Review: Baby Driver
The year is 1995 and a 21-year-old Edgar Wright is sitting in a North London flat listening to Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion when he is struck by a simple thought — ‘this song would be perfect for a car chase’. 22 years later and this one idea has expanded into a full motion picture. And what a picture it is. Baby Driver is a wonderful action-musical, built upon the foundation of its soundtrack. At once original and entirely modern, while also feeling quintessentially classic, Baby Driver is likely to be the most fun you have in a cinema this year.
We start where Wright started. Ansel Elgort is the getaway driver for a bank heist. While the rest of the crew carry out their business in the bank, we stay with Elgort who is, of course, listening to Bellbottoms and moving to its beat, miming the words and dancing while he waits for the others. Once they return, Baby puts the pedal to the floor and a thrilling chase scene ensues, all the while beating to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s drum. This opening scene is the best in the movie but that’s not to say the rest isn’t good. The tone is set and the film will have you tapping your feet to its rhythm until the very last.
Ansel Elgort is Baby, the titular getaway driver who works for Kevin Spacey’s Doc. Doc is the brains. He plans heists and hires an always rotating crew to carry them out. Baby is the one constant. Partly because he’s the best driver Doc has ever seen and partly because he owes Doc a large debt, Baby is the driver on every one of these heists. While we briefly see other criminals, the crew we’re concerned with consists of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza González) a married couple whose blueprints for life appear to be The Eagles’ Life in the Fast Lane, and Bats (Jamie Foxx), a sociopath always looking for an excuse to shoot someone. The final member of the cast is the film’s soundtrack. Baby suffers from tinnitus, a result of a childhood car accident, and so constantly listens to music from a range of iPods to drown out the noise. The audience hears what Baby hears, meaning music plays almost from beginning to end. Cleverly, when there isn’t music playing, a high-pitched ringing sound takes its place. As early as during the studio logos, the audience is given tinnitus throughout the picture. What sets Baby Driver apart from being just a cool heist movie with a good soundtrack, though, is how intrinsically the music is woven into the fabric of the film. Tapping and clicking of fingers, gear changes and the slamming of car doors are all done exactly to the beat of the accompanying song. Even outside of the chase sequences, activities as mundane as a trip to the coffee shop are heightened by the soundtrack. The result is that the entire film has the energy of a musical number.
The plot itself is fairly lightweight. Baby works jobs to pay off his debt to Doc, but he doesn’t belong in that world, something he is frequently reminded of by his deaf and mute foster father, Joe (CJ Jones in the funniest performance of the film). When Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress working at the same diner his late mother used to work at, he sees something worth getting out for. As it turns out, things aren’t quite that simple — Doc isn’t too keen on allowing his best getaway driver to simply walk away from the game. That the plot isn’t overly involved actually works to the movie’s strength. There is never any danger of the film getting bogged down in particulars and this allows Wright to focus on what’s important. That’s not to say the story is bad, though. As outrageous as some of the action is, it always feels like it comes about logically. The plot does a good job of justifying the film’s action scenes in a way that many large budget action capers don’t manage to do. And if you’re concerned that this all sounds like style over substance, fear not — there is plenty of the latter on display here. Strong performances across the board create good, fleshed-out characters whose motivations are always clear and believable. Ansel Elgort is particularly noteworthy, given his character’s propensity for silence. Elgort’s musical theatre background is on full display as he creates a charming and likable protagonist, primarily through the form of synchronised acting. Somewhere between acting and dancing, each scene is well choreographed to the music and Elgort shows himself to be a strong physical actor that can hold the lens as well as many classic movie-stars. Spacey and Foxx deserve a special mention as well. Here are two actors with more than enough ability to hijack a movie with scene-stealing performances, but both find the perfect balance to create engaging supporting characters without taking the spotlight away from Elgort’s Baby. If the movie does make a misstep, aside from the familiar problem of the film getting a bit too messy towards the end of the third act, it’s with Lily James’ Debora. James isn’t to blame here; her performance is a good one and she and Elgort have a natural on-screen chemistry. Rather, the problem is with the character. There are hints of interesting traits, but none are explored enough to really give Debora any agency of her own. Certainly she’s an interesting character study: here is a woman so desperate to escape her life, she is willing to run off into the sunset with a mysterious criminal who’s liable to get her killed, but unfortunately we only get a faint scent of what’s going on with her. That being said, the connection between Baby and Debora feels genuine and brings to life the idea of a whirlwind romance more commonly seen in classic Hollywood pictures — something overtly acknowledged in the film through a handful of gorgeous black-and-white shots.
Baby Driver is a film with a lot of moving parts and the pitch-perfect balancing of them all is nothing short of astounding. The casting is simply spot-on, right down to the smallest bit-part, and Bill Pope’s cinematography brings the picture to life beautifully. Wright teams up again with his Scott Pilgrim vs. The World editing team consisting of Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos, and as in that earlier film, they are completely on-point. The usual pace you’d expect from an Edgar Wright feature is here in spades and coupled with Steven Price’s excellent music work, the soundtrack, direction and editing all work together to create a snappy film that grabs hold of you, injects you with energy and somehow manages to sustain it from first moment to last. This really feels like the passion project that it is. This is the movie Wright has been working towards and you can feel its fingerprints throughout the rest of his oeuvre. From the car chases in Hot Fuzz to the zombie-beating in time with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now in Shaun of the Dead to a dry run of the whole concept in Mint Royale’s Blue Song music video (which Wright directed), everything has been leading to this. Baby Driver is auteur film-making at its finest — one person’s vision richly brought to life by a team of talented individuals all delivering their best work. And the result is simply a joy to behold.