Baby Driver is the car chase musical you sort of always knew you wanted.
Almost as long as I have been alive, I have had rather an obsession with music. My earliest musical love was Steps, the dance-pop group that I threw my allegiance behind during that post-Britpop Brit pop wasteland of the late-90s, obsessed over all of their albums, and actually cried over the eventual break-up of. I was 7 at the time of said break-up, and whilst said past love causes me no end of embarrassment today, it is indicative of how important and how much of a presence music is to my life. I drop money I don’t have on gig tickets on a constant basis. I voraciously consume unfamiliar music both new and old daily, filling up my iPod with every single song I’ve heard and liked/loved (it’s currently at 12,972 songs), and buying CDs and vinyl whenever the opportunity arises. I always have a song in my head at all times even when I’d rather not. I write to my music – this review is currently being brought to you by The Breeders’ Last Splash and, after that’s finished, The Go! Team’s entire discography – I drive to my music, I wander around supermarkets with my music.
But, then, that’s the power of music, isn’t it? Particularly in the 21st Century, as technological advances have finally perfected the ability to take music on the go and made the accessibility of any music one could want wider than ever. Music is a constancy in all our lives, whether you’re giving yourself over to it whole or just letting it hum in the background. Sometimes your favourite song is just there filling otherwise empty space, other times its appearance can induce a pure spontaneous emotional reaction that takes you away from wherever you physically are right now without a care in the world. There’s the thrill of discovery, the comfort of familiarity, and the joy of sharing. Mixtapes, playlists, even just a conversation with somebody about music can add a new favourite to your ever-expanding library and bring you closer together with somebody else. That portability, which otherwise could re-enforce a singular isolated listening experience, can transform into a shared or group experience at the drop of a hat or the plugging in of an aux cable.
Music can also soundtrack really cool shit. It should be no secret to long-time followers of my work that I adore me a well-executed needle-drop, a love dug into me by starry-eyed mind-opening 9-year-old viewings of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Films where the record collection of its director were undeniably just as important to the finished product as things like narrative or character work, maybe even more so. After all, a killer track, one that grabs hold of your synapses and refuses to let go until it is good and done, fires off the imagination like nobody’s business, produces the kind of pure visceral reactions that a perfectly constructed narrative can. Though I don’t write fiction (and haven’t for a long time), I still find myself dreaming up scenarios in my head for some of my favourite songs to soundtrack, or have extended daydreams that pair themselves up naturally with music that I love. Around the late 00s, I constructed an entire chase scene in my head for “Slam” by Pendulum to sync up to; nowadays, I have the beats to a fight scene in a bar, or maybe a desperate on-foot escape from a bunch of villains hooked up to “Junior Kickstart” by The Go! Team.
It takes approximately 75 seconds for Baby Driver to prove that it GETS music. I mean, of course it does, this is Edgar Wright we are talking about. Edgar Wright GETS music in the same way a fish GETS swimming. Music has always been a driving focal point in all of his works – from Tim and Daisy’s shared epiphany clubbing in Spaced, to the deliberate early-90s nostalgia overload of The World’s End’s soundtrack, to Sex Bob-omb and Clash at Demonhead and Crash & The Boys in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – and there are few directors nowadays with a better handling on a needle-drop than him. But with Baby Driver, Wright has finally gone all-in on his music obsession. This is a film about music, like how Spaced was a sitcom about relationships, Shaun of the Dead was a film about pushing oneself out of a dead-end hole, Hot Fuzz was about the perception of villages as stiflingly boring, Scott Pilgrim was about emotional baggage and the maturity required to move past them, and The World’s End was about the perils of nostalgia.
This has always been Wright’s trick, zeroing in on mundane and accepted parts of our everyday lives, and blowing them up to widescreen with all of the power that genre filmmaking can muster, turning ordinary into extraordinary, cliché as that phrase may be. And so Baby Driver opens with Wright calling back to his video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song,” with Baby (Ansel Elgort) grooving along to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in his stolen Subaru getaway car whilst the rest of his gang are robbing a bank. Flicking wiper-blades, indicators, lip-syncing like nobody’s watching, surrendering totally to the widescreen power of the track’s intro. But then, as the song transitions to its main groove and Baby’s crew comes sprinting out the door, we get to see the resultant car chase that the “Blue Song” video could only hint at. The chase you visualise in your head as you listen, the fishtails, the burnouts, the near-misses, all choreographed with absolute precision to the beat and the pulse and the life of the track that is the loudest thing on screen because of course it is. One never raises the volume of the squealing tyres in their fantasy higher than the track that inspired them.
There is a plot to Baby Driver – involving a super-talented heartthrob with pure intentions stuck in a bad situation, one last job, a benevolent-yet-threatening boss/father figure (Kevin Spacey), the sweet woman (Lily James) with dreams of the open road who steals our kid’s heart totally, botched robberies, unreliable psychopaths (Jamie Foxx), and all the tropes of a 1970s crime movie – but it’s honestly kind of unnecessary in the grand scheme of the film. This is not to say that it is bad, not in the slightest. It is incredibly tight and focussed despite coming in at almost two hours, Wright has written a fantastic cast of characters all with surprising depth that are great fun to watch, and the climax had me genuinely on the edge of my seat, just in case you thought I wasn’t invested in the narrative side of proceedings. But what I am saying is that the mechanics of the narrative are ultimately the least interesting or important part of the film.
Baby Driver is less a film about whether Baby will be able to escape the life he’s trapped in, and more a love-letter to music and the kind of classic American car chase movie that Wright grew up on. In a way, Wright is revisiting the theme of nostalgia that he and Simon Pegg (who’s not involved here) tackled in The World’s End, albeit in a more aware manner than his earlier film. Much of the film’s vast, exceptional soundtrack has release dates or musical roots prior to 1980. Baby has a vast vinyl collection and creates music in his spare time that he records onto cassettes. The film has the same feel and morality as classic mid-70s crime movies. There’s even a brief fantasy sequence in which Baby imagines driving off down an all-American backroad with Debora that’s shot in black-and-white and deliberately recalls a Happy Days-esque vision of the 1950s.
But whereas The World’s End ultimately lost control of its view on nostalgia as it barrelled through its conclusion, mostly due to the reach of its other themes being too big for its grasp, which led to nostalgia being the main thematic thrust until it suddenly wasn’t – although I still love that film, I am willing to fight people on this – Baby Driver’s laser-tight focus means that the nostalgia Wright has for the era of music and film that he adores, despite being too young to appreciate at the time, doesn’t overwhelm the film. There’s no snobbishness, here, no lionising the past at the expense of the present. This is a 70s crime movie that specifically takes place in the Now, that feels made for Now, with the nostalgia being the background design. It’s rather fitting that Baby is a remixer in his spare time, since that’s what Wright often is as a director – taking his influences and retrofitting them into something that, whilst still beholden to the original work, feels new, fresh, original, and specifically him.
The soundtrack is outstanding. Not that I need to tell you this, again since music has been central to Wright’s works since the very beginning, but it still bears mentioning since this is basically a jukebox musical. It’s very rare for there not to be a licensed song playing in the background of a scene, oftentimes different music cues will follow on from one another with the most minimum of breaks. In theory, this should irritate like it did in Suicide Squad, a 123-minute attempted-desecration of the whole artform of the needle-drop, but where Baby Driver succeeds instead of failing is in two respects. The first is the sheer breadth and diversity of the soundtrack. Whereas Suicide Squad felt like an incredible egotist bragging about how awesome and obscure his music collection is despite it consisting entirely of Greatest Hits compilations by all of the artists featured on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Songs of All-Time list, Baby Driver flits between genres on a whim, picks more-obscure songs by its more famous artists that fit perfectly – when was the last time you thought about the Tyrannosaurus Rex incarnation of Marc Bolan instead of T. Rex – and almost all of the “hey, I recognise that one!” beats I had came from that surprise at hearing a song I otherwise hadn’t thought about in years. Handsome Boy Modeling School, represent!
The second, and far more crucially, is that Suicide Squad saw music in an incredibly cynical way: as nothing more than mercenary tools designed to get cheap pops of recognition from the audience. There was no soul, no rhyme or reason to their deployment, and even their idea of a cool drop was forced and manufactured. Baby Driver, by contrast, loves music. More importantly, it loves how we listen to music today, as a constant presence backing every scene of our lives, bringing itself to the forefront and receding into the background as and when the moment fits. For those of us who consider ourselves curators yet have to heft around multiple iPods to house the music we do have. For those of us who can kindle a romance with just the right song that the other person had never heard before – there’s a brief scene here like Garden State’s “this song will change your life” but without the Indie Rock over-sentimentality of the latter. For those of us who can make brief connections with people we otherwise don’t know via a shared love of one awesome song. For those of us with a song that’s too loaded with memories of somebody we’ve lost for us to listen to more than rarely. Or, hell, for those of us who heard “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned and thought that it would be way cool to back a manic car chase to its driving rhythm.
Baby Driver may be Edgar Wright’s purest film yet, in other words. Sure, its story is filled with great characters, its performances are all excellent, the direction is a firm reminder that Wright is one of the best action directors working today, but all of that is ultimately window dressing. Baby Driver is Edgar Wright’s brain, his passion for what he does and what he loves, being beamed directly onto cinema screens with nothing to dilute or draw focus away from it. This is pure love, and whilst I would resultantly hesitate to put it up there with the rest of his stellar filmography just yet (repeat viewings are a must with Wright’s films), I cannot deny how much that love washed over me and resonated with me and my own relationship to music. The fact that all of the stuff that is deliberately playing second fiddle to that love for music – story, character work, deeper thematic resonance, performances – is still top drawer despite clearly being lower down on Wright’s priority list just speaks additional volumes to his talent.
After a ridiculously strong start to the year, the Summer so far has seen Film come to a screeching halt in a ditch. Baby Driver is the jump-start this season needed. Pay up, sit down, and gain a renewed appreciation for the visceral thrill of music and cinema.