The soundtrack to a movie can be the last thing that makes or breaks it in the eyes of the audience. The work of composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams, to name just two, have led to some of the most iconic musical themes in cinematic history; music which has infiltrated pop culture across a huge spectrum. Who, for example, can see an image of a predatory Great White Shark without immediately calling Williams’ iconic theme for Jaws to mind? Who can see a pirate at a fancy dress party without thinking of Zimmers’ score for Pirates Of The Caribbean? Similarly, soundtracks which make considered and intelligent use of existing mainstream music are held in similarly high regard; James Gunn’s use of classic rock and pop tunes in the two Guardians Of The Galaxy movies not only builds and guides the emotional tone and tensions of the story, but also serves a purpose within the story as a direct connection to one of the central characters. Finally we have movies about music, such as the likes of Whiplash, which rely entirely on the soundtrack to drive every aspect of the piece; with the background music driving the emotional tone of scenes where nobody is actively playing, guiding the piece until the next on-screen performance.
In all my years of watching motion pictures, however; I don’t think I’ve seen a single film that uses the soundtrack the way that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) does in Baby Driver, a heist movie following the eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault In Our Stars); a prodigious get-away driver working with Atlanta crime-lord Doc (Kevin Spacey, House Of Cards) to rip off local banks and security services. Baby is living with tinnitus and, as Doc puts it, “uses music to drown out the hum in the drum”; constantly hooked up to a series of iPod Classics to allow him to focus on anything but the ringing in his ears. This is the device which Wright uses to establish the core concept of the film – whatever we’re listening to is what Baby is listening to, and Baby has specific iPods and tracklists for specific scenarios. Our lead character chooses which songs he drives to, allowing Wright to lift the heart rates of the audience to the same pace as the central character by delivering the same music to us as to him. We get to see Baby timing the start of certain tracks to fit the beginning of a job; serving not only for him to match what he’s listening to with when he’ll be driving; but also provides him with a real-time ability to track the job as it plays out and allow him to know whether the rest of the crew are operating to the prescribed time-frame.
The effect of the soundtrack goes beyond that level, though; Wright has masterfully choreographed the film to match up with the music, especially during the high-octane heist scenes. Gunshots match to drum beats; tyre squeals match to guitar solos. Key moments are punctuated with lifts in the song of the moment, and Wright re-invents the literary device of pathetic fallacy (where the weather of a chapter in a novel reflects the mood of the central character) by having the tone of the soundtrack adapt to Baby’s immediate mood. This is something which we all know – who hasn’t decided to listen to something on the heavier end of the spectrum when in a bad mood? Wright has woven the physicality of the film into the construction of the music and it goes beyond the car scenes; Baby’s physical path through life is influenced by the music he listens to at all stages.
Baby is characterised as the silent type for the majority of the film; the notable exceptions being during interactions with Doc, with Debora (Lily James, Downton Abbey) and with Joseph (C.J. Jones, Lincoln Heights). These interactions are driven by entirely different motivations; Doc is his business associate; Debora is his love interest and Joseph is his foster father. The music we hear during Baby’s interactions with these three characters is vastly different both from each other and from the action scenes; as the love interest, all of Debora’s backing tracks are romantic in some way, and all make reference either to a Debora/Deborah or to a Baby (such as Beck’s Debora, or Carla Thomas’ B-A-B-Y), and music takes a more considered backseat during the scenes with just Doc and Baby.
It is the scenes with Baby and Joseph, however, where the musical interaction takes an interesting tone. Joseph is deaf (as is C.J. Jones), and he interacts with the music in the scenes very differently. In the solace of their apartment, Baby removes the earbuds and blasts music from a record player; allowing Joseph to feel the vibrations of the songs he’s listening too. Combined with Baby’s physicality during these scenes, Joseph’s insight into what Baby is thinking and feeling is tremendous, reflective of the close relationship the two have. The second intriguing dynamic between the two is that they communicate primarily through American Sign Language (with their conversation subtitled for those who don’t know the language), which represents an important step forward in visibility of differently abled people on screen; particularly the casting of a deaf actor to play a deaf role. Elgort & Jones have a wonderful chemistry on screen, flawlessly demonstrating a close, personal bond both to each other and to music, despite their hearing issues.*
This interaction is a strong indication of the other strengths of Baby Driver; Wright has put together a fantastic script and assembled an incredible cast. Outside of his work directly alongside Jones, Elgort’s performance overall is fantastic. Baby is a complex character, and Elgort balances his grim determination and charming arrogance alongside a sense of youthful innocence expertly. The opening scenes establish the character expertly; Wright uses his first look at his eponymous hero to set the full expectations of his personality, allowing his relationships with other characters to fill in backstory and to develop his character as the film proceeds; allowing Elgort to flex his chops as the story moves.
Similarly, Lily James puts in a delightful turn; flawlessly adopting the character of the modern-day southern belle-come-manic pixie dream-girl, and providing a talkative innocence which plays off tremendously against the more reserved Baby. Her soft, earthy voice is particularly tantalizing to the young driver; a soothing tone which works to cause the same effect as his iPod and presents an important moment in understanding how his interpersonal interactions operate.
The rest of the supporting cast present an interesting dynamic to our central character. For those unfamiliar with Wright’s past work (firstly, where have you been?); he is a master of presenting caricatures in a believable style, while also subtly commenting on the nature of this characters within the landscape of cinema. Wright presents a rotating cast of cinematic bad-asses to round out the crews on each heist, and each actor brings a different form of gangland stereotype to the screen, for various lengths of time. This allows each character to present different amounts of levity to the scenes they feature in. Jon Berthnal (Daredevil), Lanny Joon (Hollywood Wasteland) and Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame) all make one-hit appearances and are conductors for some of Wright’s traditional quick-fire gags and providing alleyways into character exploration for those who are sticking around for longer.
The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by the aforementioned Spacey, John Hamm (Mad Men), Eiza Gonzalez (From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series) and Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained). Spacey delivers the performance that you would expect; perfectly balancing the dark and dangerous side of the leader of a criminal empire with perfect delivery of comedic lines, and an amount of empathy for the central character.
Hamm, Gonzalez and Foxx play Buddy, Darling and Bats consecutively. These three work multiples jobs with Doc and Baby during our timeline and, as such, are key sources of influence on Baby’s development. All three characters are suitably complex and interesting, while maintaining their elements of stereotypical caricaturisation. As with Spacey, Foxx and Hamm are both effortlessly funny as well as being incredibly menacing, sometimes within the same sentence; and Gonzalez shines as the devilish bombshell, teaming up effortlessly with Hamm to create an unhinged, 21st cenutry Bonnie-And-Clyde-esque criminal duo.
All the pieces of Baby Driver add together to one hell of a thrill ride. Clever, funny and desperately exciting, I have never been more thrilled to feel my heart beating in my throat for two full hours. This film needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can possibly find; so grab some friends, get a big ol’ bucket of popcorn and strap your brain and your body in for the ride of their lives.
And get ready to have Focus’ Hocus Pocus in your brain for days afterwards. Don’t worry; it’s totally worth it.
Baby Driver is now showing at Showcase, Odeon and Vue cinemas; and opens at Phoenix Cinema on Friday, July 14th .
* I can’t possibly do justice to the work of C.J. Jones from my personal viewpoint in this review. If you’d like to read more about how his role in Baby Driver has touched those with similar disabsilities, please read the article “You Are Not Alone” by Adam Membrey on Birth.Movies.Death here.