection to his mother, one that death cannot sever. Refusing to open Awesome Mix Vol. 2, however, is a mistake.
Peter Quill learns that exploring the future and taking control of his identity means accepting reality and leaving the pain of yesterday behind him, which means opening his mother’s last gift to him. In all those years of finding solace in Awesome Mix Vol. 1, Peter never unwraps it, unwilling as he is to feel permanently separated from her. Finally opening that little box is the final step of self-discovery for Peter before becoming a guardian of the galaxy because it is the last part of his past that he feels necessary to resolve. Through reading the letter and putting in the new cassette, Peter realizes that facing his mother’s death does not mean abandoning her but never forgetting who she was and how she has become a part of him.
Peter, of course, has always cherished the memory of his mother, and has never really wanted his future to be trapped in the identity of a ravager. Though he struggles to define himself as he grows into an adult within a ravager band, Peter never forgets his mother’s name for him and aspires to make it meaningful to himself and the world. What began as the name of a “legendary outlaw” has become a tribute to his mother, a warning to his enemies, and a comfort to his allies: Star Lord. Now that that he has found his place in the world, and the Nova Corps has officially wiped his slate clean, nothing can hold him back from his future as a guardian of the galaxy. So, who’s ready to hear the rest of Awesome Mix Vol. 2?
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