*cues up “Back In Time” by Huey Lewis and the News on iPod. hits play*
Back when I was in college in the early 00’s, I had a lot of opinions about my professors. They were mostly opinions about how I generally disagreed with their opinions. I was a Theatre major (sigh, I know), and was constantly rolling my eyes at the way they'd stop class halfway through because somebody said “MacBeth” instead of “The Scottish Play” and run around the room spitting over their shoulder or some nonsense. On one occasion, someone came into class late, ripping their headphones off their head. The professor, who happened to be the head of the department, scoffed. “Unh, I must say, I absolutely hate how everyone wears headphones these days.” she lamented. “Everyone walking around listening to music constantly. You can't even walk into a store or a restaurant without hearing music blaring! It's like everyone wants to have their own personal soundtrack. What happened to silence?”
Oh, wait. Hold on, I gotta start the song over.
*hits the skip back button. “Back In Time” starts again*
Right. So, in 2004, I’d gotten away from my obnoxious professors in Connecticut by studying abroad at a conservatory in London. I was a quiet kid, always walking around attached at the hip (and the ear) to my Discman. One friend even had to chase me down a few blocks and take the headphones off my head in order to invite me to come hang out with the group, since I couldn't hear her yelling at me from afar. During my stay there I found out through various websites that a movie was opening soon called Shaun Of The Dead, and that it was made by zombie horror fans for zombie horror fans. I bought a ticket on opening night, and ended up buying a ticket for the showing immediately after that. Not only was the film a love letter to the genre, but it was a spectacular comedy in its own right. I went out to a Virgin Megastore and bought the soundtrack CD right away, which floored me all over again. It wasn't necessarily the usage of any particular song, but rather the way in which the songs flowed together, rhythmically and thematically telling the story of the movie in audio form. In my mind I could see the whip pans and witty scene transitions of the film, and blazoned in my mind was the name of the man who had orchestrated all this bliss: Edgar Wright.
*skips track, and “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner plays*
Over the last thirteen years, Wright’s career has continued to soar, as his films reveal new tricks and depths to his craft as a director. Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and The World’s End are all such fully realized works that it’s hard to believe that Wright has only made a mere four films (given his long tenure in British television during the 90’s, this seems less anomalous, but still). His fifth movie was to be Marvel’s Ant-Man, but sadly, it didn't happen. When Ant-Man fell through, Wright looked to rebound by further developing an idea for a movie that he'd had for a few decades or so: a heist movie entirely set and choreographed to music. Wright shot a music video in 2002 that partially used the concept (“Blue Song”, by electronica duo Mint Royale), but the full length feature version would be the ultimate expression of the idea. Fusing his two loves, music and movies, together in one magnum opus, the hype for the film has been massive, and one might say is impossible to live up to.
Ladies and gentlemen, right now I got to tell you that the fabulous, most groovy, Baby Driver…rocks.
*track skips; The Vines’ “Get Free” plays*
The plot of Baby Driver isn't nearly as sparse as one of its primary influences, Walter Hill’s The Driver, but has a simplicity that hides layers while still keeping things feeling immediate and kinetic. Baby (a revelatory Ansel Elgort, even for those who saw him in The Fault In Our Stars) is a young man with a unpaid debt to Atlanta crime boss Doc (a game Kevin Spacey), forcing him to act as getaway driver for Doc’s heists. The ever changing roster of gunmen and women who carry out the heists don't trust Baby at first, since he always wears sunglasses and earbuds, and constantly listens to music. But as Doc explains, given a tragic accident that caused him to lose his parents at a young age at the same time, Baby uses the music to both drown out his resultant tinnitus as well as craft an impeccable sense of timing, allowing him to be the best driver Doc’s ever met. Wanting to just pay his debt and get out of crime, Baby happens upon Debora (Lily James, radiating charm), a waitress at a dead end diner with similar aspirations of escape. The two fall hard for each other, but before they can make their getaway, Baby’s life of crime won't let him ride into the sunset easily, debt or no debt.
*track skips to “Give The Drummer Some” by Ultramagnetic MC’s*
Where Baby Driver’s characters and plot start paying dividends, though, is in the key to any good heist: the details. A film that seems all surface level at first turns out to be deeper and more thoughtful, and that depth is in the way that it's casually revealed that, of course, names like “Baby”, “Doc”, and later, “Buddy” (a menacingly lived-in Jon Hamm), “Bats” (Jaime Foxx, as entertaining as he is threatening) and “Darling” (Eiza Gonzalez, smoldering and playful) are code names. It's in the individual superstitions each criminal sports, making Baby’s love of music not as off putting as initially thought. It's in the tone that Wright balances throughout like a ringmaster, with the uncomplicated sweetness of Baby and Debora’s relationship butting against the unrepentant darkness of the criminal world. It’s there in the tape labeled “MOM” that Baby stares at longingly. Baby Driver may be a contact high of a movie, but it doesn't pull any punches. It wants you to feel every snare drum hit, every crash of the car—or cymbal.
*”Crosstown Traffic” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays*
And oh, those crashes. Wright is helped immensely by stunt coordinator Robert Nagle and his team, driving like maniacs on the real streets of Atlanta. The car chases and stunts in Baby are refreshingly uncomplicated yet technically complex, putting the visceral experience of all the power and speed of the chase on screen. The Fate Of The Furious is the type of movie you remember for its audaciousness, whereas here the car action is kept down to Earth. But if it's memorable virtuosity you want, Baby Driver delivers: in scenes typically not involving cars. The opening credits scene, a reprise/apotheosis of the dual Steadicam shots from Shaun, is a movie musical dream. Finding out that Wright hired a choreographer (Ryan Heffington, who amongst other things worked on Sia’s recent videos) for the film makes all the sense in the world when a scene as toe tappingly gorgeous and vibrant like that hits the screen.
*”Music Is My Radar” by Blur plays*
More than a neo-noir action comedy, more than a pop pastiche, Baby Driver is a musical, but not just any musical: it may just be the first movie musical of the 21st century. All due respect to La La Land, but while that film explores the present by harkening back to the past, Baby is all present, mixed together to a beat you can dance to. You experience music in Baby Driver the way the characters do, and they experience it the way you do in reality: on personal devices, on shared earbuds, on car stereos. Each music cue (and there are dozens) is hand crafted by a character, for at multiple times the film stops entirely to either discuss or choose a particular track for a particular moment. Baby and Debora talk about music the way that every couple, young or old, do, drawing from a deep well of tastes and knowledge, and fill in musical gaps for each other. Moreover, the film continues Wright’s penchant for making “music” out of just about anything, literally and figuratively. I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse where the DJ Kid Koala was on hand to play a short set (side note: it was the first time i’d seen sampling done live on turntables, and that shit is impressive) but also demonstrate and explain the homemade/found devices that he helped craft for Baby to use in the movie. They ranged from a $6 vocoder found at a flea market to a machine used to record voices on magnetic strip cards. If there was any doubt that Baby was an alter ego for Wright, watching the character take sounds and quotes from real life and remix them is immediately analogous to how Wright uses the grammar of film editing to create a musical rhythm, supporting both tone and story.
*”Give Life Back To Music” by Daft Punk plays*
Baby Driver may be hugely influential on action films, encouraging the return of more practical stuntwork. It may indeed be Wright’s best film, as it is a culmination of nearly all of his interests and proclivities that his work has shown over the years. What Baby Driver is to me, though, is a massive shift in the world of musicals. As a music lover myself, the artificiality of “the Musical” is something that’s not always easy for me to love, as, like many have noted, the usage of music in capital M Musicals is intended to heighten the passion of the characters, to drive the story. As enchanting and lovely as this can be, its certainly not akin to any experience I or anyone else has had in real life, as much as some of us would like it to be socially acceptable to express our desires through song (not to mention spontaneously come up with a great tune and tap dance). Baby Driver is a diegetic musical, where everyone is hearing the same music but is still grounded in a tangible reality, just like you or I. It’s a party movie, a joyous celebration of the marriage of music and image, a film that, yes, like La La Land last year, reminds us how magical the cinema can be. It’s an ode to all of us who walk around this big crazy world of ours with our own personal soundtracks, using the beat to motivate us while wehead off toward the horizon.