‘Baby Driver’: The beat goes on in film’s organic soundtrack
WASHINGTON, July 24, 2017 – The plot of “Baby Driver” follows the familiar path of the typical heist film. Distributed in the U.S. by TriStar Pictures, this summer release incorporates the action and thriller genres, packaging them up as classic Americana as seen from the wrong side of the tracks.
But for serious filmgoers, some of the more interesting aspects of this film revolve around director Edgar Wright’s quick-cut style and the way he makes the soundtrack of “Baby Driver” integral to the action and the characters as well. “Baby Driver” is in some ways an audiophile’s perspective on life as reimagined in a visual format.
Music was always been important in Edgar Wright’s previous projects, including the TV show “Spaced,” the Cornetto Three Flavors film trilogy, and especially in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Music was vitally necessary in these films for precisely setting the mood – especially “Scott Pilgrim” (2010), whose surreal graphic novel-based plot evolved naturally from the central character’s involvement with his iffy garage band.
Wright is best known, however, for the three films that make up the Cornetto Three Flavors Trilogy – “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “The World’s End,” which he made with frequent collaborators Simon Pegg (of “Star Trek” fame) and Nick Frost. Those films were known for their relatively lighthearted and satirical edge as well as for their fast paced, quick cut style.
Wright has gained a reputation for the way he cut his films, deploying sharp cuts on integral visual cues. Everything about Wright style in these three films was informed by how the audience eye moved, shifting from one shot to the next in purposeful fashion.
“Baby Driver” is evolutionary for Edgar Wright. It feels like the first time he has been unchained from everything. He’s on his own here in a project that doesn’t involve Pegg or Frost and isn’t an adaptation from another source like “Scott Pilgrim.”
For this reason, Wright doesn’t have to design around a specific individual or be tethered to someone else’s creation. “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright taking the next significant step in his career. While the film does share the look and feel of previous efforts, there are obvious changes in approach and content that show how Wright’s progressing as a filmmaker.
The focus of this film revolves around getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a deceptively baby-faced pro who works exclusively with criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) as the sole constant in whatever gang Doc assembles for any given heist. Years earlier, Baby attempted to jack a car from Doc, and has been paying him off as his driver ever since.
As the film gets underway, Baby is envisioning a world where he no longer is forced to be an underworld getaway driver. He stores the small amount of money Doc gives him for each heist in the apartment where he lives with his foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), who is deaf and confined to a wheelchair. The driving force behind Baby’s desire to abandon his life of crime is his attraction to diner waitress Deborah (Lily Collins). As their relationship develops, so does his vision of a very different future.
Although this is nominally a heist film, things fall apart for the operation in pretty short order. It’s key to note that while Baby is caught up in this lifestyle, he actually has no interest in it, whereas everyone else in Doc’s crew revels in being a criminal. They’re happy to be part of the heists Doc meticulously plots, but also have little remorse for the collateral damage they cause along the way.
Baby’s associates Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Bats (Jamie Foxx) become more unhinged as the action picks up, involving Baby in several unenviable situations even as he’s attempting to put together a brighter future that doesn’t involve violent criminal acts.
The film’s deft narrative is slick, though not particularly innovative. It seems cobbled together from several different sources that relied heavily on still earlier sources. Even so, the final product is engaging, and that’s just fine because that’s never really the point of “Baby Driver” anyway.
There are, of course, films that are tightly integrated with their soundtracks. But there are very few films that boast a curated list of music so deeply woven into the fabric of a film the way Wright has accomplished with “Baby Driver.” The music in this movie isn’t just there to set the mood for each scene. Similar to an operatic score, the music also informs the viewer in and of itself by underscoring the important aspects of the film and each character. In essence, Wright has created a musical soundscape derived from the eyes and inner ear of Baby himself.
We learn before the initial heist that Baby was in an auto accident when he was young – an accident that killed his mother and father and left Baby with severe tinnitus. Throughout the film, he’s constantly plugged into portable music devices, using music as an antidote to drown out the ringing in his ears.
Given that this is an Edgar Wright film, however, his central character takes musical cure a bit further than the average person. Almost obsessively, Baby has collected multiple iPods, which he’s filled with music for any occasion.
While he’s constantly plugged in and seems uninvolved in the action at times, he’s by no means a silent protagonist, however, though he’s clearly a man of few words like those near-silent anti-heroes in classic American Westerns. Yet he also differs from them in that he’s relatively innocent, both in his reluctance to engage in the extreme violence of criminal life and in his naiveté in thinking he can actually escape the life.
Wright has us see everything from Baby’s point of view. The best example of this is the scene in which Baby is fetching coffee for the rest of the crew. The entire sequence is set to the Bob & Earl version of “Harlem Shuffle.”
As Baby moves down the street with the crew’s coffee order and makes his way back to their hideout, Wright visually emphasizes how Baby sees the world. Not only does he hum and sing along with the music. It seems that every aspect of the song itself is integral to his actions.
At no point in this film does the music take a backseat to the action. Other than Deborah and Joseph, it’s clear there’s nothing more important to Baby than making the most opportune musical selection for any given moment.
In most films where music plays a significant role, we only get a quick snippet of the applicable tune before the film moves on. In “Baby Driver,” Wright embeds the music directly into the action. In every action sequence, the carefully chosen song flows integrally, with each musical and film cut corresponding to the ebb and flow of the action. This film plays as much with the ear as it does with the eye. Edgar Wright’s camera eye follows the trajectory of each song, as if to enhance whatever moment Baby occupies. The film only becomes jarring and dissonant when Baby finds himself without his music.
Some may criticize “Baby Driver” as a film that inherently puts style over substance. But “Baby Driver” is a film that actually helps redefine what should be considered “substance.”
Given that its musical soundtrack so intimately intertwined with both the action and character beats, “Baby Driver’s” director has made a stylistic and narrative choice that invites the audience to absorb considerably more than this film’s basic story line as it jumps from one scene to the next. The artful way in which Edgar Wright immerses the viewer into the world of Baby through both sight and sound is truly a unique cinematic experience.