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.