From the opening credits, Edgar Wright’s motor-fueled caper, Baby Driver, eschews triviality in favor of funky beats, hot action, and one particularly cool driver. After premiering at SXSW this year, Baby Driver’s done nothing but build excitement through the rousing endorsements from all who’ve seen it. So great was the reaction that the release date was moved from August to June, right in the middle of summertime blockbusters. But is a move like this wise amid an already bloated summer movie season? Can Wright’s music-infused heist film rise above mere artifice? Will audiences want to take a ride with the titular Baby? In brief: Oh. Hell. Yes. Not only is Baby Driver an exceptional story rife with earbombs, but it’s an expression of a more mature Wright.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) has a gift with automobiles and a complicated relationship with music. Due to a childhood accident resulting in tinnitus, Baby always listens to music to mute the hum, but it’s more than a salve to his ears. Music is his lifeblood. Carrying a different iPod for his every mood, music tells him where to turn, how fast to move, and what road he should take. By harnessing the beat of each song, he’s become the best getaway driver in all of Atlanta. After spending years working off a debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby begins to dream of a life beyond guns, violence, and squealing tires – a life with Deborah (Lily James), the girl of his dreams – until he’s called in for another job. To get through this, Baby’s going to need all of his wits and a badass playlist to help him keep the beat.
All within the first twenty minutes, Wright establishes the sound, the style, the players, and their relationships amid a seeming whirling dervish of squealing tires and gun fire. To top it all off, the narrative itself is more than just the “trying to get out” catalyst expected for this kind of under-the-thumb story. In this case, it’s not just about getting out, but about being your own man. About standing your ground when the world seems to be falling apart. About being willing to say when it’s enough and taking action. As Buddy (Jon Hamm) tells Baby, “it’s all about that killer track” – a point that becomes far more poignant as the story continues. Without spilling into spoiler-territory, the whole of Wright’s script is the most mature story he’s ever produced in both its outright technical complexity, yet narrative simplicity.
To really understand the strength of Wright’s Baby Driver, we need to breakdown the opening scene. Wright sidesteps an exposition-heavy dialog in the introduction with an opening sequence so breathtakingly clever, it’ll tell you everything you need to know in the first twenty minutes. For one, music is the DNA of Baby Driver – once the studio placards appear, a dull hum fades in until it’s overtaken by the drums of “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the camera lands on Baby’s lip-syncing face, panning around him to show his crew going to work. It’s a subtle way for Wright to insert the audience into Baby’s head, as the titular character the audience is meant to follow. The music isn’t the only thing that keeps the audience focused on Baby. For example, as he sits singing, the camera shifts perspective over his shoulder slightly so that the audience can see his cohorts head toward their target. This confines what the audience sees to Baby’s experience, thereby cementing the narrative focus away from the heists themselves and more onto the players. This is important to establish at the outset because as the story unfolds, Baby begins to make more and more choices based solely on his interactions with the other characters. Then, of course, there’s the getaway. Right as the lengthy introduction to “Bellbottoms” ends and the song kicks into high gear, the team gets back to the car, Baby slams the car into action, and the heat turns way up. Through some clever editing, Wright puts the audience above, around, and right in the middle of the getaway so they can feel every bit of the roller coaster ride that is Baby’s extensive high speed chase through downtown Atlanta. As wild a ride as it is, it’s nothing compared to what follows – the most madcap and inventive wheel-work this side of 1969’s The Italian Job, or more appropriately, Smokey and the Bandit – both of which were clear influences on Wright’s development. Wrapping up the opening, the team arrives at their HQ where Doc awaits to count the spoils and debrief.
After sending Baby out, who dances his way to and from a coffee shop with conversations of those he passes by falling on-beat with his earbuds, the team debrief quickly devolves into the only real piece of exposition concerning Baby. In his blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance, Jon Bernthal’s Griff questions Baby’s inclusion, a resistance seemingly born out of disapproval for Baby’s unconventional methods. Here, Doc lays out for the audience everything they couldn’t have figured out for themselves. Not only does this provide the final key to who Baby is, but it lays the foundational groundwork for the relationship between Doc and Baby. This matters later on to show that Doc’s seeming threat to Baby is more insistent than malevolent.
While initial impressions might suggest that a music-driven heist film is all flash no substance, once again, turning toward the opening scene highlights how wrong those impressions would be. Everything from the dialogue to the character movement to the editing – essentially what makes up the world of this story – is driven by the music. Accomplishing this requires more than a steady hand in the editing bay. It requires enormous forethought when building out the script and supreme skill to see that vision realized on screen. You get an inkling of Wright’s predilection for musical movement in his previous films, such as in Shaun of the Dead when the survivors of an apocalypse beat down zombies to the beat of Queen’s “Can’t Stop Me Now”, in his cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when the titular Scott takes on the Katayangai Twins in a battle of the bands, and that time Andy Knightley’s and King’s men tore apart robotic doppelgangers in The World’s End. But in Baby Driver, Wright does more than insert music into his film, he builds an entire world around a thirty-five song playlist. It’s an extraordinary feat that redefines the term “musical cinema” and feels very much like a pinnacle of Wright’s talent.
As insanely unique as Baby Driver is, it’s not without its flaws. As established, Doc only works with the best thugs and trusts Baby implicitly. All of this is made clear in the two heists that serve as the lead-up to the final act of the film so it’s particularly frustrating that Baby doesn’t feel comfortable addressing certain personnel concerns when a member of the team continually draws unnecessary attention and danger to the group. Sure, it’s fun to have insane characters in a movie, but when their actions come into direct conflict with the rules established by the narrative, it draws attention away from what is, ultimately, a carefully crafted, game-changing film.
As the first half of 2017 comes to a close, Baby Driver easily lands in the top films released so far. With all of the manufactured pop stories in theaters, sequel after sequel, reboot after reboot, Baby Driver is a refreshing, inventive, stylish-as-hell underground mixtape of a cinematic revelation. So strap yourselves in, turn the volume up, and get ready for the ride of your life.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.