If you were to turn down the volume on the trailer for Edgar Wright’s latest inventive piece of cinema, Baby Driver, it would look, for all intents and purposes, like a good old fashioned crime caper.
Car chases through tight streets, down sprawling freeways and even within claustrophobically-small carparks, a motley, revolving cast of criminals, heists and some good old shootouts thrown in for good measure.
Dial the volume back up again though, and it’s a whole different story.
What leaps to the fore is a rocking, perfectly-pitched soundtrack, one woven so tightly into the DNA of the (mostly) tight narrative that the film is, in every respect that matters, a musical.
Yes, a musical; one that pulsates, moves and leaps from point A to B to a galaxy of songs so well-suited to their attendant scenes that imagining that particular piece of storytelling without that musical accompaniment is well nigh impossible.
Not your typical soundtrack then, but that’s fitting, since Baby Driver is not your typical crime caper movie.
Kicking things off in high-octane fashion – quite literally since the driver in question, Baby, played with boyish vulnerability by Ansel Elgort, pushes the pedal to the metal on a sizzling red muscle car – in the opening scene, with every piece of dialogue, turn of the wheel, scream of the tyres, rendered in precise, soul-stirring sync to “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
It’s exhilarating in every sense of the word, even more so when you realise how exquisitely well Edgar Wright has matched every last note of that song to the unfolding car chase where the police are attempting, unsuccessfully naturally, to capture the gang played by Jon Hamm (Jason “Buddy” Van Horn), Eiza González (Monica “Darling” Costello) and Jon Bernthal (Griff), all in the service of crime boss Doc, played with deadly friendliness by Kevin Spacey).
This near-watertight pairing of song and structure, note, lyrics and scene, continues, in the following post-heist shakedown with Doc, where we see Baby, in high spirits despite being effectively indentured to his boss while he works off a debt incurred years earlier, sashaying along the street, coffees in hand to “Harlem Blues” by Bob & Earl.
He moves along the street, and people move around him, with near-balletic fluidity, a joyous, sinuous energy percolating through every moment of scene that unfolds in real time; the sense of contagious contentment is palpable, a state of being made all the more remarkable not just by the fact that Baby has many reasons to be unhappy with his involuntary line of work, but by the way Wright injects it with the sort of easy jollity that suffuses musicals like “Singing in the Rain.”
It’s tempting at this point to think Baby is somewhat deluded; how could anyone be this blissfully upbeat when he’s picked on by most members of the crews he works with – Leon “Bats” Jefferson III played by Jamie Foxx is a particularly nasty case in point – he’s permanently hooked up to a plethora of iPods to shut out the tinnitus incurred years earlier in a car accident that killed his parents – risks jail each and every time he answers a call from Doc, and has precious little to show for it.
But away from the smoking and squealing of tyres and the beautifully over-staged repartee between the criminals in Doc’s everchanging crews, Baby is a young man who has his eye on a beautiful waitress Debora (Lily James) at the diner his mother used to sometimes work at (her theme song is “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas), who’s devoted to his deaf, ageing foster father (C J Jones as Joseph) and who, through choice and necessity, lives and breathes the music that is an omnipresent part of his life.
You could say he’s finds the moments of joy, the silver linings wherever he can and he does it damn well, all obstacles to his happiness notwithstanding; but it’s borne of a deliberate isolation that sees the extremely observant and intelligent, though softly-spoken driver wall himself off from everyone, even his foster father to an extent.
It’s when he opens himself up to Debora, and the possibilities that their relationship offers up – in typical musicals fashion, they fall in love, quickly, easily and absolutely – that his world both expands, and begins to fall apart and contract as he comes to realise that there is more out there for him than Doc, and that if he doesn’t act on these building mini-epiphanies that he will never escape Doc’s cold, hard hand.
What unfolds then to an impressively robust, emotionally pitch-perfect playlist throughout – highlights include “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas, “Brighton Rock” by Queen (the recurrent musical theme for the deteriorating relationship between Baby and Buddy) and “Baby Driver” By Simon & Garfunkel – which highlight, emphasise, enliven every last moment of the film.
Granted it does go a bit Tarantino-esque in the final act with more guns and violence than the preceding two-thirds of the film but it fits the narrative arc to a tee with Baby’s artfully-constructed world, as much wishful thinking as musically-buttressed, coming crashing down as soon as he opens himself to the fact that life may not be as closed off as it once seemed.
The final act too bolsters the argument that this is a musical at heart; quite apart from the songs, the narrative mirrors a traditional story of lost boy meets lost girl, falls in love, stands up to his oppressive life, almost loses it all, and possibly wins out in the end.
The fact of the matter is that Wright, no matter how wraps things up for Baby, takes our sweet, kind, caring protagonist on the mother of all transformative journeys, the kind of up-and-down-and-up (maybe) trajectory that any of the denizens of Sondheim or Rogers & Hammerstein’s musicals would instantly recognise.
Wright has crafted a crime caper with as much heart and hope as it has violence and decay, an ode to life’s many possibilities but also the very real way the springing of hope eternal can be derailed, lost and corrupted in an instant.
There is no doubt that Baby Driver is a weird amalgam but Wright makes it work beautifully, juxtaposing the giddy joy of musical moments, the harshness of reality on life’s underbelly, and the slowly-dawning realisation that things can change (but not without some harsh, high-cost effort), with a panoply of songs that are as much a character as any of the narrative strands that wend and wind their way at breakneck speed through this compelling and utterly original movie.