It doesn’t feature super heroes, it's not (yet) part of a mega-franchise, and it doesn’t rely on an insane amount of computer-generated eye candy to be interesting. Yet, despite missing these modern-day blockbuster staples, Baby Driver will be the most fun you’ll have in theaters this summer.
Like Clint Eastman’s focus on American heritage, or Quentin Tarantino’s ability to play homage, Edgar Wright’s films have always had a connection with music. Their dynamic attitudes and whiplash pacing tend to borrow a sense of rhythm as much from the songs he chooses to play in the background as the words written in his scripts. Whether it’s a zombie beatdown choreographed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” in Shaun of the Dead or the literal battle of the bands fight scene in Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright’s films owe a lot to music. Baby Driver is no exception to this creative process. In fact, it seems like the next logical step in his experimentation to fuse video and audio in the name of entertainment.
The musical foundation of Baby Driver is apparent as soon as the TriStar pegasus begins to open its wings. We hear a ringing noise, much like that of the film’s main character, “Baby”, who has a bad case of tinnitus. To escape this constant ringing, he plays music. The film follows suit, and an opening chase scene unfolds choreographed to “Bellbottoms” by the John Specter Blues Explosion. The song dictates the cut and the pacing, even some of the actions of the main character as he jams out with various imaginary instruments. Immediately the film becomes a pseudo-musical, blending sqealing tires and screaming guitars into one hair-raising experience. Music becomes the life blood of Baby Driver as much as it was for La La Land. But the big dance numbers are choreographed car chases instead of tap dancing duets. In fact, there is no silence in Baby Driver. Only ringing, and music...lots of music.
In those moments when the music is blaring, Baby Driver is an exciting thrill ride as much as any modern superhero film. Despite existing in a crowded genre, it never intrudes into familiar territory. By pushing music to the forefront, it finds a way to make car chases exciting again without relying on over-the-top special effects or an exotic new hypercar. The car chases are also sucessful because Wright builds on what has already been proven sucessful in the past. In much the same way that Tarantino blends in ideas from other films into his own, Wright uses references from other car-based action films as inspiration. Woven into the film's musical tapistry, they become jumping off points for the action to build off of. There’s a shot or two of neon lighting as a tip of the hat to NWR’s Drive and snarled tooth close-ups through broken windshields of car battering rams a’la John Wick. The straight-down helicopter city streets night shot looks a lot like the one from Collateral, just as the last-option turn into oncoming freeway traffic is not unlike To Live and Die in L.A.
Wright’s action-musical works well because it is obvious that so much planning went into its creation. This is a film that was clearly a labor of love where we as the audience are the primary beneficiaries. It is something worth charishing, given the fact that carefully constructed movies such as this one rarely happen to have big budgets and casts full of familiar faces. Wright provides Baby Driver with a lot of dynamic elements that required a commitment to precision in order to work properly. Quick cuts, tricky transitions, and rapidfire storytelling all coorespond with the musical beats. This type of editing is what gave previous Edgar Wright films an appealing off-kilter quality. Yet here, the choppiness feels more natural in this manner of presentation, without losing any of the appeal. If there is one criticism to give, it's that the passage of time is not clearly communicated to the audience. Everything happens so quickly that we get caught up in it all, and don’t really notice when time is supposed to have passed between scenes. This would have helped to make it seem like some of the character arcs had more time to develop naturally. But again, a Wright film is always about brisk pace, and letting off the gas would have hurt the film’s ability to deliver consistent jolts of adrenaline.
The characters themselves are just as exciting as the rest of the movie, thanks to some spot-on performances. Ansel Elgort plays Baby who has superhero-like powers behind the wheel, but only as long as his ipod is working properly. Without it, he crashes back down to a grim reality where he's just as insecure, flawed, and haunted by his past as the rest of us. Elgort gives Baby an aloof quality, which works well to contrast the seemingly inflappable dynamic of typical car chase movie protagonists. It also makes him easier to cheer for. The other characters, unfamiliar with his condition, try to intimidate him. They mistake his ear buds and shades as a sign of confidence, but its really just a shield. Like the rest of us, Baby has demons to deal with. He is working to make up for past mistakes, not to make money through his talents, and music is the tool that helps him to do so.
Since the film revolves around music, it's no surprise that it is something that is used to connect all the characters. Lily James plays his love interest Deborah, and she first catches Baby's ear with her singing. James brings personality to her scenes, but the film doesn’t really seem too interested in her as a character. Instead, it’s more interested in how she affects Baby and the decisions he makes because of her. The rest of the cast use nicknames for their criminal employment, all carrying forward the musical theme. Jon Hamm makes an impression too in a desperately dark turn as "Buddy", and Eiza Gonzalez brings attitude as his girlfriend "Darling". Jamie Foxx probably steals the show as "Batts", named such because he doesn't need music due to the demons in his mind. I can’t forget Kevin Spacey either, doing a great job in a role that is a perfect fit for him.
The excitement that the personalities, action, and sound all bring to Baby Driver is also seen in the methods of its picture. Wright isn't afraid to mix in bright colors with tones of grey and brown to make certain people, objects, and places stand out. Because many of the shots of the film are so quick, Wright makes sure to direct the audience's attention to the appropriate places. Nothing is difficult to follow, and the action really is on point throughout. As the film runs on, the visual texture changes. The opening sequence is bright and airy, but as the story unfolds things become more tense and the picture becomes progressively darker. It's just another example of all the little details in this film that work together brilliantly.
Baby Driver is the gritty big budget action film that 2017 badly needed. It may trade in some of Edgar Wright’s silliness for something more realistic, but there’s no need to worry. Baby Driver doesn't lose any enjoyability in the process. Instead, it showcases his growth as a filmmaker. He is able to explore new territory, building on past succesess and failures in order to strike the right chords. What I like about it most though, is that this is an exciting summer film in the traditional sense. It's not distracted with worldbuilding, it's not rebooting anything, there are no expectations beyond what we've seen from Wright before. Free from these restrictions, he was able to focus solely on making Baby Driver as fun as possible. In that regard, he more than succeeds. Edgar's wizardry with sound and vision makes Baby Driver a movie that HAS to be experienced, not just watched.
Music makes this thrill ride unforgettable.
What’s Good: Loud music, fast cars, insane stunts. Baby Driver is full of charisma, character, and wit. Edgar Wright does a great job as writer and director, bringing a lot of creativity and ingenuity to a type of film that is not typically known for such things, and the cast delivers some fun performances.
What’s Bad: Storytelling ebbs and flows, obsession for perfection in regards to the film’s construction comes at the expense of some natural cinematic developments.
Baby Driver’s a 2 hour rhythm exercise finished in bold primary colors on 35mm anamorphic, a diegetic music video that pitter patters to a tactile soundtrack and allows the beats of external ambience to fall in and out of precedence. The eclectic songs of choice have only one throughline, that they have that immediate hijacking of the emotions. Every scene is bolstered by a persuasive score that drills its intention. Indeed, without its score, Baby Driver would likely not succeed at its economy of the movieland romance, drama, comedy, and crime thriller, or at least without as much as of our sympathy.
Edgar Wright likes to satisfy, his films are primed to titillate with sound and visuals designed to accentuate each high note to a key. Baby Driver doesn’t disappoint in satiating that blissful indulgence even when most its motions tend to live in a self-aware movie fantasy land. Its characters and emotions resonate just enough that we surrender to the aesthetic deluge. Inherent to this gratification is a technical mastery you’ll recognize by the first two scenes. The first a spatially concise get-away chase, and the second an unbroken musical take with some of the industry’s best steadicam operating. It’s perfectly realized entertainment.