Come to save us from the doldrums of summer’s lackluster cinematic offerings, Baby Driver is a film that is bursting with life: every shot, sequence, and cut meticulously prepared. And we shouldn’t be surprised, because some of these sequences have been sitting in writer-director Wright’s brain for nigh on two decades. You also wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen any of Wright’s previous films: they are bursting with little details: foreshadowing, touches of character, jokes, easter eggs, homages, references… again—meticulous.
Ansel Elgort plays the titular Baby, who at a young age was in an accident that robbed him of his parents and gave him tinnitus. As such, he constantly plays music to drown it out. While boosting cars as a teen, he runs afoul of Doc (Kevin Spacey), who basically conscripts him into his coterie of bank robbers as the best getaway driver he’s ever seen. While they’ve enjoyed a hot streak for a while, no one’s luck lasts forever, and the introduction of some unstable elements, like in the form of Jamie Foxx’s Bats, makes the heat (and risks) turn up to unbearable degrees. Other members of Doc’s team include Jon Bernthal, Flea, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Hamm. Meanwhile, Baby meets and falls for Debora, a waitress at the diner where his mother used to work.
Your standard musical will have songs made for a movie, but this does the reverse. Sequences and shots were prepared to line up exactly with the beat and tempo of carefully selected songs. Movement and music go together hand in hand, from car chases to divvying up of money. Because of Baby’s condition, this means that basically all of the music is diegetic: in the scene itself, being listened to by at least one character. Wright has shown this skill in his previous films, but here it is consistently threaded throughout, and it is impressive. Even when an in-shot speed change occurs, the slow motion is still matched with the tempo playing (in this case, The Commodores’ “Easy”). Wright had the great idea of not only getting the second unit director of John Wick (Darrin Prescott) to orchestrate chases and action sequences, but getting Emmy-nominated choreographer Ryan Heffington (of Sia’s “Chandelier”) to stage great scenes like the single-take title sequence set to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” in which Baby makes a coffee run while ducking, bobbing, and weaving through both human and vehicular traffic.
The songs on the soundtrack are an eclectic selection: soul/funk gems interspersed with rock and hip-hop. Some are familiar, others more surprising; many films would use The Beach Boys or REM, but how many would choose an instrumental? The story even explains this variety: when he was boosting cars, Baby acquired a collection of iPods (and sunglasses) from the cars he stole. The film is kicked off by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” which scores the opening bank heist, a version of which Wright had already prepared in his video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.” It prepares you for the rest of the film with its breathless chase, twists and turns, changes of tempo and even genre. An avowed action fan, you can see in the chases Wright’s been champing at the bit to execute some of these scenes, especially an extended foot chase that goes through multiple locations and even requires a costume change.
In that, some of the marketing may have been misleading: it’s not an all-car-chase film, but gradually becomes a tight, gritty crime story with the prototypical protagonst getting way in over his head. How you think the story will go isn’t exactly where it does, and we’re kept guessing as to how much of Baby’s world will shake out in the end, including his foster father Joe, played by CJ Jones (it’s great that the film doesn’t make a big deal of a child with tinnitus being adopted and raised by a deaf man).
Baby Driver is an original story, not a franchise or sequel, that shows what can be achieved with some cleverness and wit and all-out excitement for what you’re creating. There are bits and details that you can continue to unpack for any number of rewatches, from the lyrics of “Harlem Shuffle” appearing all over the background of that long extended take, to the colors of the characters’ clothing as the story develops, to even lighting and dialogue cues that might go by too fast upon first viewing. It’s one ride you’ll be happy to be on, from one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch.
Photos from Columbia Pictures