Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriter: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Jamie Foxx
Baby, oh baby, I love to call you baby/
Baby, oh baby, I love for you to call me baby.
First, let me just say this damn soundtrack has been on loop in my house, work, head, car, etc. since I saw this film. That alone, makes it worth the price of admission, and if that were all there was to take away from Baby Driver, that would be ok. Fortunately, behind the soundtrack is the first truly excellent film of 2017!
The film opens explosively with the aptly named band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing in the earbuds of our protagonist, a young getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he waits in his car for a team of criminals who are robbing a bank. When the song kicks in, so does the action, as Baby shepherds the gang through the streets of Atlanta pursued (hopelessly) by the police. Baby’s a “devil behind the wheel,” and in no time, the team escapes the police, abandons their car and meets up with the kingpin of the operation, a smarmy gangster named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who orchestrates these robberies. Baby’s involvement is out of obligation due to an accidental encounter that ended up costing Doc a lot of money. Baby’s driving skills and subsequent payouts are payback, and once Baby’s debt is paid, he’s out.
That’s the gist. Is it uniquely original? On paper, maybe not so much, but it’s a different story on the screen. It is hard not to discuss Baby Driver in the context of other similar predecessors about getaway drivers and/or villainous lynchpins orchestrating a series of heists. Films like Drive, The Fast and the Furious series, and even the film 21, which also stars Kevin Spacey, all share more than a handful of similarities with Baby Driver in story points. But the execution of Baby Driver is unlike any of those films. On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music.
It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. This film really invited me to analyze exactly what it is that makes movie narratives work, an analysis I further explored in my commentary piece, “It’s All About Choice.” Like so many classic narratives, we don’t learn much about Baby in the film, or about any of the other characters for that matter. Baby is a man of few words, denied the necessity of choice by Doc, and committed to no real set of values given his almost “island-like” existence. Like I mentioned in “It’s All About Choice,” knowing so very little about Baby actually drives the narrative because he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.
But the one characteristic that provides dimension to Baby is his need for an almost uninterrupted stream of music flowing to his ears. It turns out this is not just a personal diversion, but an actual medical necessity as Baby has tinnitus from being in a car accident as a child, and the music drowns out the perpetual ringing. Additionally, the film is edited on several occasions so that the action pulses to the beat of the soundtrack. The use of music to engage the audience, pulsate the action, harbor the mood, develop the tone, and most importantly, develop the character is unlike anything I’ve seen in film, including movie musicals. The film basically suggests, if the mundane can be made euphoric simply by adding some music…why not add some music?
The arrival of Debra (Lily James) as Baby’s love interest certainly complicates matters, and in a good way. Like the way Carey Mulligan impacted another mysterious Driver character, played by Ryan Gosling, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Debra evolves Baby into a character who suddenly is faced with choice, consequences, and fear. The stark contrast in Baby before Debra and Baby after Debra is nicely achieved due to Elgort’s and James’s acting, the music, and the direction. Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed. A-
Baby Driver is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.