2017 Film Essays

Sheer Heart Attack: Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’

Two decades were worth the wait for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. Not only does Wright deliver the goods, but he goes well beyond the call of duty. The film is a sheer musical heart attack and a crime genre tour de force. What could have been a just another homage to the caper films of yesteryear is one of the most creative films of 2017. It’s how Wright incorporates music into the film’s fabric that distinguishes Baby Driver. He does so to an extent that a new genre may have been born.

The speed demon extraordinaire is named Baby (Ansel Elgort). He’s a car wizard by birth, with “music coming in [his] ears” to offset the tinnitus that’s been part of his existence since a childhood car accident. Baby finishes paying his debt to his ruthless, blackmailing benefactor Doc (Kevin Spacey) and plans to happily roam the highways with his new love, Debora (Lily James). In the meantime, he uses his driving talent to benefit mankind, delivering pizzas with unprecedented lightning speed. This crime-free life comes to a halt when Doc threatens Baby’s well-being (and his loved ones) if he doesn’t come back. Baby is unwillingly thrust back into the criminal underbelly, and he must match wits with an untrusting and trigger-happy crew to survive.

Wright’s tribute to hard rock and roll — high octane like the coffee served and the action delivered — is equal in passion to Catherine Johnson’s ABBA celebration in Mamma Mia! (2008). Wright taps into The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” for the big opening scene and features Queen’s “Brighton Rock” from Sheer Heart Attack for the rock opera climax. In between, Wright mixes in some R&B, Pop, Classic Rock and sentimental tunes, showing the breadth of his musical appetite while enhancing the film’s universal appeal. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” further evidences the film’s musical bandwidth.

Unlike typical musicals, including Mamma Mia!, Wright’s characters do not burst forth into song. Yes, they do sing and lip sync, but the music drives them into focus and action. More than serving as a clever mood-setter, the music evokes the beat and pace of the film. Wright displays mastery of rhythmic synchronization — using real people, props and settings — at a level that I have only seen delivered by Disney in cartoon musicals.

The film keeps the audience stimulated and well engaged emotionally, but it stumbles in the third act. At that point, Baby has all the motivation and pathos he’ll ever need. The fellow criminals mostly serve as obstacles to overcome. The supporting performances of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm, Eiza González) aren’t flat; it’s just that the characters work best in peak moments — not heart to heart dialogue. As Bats, Jamie Foxx shines and convincingly suggests that his character is truly batshit crazy and a cold-hearted criminal.

Shot on location in Atlanta, the car chases are nothing short of brilliant, and it’s Wright’s little touches that make Baby Driver stand out. As a viewer, it seems like you’re behind the wheel with Baby. No video game or TV show comes close to capturing the intensity or insanity of these driving sequences. They ignite the audience’s engine, rivaling the best driving moments from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Wright missed an opportunity, however, by not making the location significant to the story, using a generic city backdrop in contrast to the southern-centric chase scenes from Joseph Sargent’s White Lightning (1973) or the San Francisco sequences from Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968).

The variation in the car chase visuals match each phase of the plot. The opening scene is comparable to the slick, highly organized presentation of a Michael Mann film, such as Heat (1995). For the middle robbery and chase sequences, Wright departs from Mann’s disciplined world and fully embraces the styles and tones of 1970s crime films. Cinematographer Bill Pope utilizes medium and extreme close up shots, giving a claustrophobic and messy feel. This evokes the chaotic nature of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). The final sequence reverts back to Mann’s style, particularly with the intense shoot-outs.

In Baby Driver, two of Wright’s directorial strengths are Nolanesque. First, in the tradition of Christopher Nolan, Wright employs flash back sequences to perfection. There are flash backs to parental arguments, a traumatic childhood car accident, as well as motherly care moments. Each of these not only gives the audience another sliver of Baby’s back story, but they also help establish the morals and context for each scene. Secondly, Wright mirrors Nolan’s use of objects, adding texture to the film through pseudo-characters. Baby’s iPod has the same importance as Harvey Dent’s coin in The Dark Knight (2008), the spinning top in Inception (2010) and the watch in Interstellar (2014).

The breadth of Wright’s musical component is matched by his assembly of film styles. Sprinkled in with his nouveau musical and classic heist elements is a dash of film noir. The final sequence reminds of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), as there is a looming sense that someone could die at any moment. The harsh reds and moody neon lights add to the neo-noir vibe, precisely capturing the tension and drama.

With Baby Driver, Wright delivers a delightful, mid-summer cinematic treat. There is a mix of innocence, romance, danger, vulnerability, conniving criminality and cut-throat revenge, leaving viewers emboldened and destressed. That’s worth the cost of the ticket.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.