The only time you should ask your local cinema to turn up the sound is prior to Baby Driver. It’s the new film from writer and director, Edgar Wright, the comic mastermind behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End.
Every beat of Baby Driver’s ingenious soundtrack is matched with a bullet, gear change or handbrake turn; it’s a dynamite heist film with the heart of a musical. The Damned, Blur, Young MC and even ’70s Dutch band Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’ are called on to psych you into the action in what might be one of the best uses of a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to date.
This might sound a bit ho-hum to an audience raised on such things at the multiplex, but Baby Driver adds major revs to Edgar Wright’s unmistakably English passion for satiric genre homages, transporting him into a cinematic pulp thrill somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
The genius of it resides in the decision to base Baby Driver on plugging you into the iPod of Baby (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver with tinnitus who uses music to drown out the ringing in his ears. Baby owes a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey, delivering malice with relish in every scene), a gangster who organises bank heists using a rotating roster of idiosyncratic thugs (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal).
Once Doc and Baby are even, the young driver looks like he can walk away, but of course it’s not so simple. Baby gets blackmailed into just one more job when Doc threatens his girlfriend (Lily James) and his foster father (CJ Jones). Baby reluctantly agrees, then eyes an escape when the heist goes bad; here you can feel the influence of Tony Scott’s True Romance echoing through the plot with a young couple caught in the crossfire.
Wright synchronises Baby’s point of view and the sonic isolation of his ear buds perfectly with a soundtrack that moves with the character’s every mood. Baby even has different iPods for each emotional state, mainly because his iPod is a haven for processing the death of his parents and a way to block out the ugly side of his chosen profession. He’s often shown being hesitant to look at what’s going on in a bank while the rest of his gang do the dirty work of intimidating people.
Baby is a free spirit of sorts, hiding in the comfort of his iPod yet trapped in the get-a-way driver’s seat he’s been forced to take. Old time rock ‘n’ roll really does soothe the soul here in Baby Driver.
An individual’s playlist of songs is always deeply intimate, and Wright allows the bands to do the talking for Baby: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Beach Boys, The Commodores, T-Rex, Sam & Dave, Queen and more. As noted, the music picks are fantastic – Wright cranks it to 11 whenever he fuses the soundtrack with the stunning action sequences. The opening showdown between Baby and the police is unforgettable, and sure to rattle the rankings of the greatest chase sequences of all time. Wright’s action direction is impeccable, inventive and absolutely wired for sound. He’s been in genre training his whole movie career in order to pull this off.
But Baby can’t hide forever in the Sensurround comfort of his favourite bands and he’s forced to face the violent reality of the crime world when the plot escalates yet another notch. As a gig spirals out of control, Baby becomes genuinely vulnerable. He has no choice but to take action and make a clean break. Wright shows Baby coming out of his shell and getting his hands dirty – yet the righteous getaway driver comes across as a little vacant in the end. Yes, Baby has great taste in music, but that’s about it. All work and iPod play has made Baby a dull boy.
Throw in a syrupy romance with Lily James that’s firmly embedded in the male mind and Baby Driver turns to fluff. The felons finally make a bigger impression and Spacey tears on through the dialogue with a ruthless panache, outsizing an already mega-sized movie.
The wildly joyous first half of Baby Driver gets marred by the mechanics of a crime thriller as it moves toward the finalé and loses its radical vibrancy along the way. It’s nonetheless fascinating seeing Wright, a Brit, commit to the American action movie aesthetic with such cracking sincerity. But Baby Driver somehow pales in comparison to his action tribute masterpiece, Hot Fuzz; maybe Wright is better in homage than in earnest? Still, when Baby Driver is at full volume and hitting every cylinder and beat in perfect harmony it’s a real blast.