Few things are more necessary to a film — indeed, to life in general — than the proper soundtrack, and few directors know this better than Edgar Wright. From Hot Fuzz to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Wright has used the soundtrack as a character in and of itself, a third-person omniscient narrator in a first-person limited story. Wright doesn’t use his soundtracks to embellish his images as much as he joins the audio and visual to the point where one cannot exist without the other. He takes this to new heights in Baby Driver, a film where the music is almost the entire point of the film in the first place.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the driver in question, who operates under criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby serves as the getaway driver for Doc’s schemes, using the music constantly playing out of his headphones to both choreograph his movements and drown out permanent tinnitus. Just as Baby thinks he’s done with his life of accessory to a crime, Doc pulls him into a dangerous job with the trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the Bonnie-and-Clyde duo of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), threatening his future with his waitress girlfriend Debora (Lily James).
Edgar Wright conceived of the idea for Baby Driver over 20 years ago, first officially exploring the ideas behind it in the music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” in 2003. The opening scenes of Driver mimic that video’s expert efficiency of scene and movement as Baby idles in the getaway car, getting down to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Excepting the occasional glance at the robbery in progress, Wright keeps the camera completely on Baby and the car, drumming up tension and excitement solely through Baby’s immersion in the soundtrack.
It’s this kind of precise audio-visual choreography that informs nearly the entirety of the film, including the scene immediately after the opening, where Baby walks through the streets of Atlanta in perfect sync with Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” It’s a giddy, hypnotic kind of energy that the film maintains for most of its runtime, with the visuals punctuating the music in Baby’s iPod instead of the other way around. Gun battles, wild chase sequences, and even tender romantic moments exist primarily to illustrate the power of the music that Baby (and the rest of us) use to get through life.
The film itself is like a ballet of action cinema’s greatest hits, and part of how Wright manages to pull it off with such seeming simplicity is by keeping the focus entirely on Baby himself. Nothing happens outside of his perspective, and everything is filtered through Baby’s music. In the rare times when the music drops, the soundtrack is filled with a high-pitched drone and an extremely light ambient score to mimic Baby’s damaged eardrums. While this approach has a downside in that it never gets past the surface of any of the other characters, it also brings a freshness in its approach to characterization. When Baby meets Debora, they swap songs featuring her name in the title. The fact that he chooses T-Rex and she chooses Beck says more about the characters than any amount of actual dialogue.
Elgort himself wisely plays Baby as slightly opaque and detached, becoming the most expressive when he’s deep into his tunes. Elgort’s underplaying initially seems off-putting, but as the film unfolds and we hear more of Baby’s music, so too does the character expand and become more colorful. Baby is a good-hearted boy in a dark and dangerous situation, and his music serves as both a coping mechanism and a form of escape. In that way, he’s imminently relatable even while Elgort plays Baby’s beats close to the chest. Baby is like the physical incarnation of the rush we feel when we speed down the road to our own killer mixtape, a kind of secret thrill we keep hidden under a mask of social stoicism.
Elgort’s supporting cast doesn’t get as much development, but that doesn’t stop most of them from turning in a playlist-worthy performance. Kevin Spacey is probably the most magnetic as Doc, a quasi-father figure to Baby, who lost his parents in the car accident that also caused his “hum in the drum.” Doc is the kind of person who’s every question is rhetorical and backed up with an unsaid threat, but at the same time he possess an easy, undeniable charisma. Spacey plays Doc with a restrained intensity that’s magnetic and captivating, making his few moments of strong emotion seem genuine because it.
The rest of the cast does well, even if their performances tend to be a little more uneven. Lily James is imminently likable and warm, but Debora is defined almost entirely by her relationship with Baby, one of the few times when Wright’s tight focus on Baby serves as a detriment. Similarly, Eiza González has little to do as Darling that isn’t directly tied to Jon Hamm’s Buddy, but she still manages to do well within the limited narrative she’s given. Hamm himself turns in a stellar performance as the barely-contained Buddy, a sharp contrast to Jamie Foxx’s deceptively insightful yet openly sociopathic Bats. Foxx’s hard-gangster schtick wears a bit thin after a while, however, and he’s the only person in the cast that doesn’t seem to take the film seriously at all.
The film’s intensity and energy can sometimes work against it, and if the film has any dings in its chassis, it’s that it falls victim to it’s own kineticism. Wright hits the gas right out the gate, and he almost never lets up. Even the romantic interludes between Baby and Debora or the nakedly empathic exchanges between Baby and his deaf foster father (a charming CJ Jones) are filmed in the same hopping, spinning language as the car chases and crime sprees. Wright never stops the music, and he gets major points for how consistently and efficiently he utilizes it, but the effect can become a bit wearying by the film’s midpoint.
Even the best iPod playlist in the world has its weaker cuts, but the true judge of quality is how well the playlist itself flows and evolves. In that respect, Baby Driver is a clear winner, a heady mix of insane car chases, genuine comedy/drama, and characters who are both delightfully archetypal and fully human at the same time. It’s a mash-up of Scott Pilgrim and Death Proof, filtered through the most sublime iteration possible of Grand Theft Auto, and served up with one of the best soundtracks in recent memory. If this doesn’t make you want to get behind the wheel and crank up the stereo, nothing will.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+