Film Review: Baby Driver
Edgar Wright's supercharged musical is a contact high
Poetry before prose. Baby Driver is a concerto in sixth gear and an adrenaline shot to the heart. Better films may release this year, but it’s difficult to imagine any supplying cinematic joy in such generous doses. If Fury Road was Wagner on wheels, this chrome wheeled, fuel injected musical is Beethoven’s Ninth.
That Edgar Wright is responsible for it is hardly surprising. Few directors since Steven Spielberg have been able to marshal this convincingly the various tricks of cinema for the purposes of pure entertainment. Each whip pan, every tracking shot is deployed for maximum impact. In an age of bewilderingly quick editing, Wright seems to cut at exactly the right moment—and to elicit a reaction. A breathless one-take might be followed by a chopped-up chase: whatever makes the scene work, the material sing.
All this trickery is grounded in the familiarity of genre. Baby Driver is, essentially, a “one last job and I’m out" movie, a scenario that’s as central to the heist narrative as the exercise montage is to the sports film. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a prodigiously talented young man with a quirk: he must have music—his music, spread over multiple iPods—playing in his ears constantly, to drown out the tinnitus that’s dogged him ever since an accident when he was little. He’s in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss whose car he mistakenly stole and who’s extracting payment for that one heist at a time.
In 1973, George Lucas introduced the idea of a mixtape soundtrack with American Graffiti, and Martin Scorsese timed Harvey Kietel’s head hitting the pillow in Mean Streets to the pistol-shot opening of Be My Baby. The backbeat of rock has been a fixture in American film-making ever since, yet, even within this tradition, Wright does something unique, using Baby’s tinnitus to create a wholly convincing rock musical. Movement is inextricably linked to sound, only, instead of just having bodies in motion, Wright makes the entire screen move to the beat. Screeching tires blend with guitar solos, fingers drum in time to the percussion. Elgort dances, the camera dances, the film seems to dance too.
As in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the sordidness of the criminal world in Baby Driver is contrasted with a shy romance. Our hero’s attention is snagged by a server in the local diner named Dobora (Lily James), who walks singing “B-A-B-Y baby", a Carla Thomas number. The ensuing romance is prototypically American—diner, Laundromat, pop music—and, in its dreamy optimism, indicative of an earlier era (Debora’s dream is to head out on the open road with no fixed plan, a sentiment that’s more Beat Generation than millennial). Wright is playing with multiple genres here: along with the wholesome teen romance, you get the unpredictability of the heist film, the smoothness of the musical and the pounding muscularity of the action film, all weaving in and out like radio channels being switched.
Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal and Eiza González have a grand time playing assorted lowlifes, and Spacey is his usual sardonic self, but it’s Elgort—impassive except for when he lets his guard down and belts out old soul numbers—who’s the most compelling presence. The wall-to-wall soundtrack, switching from radio staples to deep cuts (New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, anyone?), is a character in itself. This is a film for people who take pop music seriously, who believe in the sanctity of the right track for the right situation. When one particular heist hits a roadbump, Baby rewinds the track he’s playing (Neat, Neat, Neat by The Damned) until it’s where it needs to be for maximum inspiration, and only then zooms off. High Fidelity’s Rob would have loved this scene.
In his spare time, Baby takes conversations he’s recorded, chops them up and makes recordings—real life reduced to a mix tape. Baby Driver is full of cool details like this, but Wright takes care to link them to emotion; one of the tapes—probably the oldest one—is of Baby’s dead mother singing. No matter how outlandish the premise, there’s always been a sweetness to Wright’s films.