Film of the week: Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s mixtape on wheels

This hotshot heist musical is the joyride of Wright’s life.

► Watch our video interview ‘Once upon a pair of wheels’… Edgar Wright on Baby Driver and the classic car movies

Henry K Miller

from our July 2017 issue

Need for speed: Ansel Elgort as Baby, a young getaway driver with tinnitis

Need for speed: Ansel Elgort as Baby, a young getaway driver with tinnitis

Pedestrian is not the first word that springs to mind in connection with Edgar Wright’s films, but no one has better captured the pleasure of walking while listening to pop music.

Baby Driver begins with a breathtaking car chase through Atlanta, but the credit sequence that follows, in which Baby, getaway driver for a shuffling pack of thieves, goes round the corner and back to buy coffee, all in one shot, is almost as dazzling. Everything moves to the beat, and the street itself has been modified to match the music as the camera tracks along it. The effect is somewhere between the opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and Michel Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar (2002). At some point in the film you get used to it, but this is virtuoso direction.

Traumatised by his parents’ death in a car crash, Baby (Ansel Elgort) became a joyrider and, having contracted tinnitus in the same accident, he constantly listens to music to drown out the buzz. An incongruous presence among the career criminals he serves, Baby is paying off a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), incurred when he stole Doc’s booty-laden Mercedes. But Doc won’t let him go once the debt is paid, and his luck can’t last for ever, especially with partners in crime like Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Buddy (Jon Hamm), who hate each other. Moreover, he has just met Debora (Lily James), a waitress in the diner where his mother used to work, whose wish to drive into the Georgia sunset in “a car I can afford with a plan I don’t have” is one he shares.

The wheel deal: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm

The wheel deal: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm

Baby is the Steadicam operator and soundtrack consultant of his own life, timing his own movements – making a sandwich for his disabled foster father (CJ Jones), staging robberies – to songs of his choosing. One of his earliest memories is being given an iPod, but the film’s soundtrack is as obsessively selected as a mixtape, and flagrantly represents Wright’s tastes more than any plausible 21st-century teenager’s: the final, disastrous robbery is accompanied by a filler track from the end of the first side of Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish. The funk and soul choices are highly specific, tending towards the heavily sampled, sometimes to comic effect. The credit sequence begins with Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle – instantly misrecognisable from its opening chords as House of Pain’s Jump Around, a notoriously overused soundtrack staple; later, what sounds like Theme from Shaft turns out to be Young MC’s Know How.

None of which is incidental: Baby is also a music-maker, using 1980s sampling technology to cut up recordings of his own conversations into compositions that bring to mind Coldcut or Double Dee and Steinski. And nor is this merely an endearing character trait – character as pop-cultural bricolage is the recurring theme of Wright’s work. By comparison with his collaborations with Simon Pegg, the movie references here are more or less random – Fight Club (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), It’s Complicated (2009) – and apart from an outstanding Austin Powers joke, not very prominent. What matters is just the fact of Baby’s condition, his inability to communicate other than through things he’s heard, whether in reality or through the media.

Lily James as Debora, with Ansel Elgort’s Baby

Lily James as Debora, with Ansel Elgort’s Baby

This makes his ability to captivate Debora a little difficult to believe in, or would do if the two leads were not so charming: not only does she not mind that he has surreptitiously recorded her singing (Carla Thomas’s B-A-B-Y), the first time they meet she goes on to sing directly into his Dictaphone. Baby has a recurring dream-image of Debora standing in front of a vintage T-Bird, ready to go, and she isn’t allowed to be much more than this –caring, forgiving, a little innocent, gorgeous, familiar with Beck album tracks of the late 90s.

We don’t see the robberies but stay with Baby in the car – as in Wright’s video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song (2003) – although the intrusion of real menace into the film leads to the jarring realisation that this is a real crime movie, with real stars, and yet somehow in the same spirit as the episode of Spaced that climaxes with a finger-gun shootout on the streets of Camden. This is the fourth of Wright’s films I’ve reviewed for S&S, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve been rather sparing of praise for what must be the most consistently joy-giving run of films of the past ten years.

 

 

In the July 2017 issue of Sight & Sound 

Boy Racer

Boy racer

Building on the musical fantasias of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the action elements of Hot Fuzz and the observational comedy of Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright’s kinetic Baby Driver is hot on the tail of a young getaway driver looking for a way out. By Mark Kermode.

+ The fast and the furious

Edgar Wright’s Car Car Land season at the BFI Southbank, London, revisits the American car-chase movies of the 1960s and 70s – a world of alienated machismo and burning rubber. By Christina Newland.

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