Baby Driver Is the Best Movie Musical in Years
The origin story that director Edgar Wright has told the press about Baby Driver, his newest and most ambitious movie, is that the entire thing came to him after hearing a song: retromaniacal NYC rock’n’rollers’ the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” Spencer’s psych-blues mini-epic brought increasingly detailed images to Wright’s mind over time, but from the outset he knew it would score a bank robbery and a car chase. The context would fall into place in the 2010s, when it became more than a fever dream for Wright and he actually started writing the film: a story revolving around an obsessive music fan who was a getaway driver.
“Bellbottoms” is the first song we hear in the Baby Driver, which came out last weekend. From there, pop songs play nearly uninterruptedly throughout the film’s relentless less-than-two-hours. We hear Baby’s (our hero, played by Ansel Elgort) ears ringing with tinnitus in the brief moments when music is not playing, making us want it back as much as he, whose soundtrack we are listening to throughout the film, does. In so many ways, Baby Driver feels like a “musical,” even without actual singing and dancing.
Baby Driver has nothing else as distinctively blocked as its opening “Bellbottoms” sequence, but every action scene is overtly coordinated to Wright’s chosen songs. Much of it comes close to matching each and every sonic peculiarity. In a couple of gunfights, the thundering machine-gun fire adds a deafening layer of auxiliary percussion to the song playing behind it: Queen’s “Brighton Rock,” therefore, begins to sound like something off Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli. Even Baby’s charming coffee runs for his evil but vaguely avuncular employer/shadowy crime boss “Doc” (Kevin Spacey) or his around-the-house routine with his deaf and dumb foster dad (C.J. Jones) are also timed to the track Baby is listening to on his omnipresent earbuds (gross product placement which ultimately reveals something important about Baby’s troubled past).
As the explosions, gunfire, and destruction increases, the film become increasingly claustrophobic. Instead of skidding and Tokyo-drifting around a large swatch of the Atlanta metropolitan area, Elgort is forced to prove his mettle running through a park, navigating a supermarket parking lot, or locking front fenders with Jon Hamm, the Macklemore-‘doed villain who just won’t die, in a cramped, nondescript parking garage. The film goes from feeling like a playful action fantasia and more like a weighty, punishing one, with more blood streaked on the ground and direr stakes.
Wright is trying to pull out all the stops, aiming for the full range of dynamics and emotion—certainly those on the loud, fast-paced, and catastrophic side of the spectrum. It is meant as pyrotechnic spectacle—like 2015’s more-literally pyrotechnic Mad Max: Fury Road before it, every element feels well-placed and considered. A sense of real time and geography is relevant to these scenes; there is no rapid-cut, bombastic nonsense-action in the vein of Michael Bay or a Christopher Nolan Batman flick here. Baby Driver, like Fury Road, doesn’t overwhelm the viewer to cover weak spots, or spoon-feed them too much context.
Like La La Land, Baby Driver is a lean, aesthetically dazzling, and surface-level movie about loving music, cinematic language, and American film through its many eras. In both, its basic content is stuff seen a million times before since the earliest days of American film. Wright is a student of Jimmy Cagney gangster epics, 1950’s Gun Crazy (one of the first prototypes for the modern, car-chase-heavy heist film), Bonnie and Clyde, and The French Connection, as well as recent crime movies like Drive or Reservoir Dogs. The plot tropes in Baby Driver–a story about the downward spiral of a young criminal who didn’t mean to get so caught up in the game–have been everywhere in American film since the 1940s, and Wright employs them with a traditionalist flair.
Nowhere is this more obvious in the film’s conclusion: Crime doesn’t pay, despite our hero’s cute face and best intentions. We assume that his expected troubled past has pushed him to the seedy side, and he’s certainly earned our sympathies, but he still can’t be allowed to just ride off into the sunset. In Gun Crazy, the film’s disgraced protagonist (as talented with a gun as Baby is behind the wheel) and his lover end up in lost in the California hills, staring down a blockade of cops in the face; in Baby Driver, Baby and Debora (Lily James) end up in a similar situation, against a similarly idyllic Georgia landscape. There is nowhere to go, though the open road and the land of plenty seems just within reach all around them.
In the film’s tragicomic epilogue, Wright, having all the cinematic fun he wants to, prefers to let us decide for ourselves whether Baby’s image of Debora leaning against a vintage convertible in front of the prison is real life or just a recurring fantasy that helps him pass the lonely hours in his cell. (One recalls the fantasy “happy ending” of La La Land here, without all the saccharine pomposity.)
The fact that Baby Driver’s plot details are so conventional gives it room to do what it does best: be a musical. In many ways, it does a lot better with the task than the widely-lauded La La Land, which treated the idea of being a movie musical in the 2010s as a kind of self-serious theoretical experiment. Wright’s love of music is red-blooded and infectious, and explodes from every moment of the film; La La Land shied away from such unabashed celebration in favor of weak attempts at “emotional realism.”
Unlike La La Land, too, Wright selected a strange bunch of performers whose skill sets, however limited, were perfectly suited to the roles they were fulfilling (Neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone can dance, and at least one of them can’t sing). For instance, Elgort—probably not a great actor—works perfectly as more or less a found object, delivering the right smirks and strides and looking great in close-up. Jon Hamm is bad enough at acting like a normal human being and funny enough to play a sociopath washed-up-Wall-Street-guy-turned-crook with a screw loose. Jamie Foxx is still one of the most talented working actors, and gets an opportunity to employ more his dramatic and comic ability in the role of the paranoid but hard-nosed career crook Bats.
So much of the praise surrounding La La Land celebrated it as a “love letter” to American movies, as well as a tribute to classic movie musicals specifically. Ultimately, Baby Driver proves to do a better job at being both things. Wright and his team recognize how to approximate everything great about the films he borrows ideas from without attempting to graft on too many pointless formula tweaks. Baby Driver’s singular appeal comes from Wright’s virtuosic style of musical editing and the skill and peculiarity of the performances. It’s not the philosophy, the ideas, or even the plot that make Baby Driver hum, but the music and its stylistic grace; the film doesn’t waste time trying to make us believe anything else.