“The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”
It seems that the concept of pop music as a cinematic score is making a resurgence. Perhaps it never went away. Scorsese remains the master of the technique, be it Tony Bennett’s crooning over the intro to Goodfellas, or The Rolling Stones Satisfaction foreshadowing Sam’s downfall in Casino. Tarantino then borrowed heavily and successfully from Scorsese, and songs like Little Green Bag and Stuck In The Middle With You are now synonymous with his films.
Lately, Guardians of the Galaxy brought this idea to the most mainstream audience imaginable, and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad tried and failed to imitate it. Now we have Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which not only uses pop music to score the action, but blends it into the narrative, creating a film that is about music as much as it is energised by it. If Suicide Squad was a cynical attempt to cash in on a “cool” cinematic trend, Baby Driver is its antithesis; a film that could not exist without the songs that play alongside it.
Baby Driver is the story of Baby (“B-A-B-Y, Baby?!”), a young, impossibly talented getaway driver. Afflicted with tinnitus, Baby constantly listens to music through his ear buds, distracting himself from a condition that along with being discomforting, reminds him of a tragic past. Having fallen into a sticky situation with Kevin Spacey’s crime lord Doc, he aids an ever-changing crew of bank robbers in evading the police after each heist they pull until his debt to Doc is paid. After he meets waitress Debora (Lily James), and encouraged by his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), Baby begins to dream of a simpler, kinder life.
Writer/director Wright is no stranger to shooting action. Hot Fuzz was a shameless, no nonsense homage to the genre, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World had fantastical, comic book style set pieces that lead him to taking the helm of Marvel’s Ant-Man (which he famously walked away from). With Baby Driver’s chase sequences though, Wright has found the perfect match for his postmodern, scattershot style. I admit that prolonged car chases usually leave me cold, but each sequence in Baby Driver is filmed with such fuel injected grace that I found myself invested in every skid, flip and near-miss. Wright inserts clever tricks, as Baby uses bridges, car parks and other vehicles to elude the police in increasingly ingenious ways that keep you glued to the action and prevent it from becoming repetitive or stale.
Praise is rightly being thrown Wright’s way, but the contribution of veteran cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix) should not be overlooked. The camera cruises through freeways, back streets and the brightly-lit sprawl of Atlanta with silky precision. Outside of the motorised set pieces, foot chases and musical interludes are shot with long, balletic takes. Meanwhile the gun battles snap and pop to the precise beat of their soundtracks, an impressive trick that almost had me weeping in empathy for editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss. Baby Driver is a straight up, popcorn-selling crowd pleaser, but it’s these technical achievements that help it become more memorable than your average heist movie. It is a story that couldn’t possibly be told using any other medium and in the age of reimaginings, reboots, remakes and retreads, that is something to be treasured.
Ansel Elgort (as Baby) and Lily James make a pair of truly magnetic leads. Baby is a near-silent, brooding protagonist when he is around his cohorts, but left to his own devices he skips, struts and bounces around to the music in his headphones. Elgort has the star power to pull off both sides of Baby’s persona, the kooky and the cool. Although she is filling a deliberate stereotype to fit the genre, Lily James’ performance deserves a more well rounded character. Debora is desperately under written, and with her doe-eyed smile and over-ear headphones, she’s a quirk or two away from Natalie Portman in Garden State.
Casting elsewhere is a mixed bag. As welcome a presence as Kevin Spacey always is, he feels a poor choice for Doc, who feels like he should be more threatening than he ever comes close to being. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, two usually absorbing actors, also feel oddly out of place as a pair of Doc’s top thieves. Thankfully Elgort and James’ combined charisma makes up for the shortfall, along with Eliza Gonzalez’s scene stealing turn as fellow thief Darling.
Suicide Squad proved that anyone can pick out some great songs and stick them over a movie. It takes craft and knowledge to pick the right song for the right moment. Wright’s choices for Baby Driver (which were written into the script) work not just because they suit the mood of each scene so well (why has nobody shot a car chase to The Damned before now?), but because the songs are lesser known or forgotten pieces of music, injected with meaning by the action on screen. Who realised Barry White’s Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up could feel so earnestly romantic? Or that Queen could so perfectly accentuate a climactic showdown?
Edgar Wright has always been a filmmaker I admired, but with Baby Driver it feels like he has shed the comic trappings of his previous work and replaced them with genuine heart and pathos. Baby Driver has all the thrills and spills that you’d want from a film with at least four separate car chases, but the story and the characters engaged my heart as well as my gut. All the signature Wright stuff is there; the rhythmic editing, the sharp, knowing dialogue, but there’s an evolution of his talent unfolding on screen. By dialling down the references and tongue in cheek post modernism but retaining the technical creativity, he has found his edge as a filmmaker and made the first great Hollywood film of the Summer.