A Score for a Score: Revisiting Baby Driver

How did a “heist movie driven by music” become one of the highlights of the decade? You let Edgar Wright off the chain, of course…

By now, it appears that 2017’s Baby Driver is an instant classic. Almost all of the critics have praised it and it has become Edgar Wright’s highest-grossing film to date, with the $225 million haul easily outstripping the modest budget. There were some dissenters, of course, and some criticisms I can actually get behind, but what we have here is a peerless command of motion picture technique signalling the mainstream arrival of an inarguable legend. The man who made Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim, and The World’s End is now a seasoned professional who can take the most basic, humdrum material and make it sing with notes you’ve never heard before. After seeing the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen a lot of movies like Baby Driver. Only, you haven’t seen a lot of movies like Baby Driver

The music-obsessed wheelman of the title, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is getting sick and tired of being the getaway driver for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby wants out, and with the promise of “one last job” and a romance with waitress Debora (Lily James), he is ready to leave his criminal activities behind. But to quote Michael Corleone, just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in…

Born out of a love for Walter Hill’s 1978 classic The Driver, the seeds of a music video Wright himself directed, and an untamed passion for soundtracking, Baby Driver is just about the most meta-textural, self-referential and postmodern effort to come down the pike in years. Its post-Tarantino “movie-ness” should be off-putting, but the quintessentially British Wright is able to project classic American machimso onto a new, reassuringly different canvas. And it’s all down to using Q.T.’s preferred method of existing music score; in its oh-so-cool hipster-y hands, Baby Driver holds the key (make that iPod) to something far greater – innovation.

It appears to be one of those questions no-one was smart enough to ask before: Why don’t we take an action movie and choreograph it to some bangin’ tunes? Many of the best moments sync up all but perfectly to the likes of The Damned or Queen, but Wright is savvy enough not to rely on such visual and aural synergy for the entire running time. Thanks to the titular Baby, he has a living, breathing conduit for which to channel cinema’s sensory capabilities. Earbuds perpetually screwed-in, Baby is living in another world entirely, escaping the potentially-debilitating affects of tinnitus by occupying a better, more lyrical universe. This is a man in constant need of cathartic stimulation, and you’ll find it all over this film, from Baby casually making “music” from the ring of his wine glass to a bullet-riddled man’s fingers sputtering to life as an FM radio tunes up. In short, Baby Driver is a mastery of form over narrative, and while there is absolutely nothing original about the various plot strands, Wright’s execution is truly something to marvel over. (He even eschews his usual trademarks, with only a fleeting shot of a coat being retrieved from a hook to remind you of the Cornetto Trilogy.)

In years to come, I feel the first ten-minutes will be used in film classes as an expert example of how to start a movie. It is a pretty ingenious statement of intent as we find Baby parked outside a bank grooving to the melodies of John Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” as his cohorts threaten the tellers with pump-action shotguns inside. Like Baby, the reassuring song distances us from the horrible activities and, thematically, announces Wright’s audiovisual experimentation. This prologue sets up Baby, the plot and the diegetic nature of the soundtrack in no time at all. And that’s incorporating a virtuoso police pursuit that tops the likes of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive for sheer automobile nirvana. If this opening doesn’t rev up your engines, then you can safely write off the movie.

It seems like everyone on this cast and crew knew exactly what they were making, with Bill Pope’s colour-corrected photography having the bubblegum brightness of a pop-punk album cover, and the dual editors working overtime to match every last thumping beat (indeed, they literally timed every shot on-set to make the conceit work). All of this competence blinds you to the fact that Baby Driver is composed entirely of shopworn archetypes. How many times have we seen a crook vowing to do one last job and inadvertently putting his loved ones in danger? Such things scarcely seem to matter when you’re watching a foot chase scored to “Hocus Pocus” by Focus.

The cast is another reason to overlook the clichès. I wasn’t familiar with Elgort before, but the youthful lead is so effortlessly charismatic and gosh-darn likable that you won’t care that his backstory includes a dead parent and maudlin flashbacks. Decked-out in a hoodie that makes him look like a pubescent Han Solo, Elgort carries the whole enterprise on his shoulders with surprising verve, injecting warmth into what is essentially a cartoon character. Spacey, too, rises above any genre trappings to make Doc utterly lovable despite his kingpin demands, and we share his discomfort when the assorted goons hired for the dirty work bristle against Baby’s purity. Everyone’s great, with Lily James projecting an adorable sweetness, Jon Hamm showing true layers as sympathetic sociopath Buddy, and Jamie Foxx having an absolute field day as the trigger-happy Bats. I would go so far as to say the latter has never been better.

If you came for car chases, though, you’ll be adequately served, from the exquisite opening that gives the Fast & Furious franchise a run for its money to the typically over-caffeinated conclusion that owes a debt to The Getaway. You can’t help but watch the beautiful set-pieces on display and mourn the fact that Marvel Studios had Edgar Wright and let him go. Baby Driver feels like a culmination of his life’s work to date; funny, thrilling, cool, cineliterate, and above all else, intoxicating. Love it or hate it, this is a celluloid concoction for the ages and definitive proof that you don’t have to be original to be unique.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Edgar Wright had been sitting on this idea for a film for many years. His first use of it was a music video he directed for British electronic duo Mint Royale and their track “Blue Song.” The video stars Noel Fielding as a music-loving getaway driver for a group of bank robbers, one of whom is Wright’s regular Nick Frost. A clip from the video is featured in the film when channels are being flipped through on the television in Baby’s apartment.
  • In an introduction from Wright, he revealed that there was little to no CGI or green screen used to film the car chase sequences. The driving is all practically done.
  • The character Joseph was originally written to be much older, around the mid-80s. CJ Jones (who plays Joseph, a deaf character) was discovered and recommended by casting director Francine Maisler. Jones is deaf in real life; Ansel Elgort had to learn sign language to communicate with him.
  • The tracking shot in the beginning of the movie where Baby gets coffee took 28 takes. The 21st take is the one used in the movie

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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