Edgar Wright’s new vehicle is by all accounts slick, but might have a little too much going on under the hood.
Making a mixtape is a labour of love, or so I assume –– I don’t think anyone’s made one since the creation of the iPod, but that means we’ve made playlists instead. We create one for every occasion: the gym, work, house parties etc. and it’s still just as meticulous a process. Ensuring one song flows to the next, creating a connective tissue running through, much like the artists themselves do when making an album.
Behind Baby Driver is Edgar Wright, a writer-director whose rightfully seen as an artist, one with a particular sound –– his voice, distinct and recogniseable after the success of The Cornetto Trilogy and his other work. In Baby Driver, Wright has attempted to make more than just a mere playlist of hits to belt out, instead swinging for the fences and creating a concept album, the film’s DNA being the music itself.
If your primary complaint about La La Land involved a lack of music, then consider your problem solved as this is stuffed with tunes; Baby’s (Ansel Engort) numerous iPods providing the film’s needle drops. By all means a musical, but one that takes existing tunes and arranges them to tell a story over the story giving way for songs, Wright rarely lets the music let up and it feels near constant as a result. The first act seems unrelenting in that way, but avoids Suicide Squad-level of tedium due to Wright avoiding the easy songs, springing for the deep cuts from a wide array of artists: Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, Run the Jewels and many more.
Just as important to this film as the score are the scores that the criminal cast are looking to attain from the variety of heists they pull off. While many sequences are choreographed to the music playing in Baby’s eardrums –– from an early long take where he glides through the streets of Atlanta on a coffee run to more simple flourishes like Doc (Kevin Spacey) splitting up the crew’s cut of the cash –– these crimes are more elaborate, the set-pieces of the film and most thrilling sequences.
Other movies in the crime genre, like Heat, take us inside the location being robbed, but Wright sticks with Baby and the getaway car. Sequences like that early long take demonstrate Engort’s adeptness at moving less like Robert De Niro and more like Fred Astaire and that flow extends to when Baby’s behind the wheel. The cars he drives weave through Atlanta, and its commuters, with his foot on gas, there’s no time to slow down as he looks to evade the cops. John Wick: Chapter 2 might engage in car-fu, treating the vehicles as other fighters, but here stunt coordinator and driver Jeremy Fry, who worked on both Wick chapters, moves from martial arts to music in order to deliver spectacle that’s just as graceful as the bullet ballet.
Baby’s cut from the same cloth as Ryan Gosling in Drive, a stoic character that’s content to cut the chatter. This changes when he meets a waitress, Debora (Lily James), their interactions light-hearted as the pair dance around the other verbally. The blossoming relationship provides the emotional through-line of the piece, but Wright incorporates some prior tragedy, the layers of which are gradually pulled back before being revealed in full. With a concept like this –– a getaway driver suffers from tinnitus and listens to music to drown it out –– it’s somewhat necessary to explain that, especially when aiming for a degree of realism like Wright is.
As such, it engages with ideas from other crime movies, most notably Walter Hill’s The Driver, but includes more general ideas like a shipment of weapons and a sense of uneasiness when it comes to who the characters can trust. The film doesn’t slow down, running just shy of two hours and so feels filled to the brim with ideas. Wright layers these in a way you’d expect. While Mad Max: Fury Road went for a simpler narrative (in basic terms –– Point A to B and back) which allowed for maximum insanity, Baby Driver proceeds in a more traditional fashion, building through cause and effect, as that central crime narrative finds itself entwined with Baby and Debora’s relationship, among others. On the first watch, it doesn’t seem as well structured as the Cornetto trilogy, in terms of early foreshadowing, but there’s a chance that a more silent protagonist allowed Wright to leave the set-up of various elements unsaid, and this will become more apparent when re-watched.
Baby serves as the film’s protagonist, doing what he does for Doc to ensure everything goes off without a hitch or casualty, but he’s part of a cast of criminals run by Doc and made up of Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), Bats (Jamie Foxx) and other bit players. Wright plays with the tension derived from this crew without making too knotted of a web –– Buddy and Darling are a couple –– partly due to how fast the film moves. It’s nowhere close to the near-three hour run-time of Heat, more in line with modern-day action movies and shorter than most superhero fare, there’s no real wiggle room to really delve into the rest of the crew’s interior lives.
Even with small glimpses, they shine. Foxx plays a wildcard and relishes the opportunity to go further over the top than the rest of the cast, González avoids the over the top quality other actresses may have gone for with this Bonnie (of & Clyde) character, commanding a mutual respect from everyone else, not least Hamm who with Spacey play the straight men in this enterprise, although Hamm’s walks a more precarious line, with that stern seemingly papering over rage. James plays the purest part, a respite from a far murkier picture that I think most are expecting, her chemistry with Engort allowing for a lighter mood –– one that might cause you to grin, but not necessarily laugh out loud. It should be said at this point that everyone here is phenomenal when it comes to how they use the space, hitting the musical beats with ease, a fact highlighted by how rarely Wright has to cut in closer from a wider shot to mask a mistake.
His visual style remains, evident with the little things, like button presses and there’s some wider visual flourishes –– one transition involves moving from a close up of Baby in shades to his car roaming the streets which Wright does with a gentle push in –– coming from another collaboration with cinematographer Bill Pope. Wright is clearly in control of the look of his film, while it may not utilise center framing like Mad Max: Fury Road, the action rarely gets muddled, even as the cuts get more frequent, down to the guiding hand of the soundtrack. Sound editing is just as key to Baby Driver and there’s at no point does someone seem to be a beat behind, making this a very rewarding experience if you know the songs.
While it’ll certainly play well with a crowd, Wright’s also looking to provide a unique, singular experience. A thin whine runs through scenes, because of Baby’s tinnitus, which shows how Wright is looking to focalise this movie through Baby’s head, putting the audience in there without relying purely of POV shots. For the most part, Baby spends the film with both earbuds in and the music booms. When inside a building, it’s by no means as overwhelming and gets even fainter when an earbud is removed. As a result of this near-constant soundtrack, not to mention the dialogue and other aural aspects, the sound mixing has a lot to contend with. In the moments where no-one’s barreling through the streets over the speed limit, the balance sounds good, but when Baby’s foot’s on the floor, there are moments where it feels like too much, as if you’ve found yourself right in front of a band performing live, but without earplugs.
Blockbusters have a tendency to slip up in the third act, but that’s not strictly the case here. Instead it feels like it could have afforded to go a little further in its climax, but I’m willing to bet they couldn’t afford to from a financial perspective. Wright remembers the relationships built up over the course of the film lending it the necessary emotional weight, which demonstrates the strength of this film’s second act, its peak which goes far enough in developing those relationships. There’s one decision I’m not completely on-board with, but upon reflection is likely to be less of conflicting with prior actions and more because of the relative brevity of the film making it seem sudden.
That brevity results in a tightness in the script that makes it hard to simply point at Heat‘s runtime and ask for it to be closer to that. The film is meticulously crafted around a very precise soundtrack and timing that doesn’t allow for an additional scene to just be inserted midway through the run-time and alleviate all concerns, especially when it can be argued the ending has to string together more scenes than it should in order to provide a satisfying point to leave off.
Despite these final act issues, there isn’t a point where I didn’t enjoy myself and that may be the real strength of the film. For a while now, I’ve found myself liking blockbusters and tent-poles less than people I know and the initial consensus that forms online. Wright’s sheer devotion to the concept, never backing off from the initial idea that makes the film feel gutsy in a way that’s hard not to admire. Even the beat that didn’t gel with me is one I enjoyed seeing play out because instances like that make it clear this film has a far more complicated morality to it than expected and instances like that allow for debate.
It’s this kind of ambitious filmmaking that doesn’t just aim to shoot straight down the middle and win over everyone with the lowest amount of effort, instead going for something vastly different, where the passion and craft are clear. This results in likability and enjoyability being ideas which aren’t directly proportional –– it’s possible to like it without loving it, while still loving the time you spent with it. Wright has made a mixtape, a concept album, one which I admittedly didn’t love every track on it, but is one that I want to listen to again, now knowing the sound and feel to expect, looking to see how it all links together.