This review contains spoilers
Shifting to American cinema is a big step for any director, but Edgar Wright’s filmography owes much to American cinema. Shaun of the Dead (2004) transposes the zombies of Romero’s Living Dead (1968-2009) series to a down-and-out electronics salesman in London. Hot Fuzz (2007) mixes explosions, comedy, the buddy cop and police procedural. Wright is adept at style: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) recreates the stylisation of the graphic novel series perfectly. Ant-Man (2015), for all Wright’s involvement in pre-production and scripting, never captures the kinetic movement of Wright’s style.
The lone getaway driver is a familiar narrative. The drivers of Taxi Driver (1976) and Drive (2011) roam the streets of New York and Los Angeles at night, reconciling masculinity and internal strife. Travis Bickle senses street justice; Refn’s driver becomes the embodiment of cool, wearing a scorpion upon his jacket alongside a synth soundtrack. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is young, easy to underestimate, always listening to his iPod, without a hint of facial hair, lacking the mid-20s embitterment of Travis and Refn’s driver, assisting heists committed in broad daylight. Baby affords a silent presence: the music in his ears and his gaze speak more than dialogue.
Elgort might be best known for playing a cancer-afflicted boyfriend to pine for as Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars (2014), not a heroic protagonist to root for. Baby Driver sympathises with Baby from the very start. His backstory is tragic, afflicted with acute tinnitus ever since his dad and singer mom, played by pop artist Sky Ferreira, were car crash victims. Baby holds onto his mom’s past in a cassette tape, refusing to let go. Baby never stops helping deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), communicating in sign language as Joseph asks how things are going with girls, offering witty innuendo. Baby manipulates him just out of view, placing dollars underneath the floorboards in their apartment as his pixelated monochrome face appears on TV. As danger heats up, he moves Joseph to an assisted living home. In the court case, he’s commended of his “good character”: he hands a grandma her handbag whilst stealing her car; hands a mother her baby; nods to the post office clerk to get away.
Baby tries escaping his identity: he moves away from the car in the junkyard, throwing the gloves to the ground that Doc (Kevin Spacey) handed to him, refusing another mission. As a fugitive, he jumps over escalators in the Peachtree Center, throwing on a denim coat, hat, sunglasses, jump-starting other vehicles from the parking lot. But Baby cannot escape his actions.
Debora (Lily James) acts in harmony to Baby, even as she puts on the wrong nametag: entering the same diner Baby’s mom briefly worked in, singing along to B-A-B-Y by Carla Thomas, captured by Baby’s Dictaphone. She serves coffee, living off cups of it, though dismissive of her ability. They bond over Debora by T-Rex, together through song. Baby stays with her as she runs errands, doing laundry. Kissing in the car before departing, cinematographer Bill Pope frames the couple side-on in unity. Calling her manager’s phone at the diner in desperation, the pair are framed between both sides of the screen, creating spatial distance whilst reaffirming their bond.
Baby tries to separate two lines of work, wanting to protect her. On a date at a fancy restaurant, dressed in fancy suit and beautiful dress, he splashes cash, unable to explain its provenance; Doc appears, paying off the bill. Debora asks if he’s his previous boss, and he can’t explain. Late at night, raiding a convenience store for pills, Bats (Jamie Foxx) persuades Baby to pull in at the diner to order Cokes. Alongside former Wall Street trader Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his girlfriend Darling (Eiza González), there’s harshness as Debora refutes them. Baby hides into his own shell, refusing to follow their game, pulling Bats’ gun away as he threatens to mug her, handing Debora the bill as they leave. Baby stands her up; the gang refuses to let him take a midnight road trip.
Debora and Baby hold onto a dream of escaping their lives. In a monochrome vision, Debora wearing a spotted dress, Baby’s hair slickly pushed back in a neat black shirt, they ride into the sunset in a T-Bird, with the same illogic of a fashion commercial, wanting to keep on driving without stopping. But they can’t keep up forever. As they earn their idyllic dream, amid the green of the trees and the open road, Baby surrenders to police upon the bridge at the state border, putting his hands up and throwing the keys into the water, telling her that this life isn’t for her. Baby still, ultimately, holds responsibility. In court testimony, Debora cannot reconcile her relationship: more than friendship, but was it ever a great romance? From prison, Baby glances over a postcard adorned with a retro, idyllic image of Route 66, still holding to his dream as she promises to wait.
Baby Driver has a litany of supporting characters struggling to understand why Baby is even a part, fearing he’s an agent ratting them out, requisitioning his library of tapes. In the elevator and in briefings, this disparity is clear: Buddy and Darling never stop locking tongues, making lewd jokes about the “back entrance”. Wright includes interesting cameos, including musician Flea as Eddie No-Nose. Wright met with criminals during the research process, including an anecdote about Knocking on Heaven’s Door acting as a bad omen.
Wright’s concept was long gestating, initially adapted into the music video Blue Song for Mint Royale; the driver aligns the heist to a CD-R. From the opening, set to Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, through Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl during the opening titles, Baby Driver feels a combination of musical and music video, clearing licences before he even started filming. Soundtrack is essential to genre films, capturing mood and aesthetic. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) has Peter Quill trek across the universe with only rocket boots and a Walkman (later, a Zune), confined by a limited number of songs upon an oft-played mixtape, a physical connection to the music his late mother listened to in the 70s.
Baby Driver’s music is eclectic between moods, decades and genres: organised chaos. The title comes from a folk song by Simon & Garfunklel, played over the closing credits; Tequila is set against a secret warehouse weapons acquisition. Baby has an iPod for each day of the week, flashing back to a Christmas morning over a decade ago as he received his first from his mother; he even has a pink one, covered in glitter and sparkles. Baby Driver offers nostalgia for the technology kids Baby’s age grew up with; the same technology Wright witnessed around him as he made Shaun of the Dead. The modern world of Spotify offers infinity, algorithms predicting musical tastes: at least with the albums that weren’t forgotten, or on TIDAL. Wright rebukes streaming culture, whilst pushing it to its implausible limit. Baby mixes samples of Doc saying “retard” using physical tapes, without ever touching Garageband. His cellphone is a flip phone, off the grid from anyone seeking to find them easily. Even the TV in Joseph’s apartment is a CRT, unable to afford a flat screen that might ruin Wright’s aesthetic.
Each character has their own song. At the post office, Doc’s nephew, Sam, stands in as Baby’s son, a younger version of him: he pays close attention to the security camera, headphones in as he plays with his PSP. At the desk, the clerk joyfully compares her working hours to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. Musical icon Barbra Streisand is name-checked as suffering from tinnitus. Headphones are an inescapable part of modern life: I walk into the cinema, wearing headphones. As the credits roll and I leave, the headphones come back on. Music is Baby’s escape from the outside world and tinnitus. Bats rejects the notion of having one song, as Baby and Griff (Joe Bernthal) bond over Brighton Rock by Queen, headphones in each other’s ears, paralleling Baby and Debora’s own music bond. Bats has his own song: the revving of the engine and the open road. In the video essay “Once upon a pair of wheels”: Baby Driver & the Classic Car Movies, Wright acknowledges most car chases are silent; the action speaks for itself, noting the lack of score in Bullitt (1968) and The Driver (1978), focus placed on tyres and sirens.
Wright embraces the artificiality of gangster and heist films by taking it to its natural conclusion. Crime drama, for all its gritty darkness and “based on a true story”, often feels implausible, creating orchestrated violence and constantly evading authorities. Criminality becomes almost admirable, beyond its horrors. Wright creates a hyperbolic version of the heist, refusing to intellectualise, interested in style. He isn’t making arthouse, but so what?
In the bank robbery in the opening scene, as Baby stops at a traffic stop, we’re thrust into action timed to the beat. Choreographer Ryan Heffington performs Baby Driver like a musical, relying upon storyboards. La La Land (2016) has nothing on this. Baby moves along to the music: flicking windscreen wipers, mouthing lyrics, tapping, playing the invisible piano. The streets of Atlanta, even its graffiti, have colour, coordinated between each character; a woman roller-skates on the sidewalk. He walks past a street preacher and blaring alarms, in his own world, trying to avoid bumping into passers-by. He slides into Octane Coffee, ordering four coffees with the immediacy of musicals; even the name of the coffee place seems a slick reference, refuelling his vehicle (Octane Coffee is a real chain in Atlanta). Wright rewrote the screenplay’s original setting of Los Angeles for its production city, refusing to present Atlanta as anything less, including notable locations familiar to locals, including record store Criminal Records. On the highway, three red sports cars pull up together operatically, creating an easy diversion as police pursue. Baby’s movements carry a dance as he communicates and make sandwiches for his stepdad.
In his video essay Scott Pilgrim: Make Your Transitions Count, Evan Puschak admires Wright’s use of movement, sound effects, visual effects and reverse shots, transitioning between scenes by manipulating time and space. Wright considers every scene with unstoppable flow, without wasting a second.
Wright still leaves aspects understated, interested in the visual over exposition. JD (Lanny Joon) complains to Bats that he left his shotgun behind, his concerns ignored. Wright never shows his death: Doc opens up a car trunk, showing Baby JD’s bloodied corpse. In the next scene, Baby stands in a junkyard, watching a car crushed into a metal cube as he remembers his own family in high contrast, sparkling flashbacks, his mom’s music eerily looped in reverse as though it were the inverted reverb of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. In a few shots, Wright communicates all we need to know about Baby, his motivation and backstory, leaving behind an incompetently organised gang that doesn’t take care of its own members or value life. In the Laundromat, the coordinated reds and yellows move in sync, slowly dissolving into the red label of a spinning record in the diner’s jukebox. During a heist, Baby refuses to allow music to fall out of sync, rewinding with the delayed speed of an old iPod, driving away at the exact second. Wright leaves some gaps, yet each song seems to flow smoothly into each other. Baby Driver shifts seamlessly between genres as it does scenes: car movie, smoke burning up on the tarmac; heist movie, Doc drawing out a map on the chalkboard; thriller, in slick aerial shots; fugitive under siege, as Baby evades police and helicopters, ducking behind a tree.
Just as Wright dances between genres, he dances between references. For a film about gangsters, Baby working as a deliveryman for Goodfella’s Pizza & Wings seems apt. Baby’s car drives over elevated roads in Atlanta like the San Francisco hills Wright admired in Bullitt. During a bank robbery, the gang adopts masks of Michael Myers, a la the presidential masks in Point Break (1991). In the backseat, a debate is launched. Did he mean Austin Powers, or did he mean Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) – or did he mean the hockey mask of Jason? But then, Michael Myers’ mask is a mask of William Shatner anyway. Nowhere to Run plays through the stereo, evoking the iconic scene on the Bronx’s streets in The Warriors (1979); Walter Hill makes a cameo as a courtroom translator. On Joseph’s TV, Baby flicks through channels, frustrated, Monsters Inc. (2001) and Fight Club (1999) as pan-and-scanned monstrosities; Baby quotes movie dialogue back to Doc as though they were his own. Baby and Debora go on the run, self-aware of their roles as Bonnie and Clyde, launching New Hollywood all over again. In the final scene upon the bridge, the police confrontation subverts the bloody shootout at Bonnie and Clyde (1967)’s conclusion; they refuse to become them.
Without his iPod, Baby loses his identity. Baby seeks to reclaim his iPod and the girl that defines him, unable to exist without them. Wright refuses to hold back, becoming a fight to the last man as Wheatley does with Free Fire. Baby seeks vengeance for all wrongs pushed against him and the girl he loves, revving the engine forward, impaling Bats through the front window. Darling, though displaying superhuman ability with her ammo, ultimately becomes victim to police bullets; Doc is crushed in spite by Buddy’s own car; Buddy falls from the car park to a fiery death within his requisitioned police car. Baby’s irresponsibility and insistence has consequences; the irrecoverable wounds to Doc’s gang are self-afflicted. Baby’s line of work isn’t glamorous. How can anyone support seeing friends around them reduced to bloodied corpses? Even when Baby must face the music, he refuses. In prison, he still dances with his broom, waiting for the next day.