For years, Edgar Wright has been a cult filmmaker looking for a crowd-pleasing successful movie and he’s finally found it with Baby Driver (2017). He’s a film buff turned filmmaker, directing the kinds of movies that he’d like to see. This has resulted in a filmography that celebrates genre movies, from the zombie movie (Shaun of the Dead) to the buddy action movie (Hot Fuzz) to science fiction (The World’s End).
His movies were always well received critically but he was unable to break through into American multiplexes. Wright made a bid for mainstream exposure by agreeing to direct the adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero Ant-Man but when he realized that his creative freedom would be compromised, dropped out and returned back to writing and directing his own material with Baby Driver, which was a critical darling, but also a surprise financial success. He finally cracked the coveted multiplexes that had always eluded him.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver that works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind that plans heists for crews that he never works with twice with the exception of Baby who is working off a debt he owes and is a couple of jobs away from paying it off. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful young waitress named Debora (Lily James) who has started working at a diner he frequents. In keeping with the tradition of most crime movies, Baby finds himself unable to break free of Doc’s control and this jeopardizes his relationship with Debora.
Wright expertly sets the movie’s tone right from the exciting prologue as he scores the initial heist and subsequent getaway to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The editing rhythms of this sequence are expertly matched with that of the song to exhilarating effect. It also establishes his intensions for this movie – to create a musical under the guise of a crime movie. Baby Driver contains wall-to-wall music that isn’t there merely for effect but it gives us insight into Baby’s headspace as music is one of the most important things in his life. It helps him cope with his severe tinnitus while also acting as a way to express himself and provides a crucial link to his deceased mother.
The soundtrack is populated by a diverse collection of songs, ranging from “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl to “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned to “Debra” by Beck. This isn’t some crass gimmick to sell songs on iTunes. Each song is important because they all mean something to Baby. They are the soundtrack to his life and Wright has a lot of fun scoring everything from chase sequences to a simple walk down the street to get coffee to a meet-cute between Baby and Debora in a Laundromat to music. It is a potent reminder of the power of music and how a specific song can capture just the right mood at just the right moment.
One of the criticisms of Baby Driver is that Baby himself is something a cipher as a character and this is reinforced by Ansel Elgort’s non-descript performance, however, I believe this is by design as Wright pays homage to equally enigmatic getaway drivers in Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). As the movie progresses, however, Wright gradually peels back the layers to the character as we learn his backstory and what motivates him.
There are two important people in his life that humanize Baby. There’s Joseph (C.J. Jones), his deaf foster father whom the young man looks after. Their scenes together early on in the movie are the first indications that there’s more to Baby than being a getaway driver. Debora helps humanize Baby and brings him out of his shell. Their initial courting scenes have a welcome warmth to them as Wright shift gears into romantic comedy territory while never letting us forget the crime world that Baby also exists in and the inevitable conflict comes when his burgeoning relationship with Debora clashes with his getaway driver gig.
Initially, Baby Driver seems a little too proud of itself as Wright shows off a myriad of flashy camera techniques while also setting up a too-cutesy for its own good romance between Baby and Debora. Fortunately, he gradually introduces a real element of danger into the movie that threatens our hero. It helps that this genuine threat comes from veteran actors like Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx. They bring a distinctive gravitas to their respective roles. The former exudes calm menace with the latter is all sociopathic swagger.
Much has been made of the movie’s dazzling style and the flashy visual storytelling with some complaining that it distracts from what is ultimately a shallow movie, but so what? Baby Driver doesn’t pretend to be a deep film and has little else on its mind other than to tell an entertaining tale, which it does. It’s not hard to like this charming crowd-pleaser. There’s a lot to like about Baby Driver but it does lack the personal touch of his Three Flavours Cornetto film trilogy, co-written with Simon Pegg, which felt very much like an extension of Wright’s personal worldview whereas Baby Driver feels more like a bid for mainstream acceptance than anything else. This is a minor quibble at best and hardly takes away from the enjoyment of watching this entertaining piece of cinematic storytelling.