Often, especially with movies, we argue about style versus substance. Style needs substance to be worthwhile. In Baby Driver, the style is the substance. And it works. At first glance, Baby Driver is a simple heist movie, but if you stick around you’ll see one of the best movies of 2017 and a new level of achievement for director Edgar Wright. Virtuosic editing, superb visual storytelling, and great music choice are just the start.
I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers in the review to follow, but you’ve been warned.
Rhythm is life
When we meet Baby (Ansel Elgort), he’s idling in his car, earbuds hanging from his ears. As his partners in crime step out of the car, he hits play, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion track “Bellbottoms” explodes into our ears, bringing Baby to life. The steering wheel, the windshield wipers, the tires, they’re all part of this huge instrument he’s playing along with the tunes. It’s a familiar sight – those of us who drive cars regularly can often be caught using anything we can reach from the driver’s seat as another drum. But for Baby, as we learn, everything is part of the music he’s listening to.
Music is much a part of Baby’s world as breathing, eating, or sleeping. Those earbuds stay in his ears throughout most of the film, and they’re constantly helping us see the world through his eyes. And this is, in my opinion, what makes all of this work.
Baby Driver is filled to the brim with music. If the music were simply layered over the action, though, it would just be a two-hour music video. Instead, Wright blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic music – that is, music happening within the movie versus music playing over the movie – and turns what could’ve been a simple stylistic conceit into something that helps tell a story.
The soundtrack pulls from all manner of modern sources. Apart from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion track that opens the movie, there are tracks from artists like Dan the Automator’s Handsome Boy Modeling School project, Beck, Golden Earring, and Young MC. With each new track, it feels more like we’re getting a feel for Baby’s taste, not Edgar Wright’s.
As the music plays, the movie jams along. Construction workers work on beat, and shotguns reload on cue. These things would seem out of place in almost anything but a musical, but here they work, because it feels like we’re seeing them through Baby’s eyes. It’s not that they’re moving in-sync with the music, it’s that he’s syncing them up with the music. The camera cuts aren’t first person or anything like that, but they seem to be filtered through Baby all the same.
When the music stops, when circumstances force the earbuds out of Baby’s ears – and he keeps them there for a good reason I can personally sympathize with – it’s meaningful. It feels like something has been taken away from Baby and from us.
Music is all at once a connection to his past, a salve for the affliction that forces him to keep the music playing, and a deeply personal representation of who he is.
Even with all that, Baby Driver is still a heist movie and generally follows the rhythm of a good heist story, right down to the collection of characters. The guy who tries to be more intense than he is, the dangerous guy on edge, the tourist, the disposable guys, and the brain behind the operation.
Funny, punchy writing and great performances from good actors keep even the most standard-seeming elements from ever feeling stale, though.
Kevin Spacey plays the part of Doc, the guy planning all these heists Baby has to participate in, as well as being the one holding Baby’s future hostage. Jaime Foxx plays Bats – the dangerous one. John Hamm’s character Buddy works thanks in part to Hamm’s ridiculous handsomeness. It’s easy to underestimate him, and that makes the character a fun surprise as things start to go sideways (like they always do in heist movies).
You’ll notice that, among that list, you don’t see Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, or Martin Freeman. While this is absolutely an Edgar Wright movie, it breaks from his standard casting more than any of his movies since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. That will likely be disappointing to some of Wright’s fans. Aside from those great performances, though, this change of casting has another good side effect.
A New Direction
Wright, for all his skill in comedy and action, has a bad habit of reminding us that we’re watching a movie. That can often be somewhat a result of the particular blend of British comedy he’s been known for, but it was something that made me hesitant going into any of his movies.
In Baby Driver, he channels all that energy into making Baby himself work. Early scenes have Baby flipping through channels on television, staying on each long enough for a line from each show to land. Later, Baby himself calls back these lines. Instead of it being an in-joke or reference, it shows us how Baby processes the world around him and responds to outside stimulus.
And as for the action, Baby Driver puts on display some of the best car chases in ages. They’re exciting, intense, and engaging. Wright opted not to use any CGI for these, so we get good looks at actors’ faces while they get slammed around corners. By sticking with real cars, everything in these chases has weight. Everything happening feels big and real. I hear movie geeks talk about car chases like they’re a thing of the past, but I think the chases in this movie – especially the first one – are going to go down as some of the best in movie history.
Baby Driver is one of Wright’s best films yet, if not his best. Wright has shown us previously his strength in creation action and comedy, and in his use of music, through movies like Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and Scott Pilgrim. With this movie, though, he’s able to bring it all together into one cohesive creation. That Wright managed to get this movie made at all in this everything-is-a-cinematic-universe environment is its own small miracle. That he made it for just $35 million is a much-needed win for mid-sized movie budgets, something we’ve seen all but disappear.
I’ll admit the movie falls apart a bit in the last act, but it never goes entirely off the rails. Baby’s character arc is believable and easy to invest in. The romance subplot moves a bit fast (and I say that in a movie entirely about car chases), but actress Lily James does a good job with it all the same, and she and Elgort make it work.
If Baby Driver doesn’t win awards for editing and music, then something went horribly wrong or an absolutely mind-blowing movie came out after. Baby Driver is easily one of the best movies of the year, and one of my favorites in a long time. It’s a great heist movie among great heist movies, and a great movie, full stop.