Written and Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx
Edgar Wright’s knack for high-octane thrills and gut-busting laughs, intermixed with his affinity for popular culture, have been around on both television and film for near twenty years, yet you would never know it. Wright has the tendency to bide his time, perfect his latest vision, then go off with studio funding to fine-tune his latest treasure for audiences. Sure, at this point in 2017 he’s very far removed from his days on BBC’s Spaced (co-starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost respectively) and 2004’s genre-bending Shaun of the Dead. And while Wright will always been known most for his storied Cornetto Trilogy, consisting of three different comedies taking aiming at different genres, there’s his passion projects that are the most off-the-wall, glitzy, and memorable – like 2010’s glorified Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
The adaptation, which Wright had pursued for years as a fan of the comic, was his most decorated vision yet, embracing a comic-book-style and incorporating so many winks to popular video game culture my head nearly spun dizzily in circles. The film was a labor of love that caught fire more on home video than in theaters (grossing only $47.6 million in theaters but raking in $28.5 million in first-year home video sales). The film was gutsy and breaking ground for its pulpy glitz, irreverent humor, and infusion of popular culture. But now Edgar Wright’s 22-year labor of love, Baby Driver, has finally streaked onto screens around the world and, much like his previous movies, once again proves why he remains one of today’s most ambitious visionaries. Baby Driver, much unlike his previous films in his repertoire, is a heist thriller but more like a fine-tuned ballet recital of drama and comedy in sync with a rousing soundtrack that doesn’t relent, powered by some of the best timed choreography I’ve ever seen in any film and taking the most simplest of plots and orchestrating a tale that relies on right-on-the-money cues and fully-optimized sound mixing to immerse you into the world of Baby.
Okay, or Lay terms, see the damn movie. It’s a love letter to bank heist movies with Wright’s penchant for comedy, pop culture infusion, and no-shame thrills that’ll suck you into the passenger seat and leave you hanging by bated breath at every turn, rooting for Baby and wanting to see the kid get his comeuppance.
Many can complain that most of 2017’s movies have been centralized by some of the most oversimplified plots yet, and I wouldn’t disagree. But the plot isn’t the platform on which some of this year’s best films have created their foundation. Baby Driver is another one of those movies that isn’t about the plot, but more about the characters that inhabit this world. Yes, Ansel Elgort’s character is named Baby (B-a-b-y) but, no, that isn’t his real name. The youth, who’s been cracking and jacking cars since he can gaze over a steering wheel, has owed a life-long debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey in a sharp-witted opposite to Francis Underwood), the mastermind behind Atlanta’s flashiest heists. If not for Baby’s wicked skills behind any vehicle ever to leave a factory, the heists would be a total bust. Doc utilizes different crews that never do the same job twice but are buoyed by the likes of Jon Hamm (in a role tailor-written by Edgar Wright to the star’s meaty acting chops) and Jamie Foxx (a neurotic psychopath who kills for fun and loves the action)Baby longs to pay of fhis debt, be square, and go off to live his life while caring for his stepdaddy Joseph (CJ Jones). But a chance meeting with a firecracker waitress named Debora (Lily James playing the innocent dreamer) pulls Baby in two directions – do the lovebirds hit the open road to get away from the mundane or does Baby continue to shine as the wheelman to Doc’s scheming?
That’s right, a boy-meets-girl, boy-wants-to-run-away-from-crime story. We’ve seen in so many movies in the last few years, but the characters are what elevate these stories past the mediocre. However, this is Edgar Wright we’re talking about here, a master at taking a wide variety of elements and concocting a batshit-crazy stew of adrenaline thrills and sidesplitting hilarity that leaves a lasting mark. Each of his movies thus far have each featured a different movie genre at each core – horror for Shaun of the Dead, action for Hot Fuzz, comic book schlock for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and science fiction for The World’s End. And though we’ll never know what he could have done with Ant-Man, we know now that his years of calibrating his pet project haven’t just been for nothing. To make Baby Driver leave a ripple effect, Wright needed to figure out the right recipe for success.
But, to understand where he really broke ground for the full model of Baby Driver‘s imprint, you’ll need to look at his direction for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” in 2002 – two full years before Shaun of the Dead graced theaters and changed his career.
Definitely has a very Wrightian feel from the visuals down to the comedic timing of our driver’s antics in the music video. But it’s the music that takes the center stage, the wheelman wrapped up in the flow and tempo and bouncing around the driver’s seat like a madman taken over by the music. Using that same mold, Wright has molded the main protagonist in the same fashion, and with a fleshed-out backstory. Our hero of the hour, Baby Driver (yes – really), has a hum in his drum, or tinnitus if you really want to get technical. Ever since an accident as a child he has continuously listened to music on a variety of iPods, each with their own distinct story to tell. But he has lived through the bass and flow of a wide variety of songs, songs that have driven him to drown out the ringing in his ears. And with these songs playing continuously he ebbs through the grind, be it at home with his deaf stepfather or dancing eclectically through the streets, finding his place in the natural movement of life without throwing off the rhythm and balance of the everyday world around him.
Though, there’s one major facet of the production that makes this movie a standout and would not be wholly original without this major addition. It’s more than the direction of Edgar Wright or the camera skills of Bill Pope (who gives Baby Driver a very Sam Raimi-esque feel at times), but really the choreography from the start to end of every scene, every nimble movement and agile action tying the strings of Baby Driver into one long musical thread. (Literally musical – as in pantomiming and shimmying by way of both acting and dancing.) Without the stunning choreography of Ryan Heffington, then all of Edgar Wright’s visions would be for absolutely nothing. Heffington is best known for patting down the timing and rhythm for performances in Sia’s “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” music videos.
Every scene, every action, sound effect, slight of hand of the camera, well, the entire movie is tied together and hinges on success by the choreography. But the choreography isn’t just to give Wright’s movie the needed edge to stand out from the crowd, but stems more from Wright’s adoration of music. Not just one genre of music either – but literally his full-on love for his expansive collection. You could argue that the real protagonist here is the inspiring soundtrack that serves as the film’s soul, the characters orbiting the beats and operating in parallel to the lyrics, crashing of drums, the strum of guitars. Every movement has a purpose and, rivaling the beauty of La La Land at times, instead serves as a clever and utterly original car chase musical, vehicles tapping their wheels on the macadam to the beat of the music Baby’s absorbed into with each punch to the throttle, every pivot of the steering wheel.
Wright’s genius extends into this idea of making a full-throttle musical by the music selections that he hand-picked to make the magic work. Wright selects some of the most unexpected options from his personal musical collection, crafting entire sequences around the cadence of the song. The entire opening credit sequence is rehearsed in exhausting detail to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” Baby swinging and shuffling throughout the Atlanta streets singing the words as he taps around commoners, sliding and boogieing to a coffee bar and back, his eccentric love for music and motion circling around everyone’s droll lives. A shootout in a warehouse is madly harmonized to “Tequila,” Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm grinning gleefully as gun pops echo in tune to the crash of the drums and the blow of the saxophone. Baby peels away from the police to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” wildly hightailing down downtown Atlanta, careening around the Omni and past the erecting Mercedes Benz Dome, using his wheels and hood as weapons that thwart Atlanta’s finest from stopping a getaway, fingers tapping atop the steering wheel while his companions squirm in dread.
It’s absolute madcap mayhem that Heffington and Wright together produce onscreen, the soundtrack’s 1 hour 43 minute eclectic mix bending to and fro between styles and categories, Queen to Issac Hayes, The Commodores to Young MC, Barry White to T.Rex. Yes, the 30-track soundtrack is long but runs almost fully through the entire movie, only taking quick breathers when necessary for brief exposition or snippets of Steven Price’s minute score. I know Wright loves to blend genres but this time around, the auteur really outshines himself. I’ve never seen a good old fashioned heist story become more of a musical, characters swaying around rooms to the tune of the song (perhaps hearing the music in their head literally and swept up in the moment) and tapping their toes and fingers in impeccable accord. Sure, Baby Driver may lack the relentless pop culture winks of Shaun of the Dead (but does indeed have more subtle pop culture allusions), but makes up in that department with not just the music but also in the work Baby does oh so well – running.
The production budget itself was a meager $34 million before marketing, but Wright knows exactly how to use every method necessary to make a cheaper production look like a bid-budget tentpole. In what is an absolute breath of fresh air, and I mean this in honest, none of the car-chase sequences have a lick of CG enhancement. Not a one. Rather than having actors sitting in a hollow car on a studio lot, cheesy blue and green screens utilized to thrust them into the danger, Wright took full supremacy of shooting on location in Atlanta. Wright, before production began, scouted throughout the town and incorporated iconic locales throughout town that were perfect for cat-and-mouse games. While Wright may have born the chases out of the playlist, throwing his cast and crew onto the streets gives the escapes from the law a more realistic flair, the wild car stunts absolutely spellbinding as the cars lurch down I-85 and the Atlanta thoroughfares with an appreciation for old-school theatrics. The driving stunts masterminded by acclaimed performer Jeremy Fry, who made the car tricks in the Jason Bourne and John Wick franchises look like poppy art, are all completed in camera, using Wright’s wild visions to bring the story to life. From a scuffle in the beginning down the heart of Atlanta to a job gone wrong at a bank, even up through a mesmerizing fight-or-flight in a spiraling garage, Baby Driver is never in short supply of tense gripping stampedes.
Though each of Edgar Wright’s previous films may have been more fan service – and personal loves – Baby Driver is whole other beast, taking a traditional formula and storyline and creating something that is fresh, original, but most importantly tantalizing and fun. While most popcorn fare is dispensable and easy to digest, Wright’s latest is his first foray into Hollywood, making the leap from the fringe and utilizing his wild flair to create one of the best movies of the year, right up there alongside Get Out and Logan. This is a film that has wowed critics the world over and was the darling of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. There’s a good reason. I’ve never seen a movie that is so finely tuned to the soundtrack selected by the filmmaker, but Wright is a crazed genius that his ideas work. Yes, you know the story and, yes, you know that everything will come crashing down hard and fast, but the dazzling chases and earnest performances, in cohabitation with Ryan Heffington’s crowning choreography, makes Baby Driver arguably the most authentic movie of this summer season. Wright may have cult classics under his belt, but this is first true invasion of Hollywood. If the trailers didn’t grab you at first, as soon as you’re seated the introduction to Baby’s world will whisk you away for a movie that’ll make you want to squeal rubber out of the parking lot.
Reber’s Rating – A