‘Baby Driver’ Review: Edgar Wright Conducts a Brilliant Symphony of Cinema
It’s been almost four years since Edgar Wright’s previous film, The World’s End, but as his new film Baby Driver shows, he hasn’t missed a beat. Baby Driver is a unique, thrilling triumph of modern filmmaking. While the plot takes its cues from standard crime thrillers, the filmmaking surrounding that story is anything but ordinary. Like Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Baby Driver is essentially a spin on the musical, but instead of characters bursting into song, they live inside the song. Everything is soundtrack, everything is music, and it all combines into an experience unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a skilled, but reluctant getaway driver working off his debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby listens to music constantly to drown out the tinnitus in his ears that’s the result from a car accident where he lost his parents as a child. When Baby finally thinks he’s paid off his debt and can runaway with waitress Debora (Lily James), Doc ropes him back in to work another heist alongside psychopaths Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza González). As Baby strains to escape from a life of crime, he has to pull out all the stops to make his getaway.
What defines Baby Driver more than anything is the use of sound and music, and in the hands of a lesser storytelling, it would be nothing more than a gimmick. It could have easily been reduced to nothing more than “I like these songs; what if the movie was to the beat of these songs.” From there, it would feel increasingly forced as Baby cycles through tracks picking the right number to go along with the chase or the shootout. But in Wright’s hands, the music isn’t window-dressing; it’s the point. It’s not just how Baby perceives the world; it’s how he protects himself. For Baby, music is everywhere because it has to be; it’s the only thing separating him, a morally conflicted wheelman, from the thugs he transports from job to job.
We can all relate to that love of music. We don’t know what it’s like to be able to drive like Baby (and the car stunts in this movie are some of the best ever committed to film) or rob banks (if you are someone who regularly robs banks, please stop), but we know what it’s like to move to the rhythm of a song even if we don’t have buds constantly in our ears and a collection of iPods with all of our mixes. If you even like music, you know how Baby relates to the world even if it’s not to his extreme or his profession.
By using music as a way to tell us about character and emotions, Wright isn’t simply doing cool stuff with the soundtrack (although what he accomplish is certainly spectacular in more ways than one). He’s showing us something that’s both beautiful and tragic about his protagonist. On the one hand, Baby needs sound and music to relate to just about everything whether it’s remixing conversations he’s recorded or getting a beat from ambient noise. But it also creates a bubble where he’s incredibly lonely, able to relate only to his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) or Debora. And even in these moments, the music is always there, but it doesn’t dominate like it needs to when Baby is on a job.
For some, this reliance on music or the need to use it to dictate everything may seem overcooked, but Wright’s craftsmanship is undeniable. The amount of timing and choreography to pull off this kind of filmmaking is rare, and it deserves to be celebrated. In an age where there’s an arms race to see who can cram the most amount of CGI into a movie, Wright is hanging his hat on music, practical stunts, and sound design (a side note: if Baby Driver doesn’t get nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, those Oscar categories are meaningless). It’s a personal vision realized through music and sheer personality.
While it may be easy to see Baby Driver as a remix on what’s been done before, that remix is the point. There’s artistry in taking influences (influences that Wright proudly wears on his sleeve, as always) and remixing them into something new. Films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have been mistaken for parody, but they’re not. They simply know the tropes so well that they’re able to spin into something fresh and exciting; there’s no mockery of influences (maybe a bit of cheekiness at most) because Wright loves movies and music. Baby Driver is no different with how it plays with crime thrillers.
Although it may look familiar on the surface, Wright always knows how to tweak his picture so it becomes something else entirely. For example, he not only filmed in Atlanta (as many productions are currently doing because of Georgia’s generous tax incentives), but also actually used the city for the city. As a lifelong Atlantan, I can say without hesitation he absolutely nailed the feel and flavor of the city, making Baby Driver stand apart from other thrillers that typically inhabit places like New York, L.A. or San Francisco. When Baby is speeding through the city, it’s a city I recognize, not one that’s been stripped of its identity in order to simply stand in as an average metropolis.
Furthermore, the soundtrack for Baby Driver is par for the course with Wright, packed with deep cuts and songs most people won’t know. Yes, there are some songs that are incredibly on the nose like “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, but it’s also a soundtrack packed with largely unknown tracks. Hell, the movie kicks off with “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, not exactly a track you’d hear blasting in regular rotation on your local radio station. I walked out of Baby Driver immediately planning to buy the soundtrack, and then got mad that it wouldn’t be available for two more days.
If I have one criticism of Baby Driver, it’s that it never quite reaches the emotional impact of Wright’s previous films. While we care about Baby and Debora and want to see their relationship succeed, the movie is constantly trying to juggle a major cast and at times seems to focus on Baby’s character arc with Debora representing a goal rather than a fully-formed person, although James does the best she can with the screentime she has. The movie doesn’t hit as hard as Shaun or The World’s End, but we’re always invested in Baby and his struggles.
Elgort was incredibly charming in The Fault in Our Stars, but he was more Manic Pixie Dream Boy than a real person. Surprisingly, playing a getaway driver who always has to listen to music feels more like a fleshed-out character that lets him play levels of cool confidence mixed with intense desperation. If Fault was Elgort’s breakthrough performance, Baby Driver shows he’s the real deal and I hope that other directors give him worthwhile characters to play.
He’s also surrounded by a cast that’s clearly having a blast. Every actor playing a criminal lets you know why they’re dangerous, not through overt menace but through screen presence. It’s essential that we believe that these are dangerous people and that their psychopathy contrasts against Baby’s innocence. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he’s also someone who doesn’t want to see people get hurt or killed, and witnessing violence constantly throws Baby off his game while his cohorts seem a half step away from pulling the trigger. It’s a coup of casting right down to the minor roles like Lanny Joon as the dimwitted robber JD.
Like any great record, you want to spin it again the moment its over, and Baby Driver is the same way. Far too often Wright’s films have been relegated to cult classic status, movies that don’t fare well at the box office but find a fervent and devout following on DVD. Baby Driver is a tough film to sell even though it’s wall-to-wall excitement and adrenaline. You have to actually see it to see what makes it special, but it’s a movie you won’t soon forget. You’ll want to put it on repeat.
Baby Driver will be released Wednesday, June 28.