Milo Garner reviews Edgar Wright’s latest.
Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s first film since the severely underrated At World’s End, opens with a sustained high-pitched note in the soundtrack over the film’s titles. For some, this might signal an attempt to build tension, but for me it represents something quite unmistakable – the ‘hum in the drum’ – tinnitus. Strangely absent from the world of cinema, bar a bizarrely inaccurate throwaway line in Children of Men and the post-explosion ringing trope of war films, Baby Driver marks the first film I have seen in which tinnitus is not only mentioned, but plays a key role in the plot.
Enter Baby (B-A-B-Y, Baby) played by Ansel Elgort, sitting at the wheel of a car, shades on, earbuds in. The tinnitus we hear throughout the film is his, acquired through a car accident in his youth, and to drown it out he is constantly playing music on his now-retro iPod Classic. The first tune to cancel out the ringing is ‘Bellbottoms’ by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, and besides hearing that absolute banger for the first time in a film, this opening sequence also sets the score for Baby Driver as a whole. Rather than serving as just a soundtrack, the song becomes an intrinsic part of the film – the action of this scene is punctuated and edited to the song entirely. Not just to its beat, but to its silences, to its rhythm and progression. The effectiveness of this is linked to Wright’s creative process, which – perhaps more like a musical than a getaway film – used stunt men and choreographers to plan a scene to music that had already been secured. As such, the five minutes of ‘Bellbottoms’ doesn’t just happen to fit the first chase sequence: the sequence was built around the song. This isn’t necessarily unique – Wright himself has set choreographed action to music before, in Shawn of the Dead. What is unique is the dedication to this method and the brilliance in its execution.
The soundtrack is almost wall-to-wall, with near every scene featuring a song, while original composition mainly serves to segue between them. And what a soundtrack – from the likes of Brubeck to the Beach Boys, The Damned to T. Rex, Googie Rene to Carla Thomas – there isn’t a single bad track across the 35 featured. And despite the clear eclecticism of the music used, it blends perfectly with the film and flows without fault. The tone is consistent, and the music editing is pristine – in fact, considering its integration into the action itself, this might be one of the best-arranged soundtracks put to film. The absolute highlight has to be the use of ‘Hocus Pocus’ (by Focus) in one of the film’s many chase sequences. Its infectious guitar riff, as well as occasional yodelling, are melded into the film inimitably. And to cap it off, at one point a character fires his gun exactly to the main riff – a moment easy to miss, but so, so good. Fellini used to shoot his films to music playing on set to give his actors a sense of rhythm, but I feel Wright has gone a step further here, making the flow of the music the flow of the film itself. His often- (and rightfully-) lauded editing is only elevated when every beat is matched by a musical flourish. This is my tempo.
But the success of Baby Driver lies beyond its fantastic use of sound – though that would be enough to carry any film – as it also works in every other area. Visually Wright creates bright and interesting frames. The characters have a signature colour each, and never is there the sense of a creeping grey which has come to define many action films. There’s one exception – Baby himself is dressed initially in white, but his scheme does become darker as the film goes on, matching the ever more violent and gritty tone the heists are beginning to take. This is linked to one of the main themes of the film: that crime don’t pay. Admittedly the term ‘gritty’ doesn’t quite suit what is always a bright and upbeat film, even in its darker moments, but that there is a tonal trajectory in such a direction essentially spells out the inevitable result of a criminal life. The car chases themselves also follow this pattern, each a far closer shave than the last, but a moment should be taken to spell out how good these chases are. While many cinematic chases end up conversely boring, due to their repetitive angles and strange ability to make very fast look super slow, Baby Driver doesn’t fall into that trap. Aided by its electric soundtrack, Wright edits these sequences in such a way that any slowdown in the chase itself is replaced by excitement in the montage. In what is quite a true-to-life decision, Baby isn’t driving the supercars that Hollywood imagines high-stakes criminals might use. He drives standard, or even dated cars. As such the film has a real rough-and-ready vibe, despite being about as far from realistic as possible otherwise. Wright melds the reality of getaway driving with his extravagant fantasy excellently, though perhaps his greatest strength is in writing the characters to occupy this fantasy.
Accompanying Elgort’s mostly cool-and-calm Baby is a cast of caricatures brought to life by some great dialogue and acting. Highlights among these are Jamie Foxx’s Bats, a mildly unhinged but mostly quite stupid criminal who has a thing for shooting people, and the Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) double team who nail the Bonny and Clyde-type couple. Leading the ensemble, however, is Kevin Spacey’s Doc, existing as the paternal-seeming crime boss who is a little less kindly than he sometimes appears. This is the kind of role Spacey could probably manage without a script, and he pulls it off perfectly. The general point seems to be that everyone in crime is actually a bastard, even, at closer examination, the nice guys. And it’s probably fairly accurate too.
Between these characters and the supporting roles (such as Lanny Joon’s J.D., who had his ‘HATE’ tattoo changed to ‘HAT’ to make him more employable) there isn’t a single bad performance, and despite essentially playing tropes, each character feels fleshed out enough through incidental dialogue to feel like an actual person. As this is an Edgar Wright film, the clichés of the genre, including the characters, are subverted a little (that all the crew members feel a little pathetic is no accident). This becomes especially apparent toward the end of the film, with its revisionist-style ending. That said, it is in the ‘final showdown’ that the film’s only real flaw becomes apparent. Rather than ending with a car chase, which is really where things were pointed, the film’s main plot instead concludes with a sort of car duel in a high rise parking lot. This isn’t inherently bad, rather just a little below the incredibly high standard set by the rest of the film.
But don’t let that put you off, as in every other aspect this film is essentially nonpareil. It’s thrilling, fast, funny, pacey, and a lot of fun – if Wright had already created a set of homegrown classics in his Cornetto Trilogy, he has outdone himself here, in what is his best film yet. Go see it.
Baby Driver is out in the UK on June 28. See the latest trailer below: