“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” Composer John Murphy Channels Rocket’s Emotional Journey
“It felt, to me, that this might be the most important of the Guardians for James [Gunn],” says Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 composer John Murphy after reading the script. “What struck me was how much darker the story was compared to the first two films. When I say darker, I mean emotionally within the characters. It became obvious the story descended upon Rocket [voiced by Bradley Cooper] and it was fascinating to have all this backstory revealed and to find out how Rocket came to be and what shaped the character.”
Exploring Rocket’s emotional roots became the North Star for Murphy in composing the score for Gunn’s third and reported final installment to the space saga. Now in its second week in theaters, the film has grossed over $145 million domestically ($365 worldwide), placing it in the domestic top 10 widest openings for a PG-13 movie. Those numbers are for a good reason—Gunn has helmed a stirring tale that caps a trilogy he’s poured his heart and soul into. “There is so much hope in this movie,” says Murphy. “You can’t help but feel for Rocket and Lylla the otter [voiced by Linda Cardellini] because what they represent is vulnerable people. You see that in these animals.”
The “animals” Murphy is referencing are part of Rocket’s origin story. It’s revealed in Vol. 3 the wise-cracking genius was part of an experiment to produce a perfect society of innocent creatures. The villainous face behind it all is The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who repeatedly fails until Rocket fixes his animal-generating machine. Living in a cage during his younger years, Rocket befriends three furry friends: Floor, a white rabbit; Teefs, a chunky walrus; and Lylla, an otter – all with genetically modified bodies. Rocket develops deep feelings for Lylla during their time together.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 1, 2023
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 4, 2023
The emotional depth pushed Murphy to dig into the story to shape the score. “James and I had some long conversations and it was clear that he did not want to sugarcoat this,” says the composer. “He [Gunn] wanted it to be very raw, very grounded. He wanted people to feel what Rocket went through.” What became clear for Murphy was the importance of each cue and a conscious understanding that the score would be “very emotionally dynamic.” “I think this is some of the most violent music I’ve ever written for a movie, but then in a heartbeat, it’s some of the most tender pieces of music I’ve written,” he says.
Murphy stepped into the composer role for Vol. 3 taking over duties from Tyler Bates to deliver 26 pieces of original music – all of which can be listened to online. But the Liverpool native already established shorthand with writer-director Gunn, having collaborated on Suicide Squad and the Guardians Holiday Special. To give Vol. 3 a distinct musical palette, Murphy experimented with two unique instruments: a tongue drum, which is a plate-sized metal drum that looks like a UFO, and the GuitarViol, which has six strings and 24 frets, similar to a guitar but it can be played with a bow or plucked.
“A tongue drum is almost like a xylophone but it’s much softer, deeper, and is quite mournful,” says Murphy. “It has a bit of innocence to it but also this sadness, almost ghostly sound. I ended up having a man in Hungary make six or so of them in different keys.” The tongue drum is played throughout the film, especially during the darker, more traumatic moments. “The very first sound heard in the score is the tongue drum at its most innocent and pure. Then the GuitarViol comes in. It’s just two instruments but it has this innocence,” says Murphy. “They’re two instruments I’ve never heard in a movie before.”
Another idea Murphy experimented with takes when the Guardians infiltrate the Orgoscope, a highly secured jelly-like place that houses the greatest ideas of the galaxy. “The world is very organic but there’s a real metallic element to the whole environment,” says Murphy. “We went to the hardware store and brought back armfuls of different bits of metal to get sound out of them because we didn’t want to use the same ‘ole percussion everyone uses. The best percussion came from this immersion heater tray. For whatever reason, when you hit it, it had this beautiful natural reverberation. And it was dark and loaded harmonically. Bit by bit, we experimented with different things.”
Guardians has become known for its needle-drop moments. Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” to name a few. In Vol. 3, Quill (Chris Pratt) has a Zune MP3 Player containing hundreds of songs that were given to him by Yondu (Michael Rooker) at the end of Vol. 2. The opening song in Vol. 3 is an acoustic version of “Creep” by Radiohead playing over an intimate sequence with Rocket which helped to set the tone for Murphy’s score.
The composer was also conscious that he was composing for a Marvel movie and, when needed, created a familiar score found in the MCU. “Nothing beats a big choir, brass, and big strings when you want to go there. We found some sounds that I hope made the score unique,” he says. “A lot of the violence was done with distorted bass guitars that were built up and layered to have a wall of grunge. We mixed it with an old analog synth and a guitar pedal that gave it some depth and muscle.” Murphy also found moments to place score by Tyler Bates from the first films into Vol. 3. “I felt a big responsibility to not just do it in a way that James wanted but in a way that would work for Guardian fans,” he says. “If I’m a fan and I went to see the film, I would expect to hear the original theme in some places. Hopefully, we put them in the right places.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing in theaters now.
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Featured image: (L-R): Teefs (voiced by Asim Chaudry), Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Fllor (voiced by Mikela Hoover) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.