“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” delivers on many of the promises of its predecessor, echoing its familiar teasing humor, comic-book in-jokes and irreverent, self-deprecating vibe. Most obviously, it doubles down on a retro, so-bad-it’s-good soundtrack that resurrects Top 40 hits from the baby-boomer and Gen-X eras with shamelessly ingratiating abandon.
If “Hooked On a Feeling,” the dubious pop earworm from one-hit-wonders Blue Swede, was the unofficial theme song of the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the new iteration is defined by its opening number: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” a love ballad by the New Jersey band Looking Glass that became a hit in 1972. The song’s lyrics are explicitly invoked throughout “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” sharing pride of place with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” whose pounding, percussive rhythms help juice up the drama and action at a pivotal moment.
No doubt, these callbacks add to the appeal of the “Guardians” films, aiming straight for the pleasure centers of older audience members and tickling atavistic memories of younger viewers who grew up listening to their parents’ oldies on the radio and Spotify. And they define a particular genre, what I call “needle-drop” movies, referring to the term for laying songs, or portions of songs, over scenes rather than a specifically composed score.
When needle drops have been curated carefully and deployed judiciously, they can enhance a film’s atmosphere and its characters’ unspoken feelings. Too often, though, they’re lazy ploys to earn the audience’s buy-in, or to signal the connoisseurship and impressively arcane tastes of the filmmaker. Music that should be used to convey added layers of environmental and emotional information is instead used simply for nostalgia appeal and self-congratulation.
In the too-cool-for-school realm of movie music, perhaps the most famous needle-dropper is Quentin Tarantino, whose magpie-like enthusiasm for defamed pop hits first showed up in the climactic scene of “Reservoir Dogs,” set to the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Tarantino inspired a generation of successors engaged in an arms race of increasingly kitschy-funky B sides with which to wow their equally knowing audiences. (We’re looking at you, Zack Snyder.) And, in the right hands, it can work beautifully: Noah Baumbach, whose 1995 debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” included cuts by Nick Drake, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alex Chilton, and Wes Anderson, whose debut, “Bottle Rocket,” used songs by the 1960s band Love, have consistently employed music, not only to help build convincing on-screen worlds but as a kind of dog-whistle to form an unspoken bond with people of like-minded tastes and sensibilities.
The needle-drop movie isn’t new: Mike Nichols revolutionized movie music when he used Simon and Garfunkel tunes throughout the 1967 coming-of-age drama “The Graduate,” the songs’ wistful mood perfectly capturing the protagonist’s unease and isolation. Four years later, Robert Altman made “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” which was set in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century but used songs by Leonard Cohen as its sonic environment — anachronistic, to be sure, but ideally suited to the film’s wintry setting and mournful ambiance.
What Nichols and Altman instinctively understood was pop music’s ability to convey a wealth of intangibles, from a character’s inner life to mood, social dynamics and even weather. In their wake, Martin Scorsese has become the acknowledged master of the needle drop, his gift for matching visual and sonic rhythms reaching its apotheosis in “GoodFellas,” in which the lush chords of the piano solo in Eric Clapton’s “Layla” offered a somber, tonally ironic overtone to a montage depicting the brutal aftermath of a gangland killing spree. Later in the film, needle drops in quick succession of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” Mick Jagger’s “Memo From Turner,” the Who’s “Magic Bus,” George Harrison’s “What Is Life” and Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” simultaneously reflected and ratcheted up the panic engulfing the film’s protagonist, Henry Hill.
There are plenty of examples of wonderful music-driven movies — reportedly, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote “Magnolia” at least in part because he was inspired by the Aimee Mann songs that play such a crucial role in that film. But there are far more sloppy, haphazard films that use music to cover up for more fundamental flaws. In the glib, uneven satire “War Dogs” last year, director Todd Phillips used wall-to-wall needle drops of on-the-nose songs to make up in immediate recognition what the film lacked in depth and point of view. Similarly, the disastrous “Suicide Squad” sought to mask any number of flaws with catchy, tiresomely literal snatches of everything from “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Super Freak” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
As it happens, both those movies contained the Vietnam-era anthem “Fortunate Son,” a Creedence Clearwater Revival classic that has become a staple of needle-drop filmmaking. Ironically, one of the first directors ever to put it into a movie was the late Jonathan Demme, in his 1980 breakout film “Melvin and Howard.” Demme was worshiped for the care and attention he gave to the music in his productions, which often lifted up otherwise obscure or forgotten artists, such as the reggae singer Sister Carol in “Something Wild” or the Pixies in “Married to the Mob.”
Today, the Pixies can be heard in everything from Samsung commercials to Judd Apatow movies; their song “Where Is My Mind?” is as much a generational touchstone as “Fortunate Son.” That song, so novel when Demme used it in 1980, has been used in more than a dozen films, a close second to CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle,” which has been heard twice already this year, in “Kong: Skull Island” and “Free Fire.”
And none of those tunes can begin to compete with Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” that most well-worn of chestnuts, which has been played in about 20 movies and which is long past due for a moratorium. That’s the thing about needle drops: Even the brilliant ones threaten to make banal what was once the private pleasure of a select and discerning tribe. And just a few movie seasons later, what was once a cherished rarity has either become aural wallpaper or a trite, eye-rolling cliche.