Baby Driver: Once Upon a Pair of Wheels
Written Review by David Carter
It’s a bright and sunny day. Three people sit stone-faced in a car outside of a bank clad in trench coats and sunglasses while one, the drive, sits similarly stoic, sporting earbuds. He drops a twist into the scene: he throws on some music. Jon Spencer’s Blue Explosions “Bellbottoms” to be exact. The song thumps as the other three get out of the car and go to work. When they’re inside the bank taking care of business something else happens.
The driver starts singing and dancing to the song.
And not just some minimal movin’ and groovin’ but full on beltin’ and steering wheel drummin’. This isn’t your effortlessly cool James Dean-light type, he’s a dorky kid behind those shades. But let’s not get it twisted, when it’s time to put pedal to floor and make high risks deals on wheels, our kid is Mozart in a go-kart. The heist finishes and we segue into a chase with “Bellbottoms” still keepin’ the pace while johnny law tries to make our hero’s heart race. He’s smooth like butter though and leaves 5-0 slipped up so the gang can switch cars and make a clean getaway.
Within that five-minute opening scene, I knew this was going to be the film of the year, but I was biased to begin with. Edgar Wright is without a doubt my favorite working director today. So much has been written about his incredibly kinetic and precise visual style or his penchant for layers upon layers of foreshadowing and meticulous set-up and payoff within his scripts, but rarely do people focus on how relatable his characters and their stories are. The Cornetto Trilogy, for all its winking, are pretty sincere movies about being at various stages in your life. The struggle to take responsibility and charge of your life in your 20’s in Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz spells out the hardships of connecting with new people and new places as you move into your 30’s, and The World’s End is an ode to “where it all went wrong” and reckoning with your past and present self as you marinade in your 40’s. Even Scott Pilgrim fits into this cannon work by treading similar ground as Shaun of the Dead but from a distinctly millennial POV. Wrights characters up to this point have been flawed (mostly) ordinary people in relatable but extraordinary situations. Baby Driver has him exploring similar territory (the foreshadowing and set-up play a sneaky part in this movie as well) but Wright’s matured and he puts his passion on his sleeve to tell a Walter Hill-esque high octane pop and rock and roll morality fable. He leaves winking at the door and instead wants to whisk us breathlessly into a world that’s slightly more heightened than our own through the eyes and ears of a kid who doesn’t know that he’s going to have to make tough decisions at some point.
Once upon a time, there was a kid. The people around him called him Baby (the surprisingly magnetic Ansel Elgort). Baby is Bob Fosse in a Buick, but he had a quirk and weakness: he had a hum in the drum (tinnitus) that he got from a car accident as a child that makes him pump music into his ears around the clock. Baby had his own soundtrack 24/7 which helped him pull off daring escapes from the fuzz on his tail. Baby worked for a coolly menacing man named Doc (Kevin Spacey in his best film role since 2009’s Moon). Baby owed Doc a great debt and did these jobs until he was all square, but you could tell while Baby never wanted to dirty his hand with very dirty deeds a part of him enjoyed doing what he did best: Driving and listening to tunes to escape from his reality. It also has the added benefit of helping him take care of his aging foster father Joe (CJ Jones) in the process. But one day, Baby meets a beautiful kindred spirit in a diner waitress named Debora (a performance from Lily James whose as giddy as Sissy Spacek from Badlands). She want’s what Baby wants; to drive west in a car they can’t afford, with a plan they don’t have, listening to tunes the whole way there. He’s in love. However, happy endings don’t come easy and once he crosses paths with the sinfully psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx, who really should be in more villain roles) and the dangerously in love Darling (relative newcomer Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (the always relentlessly handsome Jon Hamm) Baby has to start figuring how far down in the mud he’s going to have to dig to get free.
If the story sounds familiar that’s because it is. If you’ve seen a crime movie with any sort of morality at the center of it, you know that no one can stay squeaky clean forever. That’s the story Edgar wants to play with. The movie is made up of archetypes that you could see in any half-decent crime movie. The Psycho, The Planner, The Love Birds, The Surrogate fathers, The beautiful spirit who’s gonna help save them from the poisonous path our hero’s traveling. Baby himself feel like an amalgam of so many great protagonists. He’s a little bit Henry Hill, part Driver (from Walter Hill’s cult classic The Driver), and a dash of Freddy Heflin from Copland. Hell, Baby’s arc plays like a prequel to James Caan’s ace safecracker character in Michael Mann’s Thief. Wright wants to take all of these to their logical extremes. Can ignorance and child-like innocence be enough to absolve you of the things you’ve done? Baby avoids tackling this question by staying removed from the world around him. He’s aloof and quiet, he puts himself at a distance from the other crooks and the music in his ears isn’t just there to drown out the ringing but put him in another world.
For as much as the movie is about slick chases and bone crunching crashes, the movie is a love letter to music. The way music can put your mind at ease when you’re spiraling, or how it can make you feel like the most untouchable person on the planet, or how it can vocalize and viscerally capture how you feel about another person in that very moment. Cinema is like watching dreams unfold in real time but music is like putting a little piece of magic in your ear. The movie alludes to how addicted to narcotics and the thrill of a job the other criminals are, but Baby gets high on harmony, mellow on melody, and ripped on rhythm. Like all addictions, it can turn from enhancer to a crutch in 0 to 60. Baby sometimes has to stop what he’s doing if the song isn’t swingin’ or the pace is in the wrong place. To him, he’s a hero and the tunes have got to reflect that in the right way, otherwise he’d have to face the music and realize he might be a common criminal with not so common driving skills.
Baby Driver is a ballet of showing off those skills, and not just in cars. Sure, the opening scene is a showstopper and the final scene is a pulse pumping and anxiety inducing face off between a human being and an uncaged animal who smells blood, but the whole movie is so expertly choreographed, (not just synced and edited as Edgar Wright revealed that the cast and crew had to practice their cues and action scene timing to the songs on the soundtrack) that at times it becomes invisible the same way a good beat just blends together and becomes a pulse. There’s a foot chase sequence set to Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” that feels like a whole movie in itself with the way it up’s the stakes and weaves from one set piece to the next the way a bicyclist in heavy traffic does between cars. There’s a gunfight set to a stellar cover of “Tequila” by the Button Down Brass the feels like Michael Mann and Tito Puente doing the music video collaboration I didn’t know I wanted.
There’s so much more that can be said about Baby Driver, like how young adult Ansel Elgort is perfectly cast as a dreamy kid in over his head and how that’s a perfect allusion and simultaneous subversion to the casting of heartthrobs Ryan O’Neal and Ryan Gosling who play similar but more straight ahead roles in The Driver and Drive. We could talk about how Wright uses Atlanta, its vibe and its structure, the same way Bullit does for the hills of San Francisco or The Blue Brothers does for Chicago. In fact, we could even talk about how the movie is the most original pop musical SINCE The Blue Brothers, but that’s all window dressing to a movie that is gentle to its core while populating it with the crooks and carnage you’d expect from a movie like this. It’s as romantic as all those songs with the words that tell us over and over again how much we care about our baby even when everything around us just ain’t as groovy and unambiguous as what’s playin’ on the radio.