Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays. A bright red mid-2000s Subaru sits outside a bank in broad daylight. Its driver, a young man wearing a pair of black sunglasses, mimes and taps along to the tune. Three people run out of the bank and into the car, kicking off a car chase getaway beautifully executed to the beats and rests of the classic song. This is Baby Driver, the new film from writer/director Edgar Wright, easily one of the greatest and most interesting filmmakers working today.
Wright himself describes the film as “a car movie driven by music”, and this description is perfect; both the cars and the soundtrack to the film appear supercharged. Okay, that’s the obligatory driving joke quota filled. What Edgar Wright has done in Baby Driver shows us not only that he knows his cinema and knows his music (the former of which fans knew already), but that he has the talent to blend the two into something greater than the sum of their parts, resulting in one of the most uniquely enjoyable cinematic experiences in recent memory.
He’s completely in command of his actors, his shots and his editing.
The overarching plot of Baby Driver is one that could be criticised as being somewhat generic, as it bears the hallmarks of many previous crime dramas; character who wants to move away from his life of crime sought after for “one last job” that inevitably goes wrong, putting himself, those he cares about, and his dreams at risk. But don’t be fooled – these are just the beats of the story, not what makes it so engaging. That, amongst many other wonderful elements in the film, is Wright’s direction. It bears his true style and cinematic flare – transitions are seamless and genius, ‘blink and you miss them’ gags are everywhere, quirky one-liners are hurled from character to character, punchy physical action has a real weight to it and there’s an undeniable charm and heart that works well without feeling too forced. He’s completely in command of his actors, his shots and his editing, and the result is a film that is always precise and never uninteresting.
The central ‘gimmick’ of the film is that our eponymous Baby suffers from tinnitus, and thus listens to music almost every waking moment in order to drown out his incessant white noise. In reality this is nothing more than an excuse to utilise a truly fantastic soundtrack throughout Baby Driver’s runtime – whether it’s a freeway chase or just Baby grabbing some coffee, every scene moves to a beat in breathtaking choreography the likes of which often make you think you’re watching something closer to La La Land than Reservoir Dogs or The French Connection. But this blend works – and it doesn’t just work, it excels and gives the film even more kinetic energy, providing yet more avenues for style, humour and good times. It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as his other films, but I had a huge grin on my face for the entire runtime. Baby Driver is a film that knows what it is, and plays up to those tropes to mess around with them a bit and do interesting things with them, and the result is what feels like the mental playground of Edgar Wright; it doesn’t always work but it’s too cool and fun for you to care too much.
Baby Driver is a film that knows what it is, and plays up to those tropes to mess around with them.
As such, Baby Driver is undeniably a style over substance affair, and some critics have been disapproving of this aspect of the film. But I have always found that to be a bizarre criticism of the cinematic art form. I think many people misunderstand the correct use of style in film. In my eyes, it does not necessarily matter if a film has no ‘substance’ in providing a deeper meaning beyond what’s on screen in the way that films like The Shawshank Redemption have so long as the style employed by those making the film has substance in and of itself. In other words, if the style is truly ‘cinematic’ and makes use of cinematography, what’s in and out of the frame when and why, how the actors move and deliver lines, if, in laymen’s terms, it’s purely arresting, why does there need to be depth or realism? Of course cinema should have both readily available, but Baby Driver doesn’t need to be an allegorical tale, it’s a car movie with some great songs it. What more is there to be said, and what’s not to like?
Building on his inspirations, references and homages to other great car/crime films and car chases comes an impressive and likeable cast including Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Jon Hamm and Ansel Elgort as Baby. Elgort and James’ chemistry is electric and they’re just a cutesy couple that makes their interactions adorable and heartfelt in equal measure. The rest of the cast all bring their stuff to the table too, Foxx as the deranged Bats and Spacey as the ruthless kingpin Doc add a level of sheen to what would otherwise be generic roles. Indeed that so much of Baby Driver is generic and the audience either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care is to the cast and crew’s credit.
It’s rare to see such a high level of command from everyone involved, and Baby Driver is one of those films that just clicks right into place from the opening scene, so you can just kick back, tap your feet and smile for two hours. The next time someone asks me if I have a favourite musical, I’ll now have an answer for them; Baby Driver.
By Oliver Rowe