With Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has crafted a sly, whimsical and hardening genre film that emanates with wry invention and visual exuberance: even if it lacks the rich thematic depth, ingenious mosaic comic construction and witticisms of the British director’s earlier works. The title character refers to a young getaway driver who has chronic Tinnitus (the condition results in a person hearing sounds even where there is no external source of it present) and deals with it by playing a varied assortment of music that energises his high flying car antics.
Throughout the history of cinema, popular music has played a crucial role in being deft shorthand for a character or accentuating a mood and atmosphere. In Baby Driver, the form operates as a smart bridging between the two functions. Wright does this by cleverly choreographing everyday actions and gestures in a manner akin to dance steps in a musical. In one sequence, Wright also commendably captures the idealism and optimism of 1950s musicals as Baby (Ansel Elgort) gaily struts, jumps and dances on his way to the diner he frequents.
At the same time, the use of music in the film echoes Quentin Tarantino’s conceptualising of the form in his early work. There are many instances where the source music is abruptly turned off or interrupted by one of the members of the gang who thinks Baby is annoyingly aloof and arrogant. These moments call to mind the scene in Reservoir Dogs when Mr Blonde leaves his stereo on and walks out of the warehouse to get some equipment out of his car. As the scene goes on, the music ceases, and the audience instead hears the dulcet natural sounds of Los Angeles.
Moreover, much like Mr Blonde picks “Stuck in the Middle with you” as the track of choice when torturing a cop, Baby Driver contains many occurrences where the source music is curated. Button Brass’s “Tequila” is picked as a song to play when a gang have to go see one of their contacts for weapons and Buddy (played with emasculated dignity by Jon Hamm) complements and sings along to Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” before quoting a line and using it to suggest an overt threat to Baby’s love interest- Deborah. (played with plucky down to earth charm by Lily James)
Baby Driver represents a maturation for Edgar Wright’s filmmaking. His quick and rapid-fire montages made up of close-ups of many ordinary objects that amusingly mock weapon preparation montages in actions pictures is replaced here with fanciful moments of fantasy. There is a moment where we see Baby and Deborah reflected in a spinning tumble dryer. As the scene goes on, the colour red pervades the screen, and this former reflection transforms into a vinyl record that Baby puts on in the next scene. And Wright’s black and white sequence where he sees Deborah waiting for him by a car resonates in its representation of wistful longing.
In numerous interviews over the years, Wright has expressed his fondness for Walter Hill’s 1978 movie- The Driver. The picture which has a similar premise to Baby Driver impresses as a taut and spiritual crime thriller where the cops and robbers dynamic is given archetypal heft. Ryan O’Neal’s efficiently still and silent performance carries weight in portraying a man whose inner life has been slowly poisoned by the moral dimensions of his getaway driving. With this in mind, it feels as though Wright is taking O’Neal’s nameless character as a jumping off point for injecting Baby with the blackening ethical implications of his part-time criminal job.
The assigned nickname of Baby is purposeful in evoking a character who is a neophyte in the area of crime. But it’s also an amusing shorthand in illustrating how other characters treat him. In one funny scene, the central female character of the gang that Baby is involved with asks her lover if they should be talking about a particular topic in front of the young driver. The alpha males of the group view Baby as a cushy liability who cannot make a decision when it counts.
Baby’s journey is all about him making the important choices that could either save others from harm or selfishly increase his criminal prestige and personal life. Also, he realises and deals with the consequences of his job that seeks to entrench him further into a lawless existence on the run. Wright subtlety conveys Baby’s transformation. In the aftermath of his last two jobs, we see the new facial scars that have emerged out of his recent fast road escapades. And Ansel Elgort’s performance of Zen fueled placidly becomes resolute and world-weary by the end of the picture.
In 1981, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior combined exploitation with the form of silent cinema to create an excellent piece of moviemaking that created a new canvas for the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic to reign supreme. In the same vein, Baby Driver feels like the dawn of something bold and exciting. No longer does the movie musical have to be dubiously produced adaptations of stage productions or star gazing stories that exist in the Hollywood hills. Instead, tyre screeches, gunshots and the subtle drumming of a gloved hand etched upon a steering wheel; while Queen and T-Rex blare through an iPod speaker can be as potent in showcasing the sweeping appeal of the longstanding genre.