A film cannot be made unless it has a screenplay, a blueprint that sets the images in motion. Music, although not a required element, has always been an integral part of filmmaking, particularly in post-production. Recently, films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby Driver, and now Atomic Blonde have been using popular songs as an innovative and integral tool to build the film’s infrastructure, much like the screenplay.
Although the aforementioned films aren’t the first to incorporate well-known music into their stories, they stand out as important films that utilize song as character and plot device to further their storytelling. Baby Driver was a long-awaited daydream from Edgar Wright, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s essential story was based on a song, and Atomic Blonde established a surrealistic atmosphere in a historical setting - all while keeping its main character the central focus.
Edgar Wright Used Music To Choreograph Action Sequences In Baby Driver
Before his 'Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy' (or Three Flavours Cornetto), director Edgar Wright always wanted to make Baby Driver. The 43-year-old thought of the idea of a car chase with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song, "Bellbottoms":
I heard it when it when I was twenty-one. I would listen to that track and I would imagine this car chase. And I couldn’t listen to this track without imagining this car chase… I love action movies and car chase movies, and it was inspired by the music.
For the opening scene of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright used the song BellBottoms to choreograph the robbery and car chase that paralleled it. Using every beat to synchronize the action, Wright was able to recreate the meaning of the popular song. Editor Paul Machliss (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) worked with Edgar Wright on set to choreograph the song with the action, all while editing alongside the director. He literally had a moving table with a laptop and edited the scenes immediately after they were shot to make sure it was all perfect, Machliss comments:
To make it work you had to sort of be there at the moment of creation . . . I was there every day of every moment of every take. Edgar would do a take and yell ‘Cut!’ and then from the other side of the set go ‘How was that Paul?’ . . . and sort of wait until you went . . . ‘Yes it’s good.’
From the get-go, Baby Driver establishes how exhilarating the rest of the film is, both emotionally and technically. James Gunn, on the other hand, used music to tell a pivotal, human story on an alien planet.
James Gunn Used Music As The Central Element In Storytelling In Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy won fans over with its (literally) out-of-this-world concept, yet used well-known music to resonate with audiences using down to earth song choices to earn pure emotion. James Gunn knew his story would stick out like a sore thumb if he couldn’t create space characters that were relatable, and creating an awesome mix tape was just the trick. The rest of the story is history:
I knew ‘Guardians’ was a rather outlandish concept — it’s a talking raccoon, a bunch of space aliens, one character who’s from Earth but has been in outer space for nearly 25 years — so I needed a way to ground people emotionally, says Gunn, who grew up with songs like Brandy.
James Gunn used popular 70’s music for both Guardians films, and even used Tyler Bates’ finished musical score to set the tone of every scene he shot. The first Guardiansofthe Galaxy used music pretty well, but the sequel stepped up with the use of song as a vessel for storytelling.
Gunn incorporated the song "Brandy" by Looking Glass into the blueprint of the film. The song connects with Ego’s motivations and summarizes the entire backstory between him and Star-Lord’s mother. The song itself is the crux of the entire movie.
"Brandy" now feels like it was written for the story. The band, particularly songwriter Elliot Lurie, claimed that the song had no other deeper meaning besides its initial inception. The use of the song exceeded Lurie's own interpretations on it and made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 more than just a comic book movie. While Edgar Wright use of music for action, and James Gunn for story - Atomic Blonde director David Leitch used music for commentary.
David Leitch Used Music As A Commentary Setting And Character Arc In Atomic Blonde
With Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch surrounded a female badass with surrealism in a gritty, historical environment. The music helped paint its enigmatic lead with nostalgia of the new wave '80s, all while representing contemporary themes:
It was to make a heightened sort of impressionistic view of the ’80s and a contemporized feeling of the ’80s. The idea was that we’d have songs from the ’80s and then we would also reprise them with younger, up and coming artists.
David Leitch focused on the commentary of the music for the setting and characters in the film. Every song picked was a character of its own, simultaneously following the main character, Lorraine (Charlize Theron).
Spoiler for Atomic Blonde below!
Every song was infused Leitch's neon vision of 1989 Berlin with the arc of the characters who existed within the city. In one scene in particular, Leitch used the track "Voices Carry" by Til’ Tuesday to tell the story of Delphine (Sofia Boutella) as she faces certain death by Percival (James McAvoy). David Leitch comments on the scene below:
I think that obviously the metaphor of the lyric was important to me. Also, the juxtaposition of, like, this horrific scene, watching somebody expire, but to this lovely song, and knowing that we were going to sort of reprise it with Lorraine and her there.
It doesn’t play beat for beat like "Bellbottoms" to a car chase, but it coincides with what the character went through, along with the aftermath of the scene as Lorraine arrives to see Delphine dead. Leitch made sure to play the tracks on set to establish the tone of the scene, just like Edgar Wright and James Gunn for their films.
All three movies were able to organically incorporate their music into their production, but how they did it reveals more of their technical and creative prowess, taking notes from the likes of legendary duo of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Whether it was musical score or popular songs, the three directors played music to choreograph the tone of a scene.
From Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy, to Atomic Blonde - music has proven to be more than just a score for a film. It's amazing how music can influence an entire vision for a film even before the screenplay. These three directors have shown how impactful it can be when music drives the element of action, storytelling, and character.
Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde are now playing in theaters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 DVD will be released August 22, 2017.
[Source: UpRoxx, YouTube, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter]