Baby Driver (2017)
Dir.: Edgar Wright
The art of the music video has long passed its era of mainstream cultural impact, as all but the most popular artists’ videos are ignored by the public. I remember back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, in the age where MTV, particularly shows such as TRL, music videos were the king of the teenage entertainment kingdom. Even stretching farther back before I really paid attention to music, in the late 80’s, making a music video was considered a huge rite of passage in the industry. Nowadays, music videos are relegated to YouTube and the occasional VH1 or CMT video block, as reality television has by and large replaced this art form. Luckily, there are several directors in recent years who have taken great care in placing their love of music onto film. Damien Chazelle showed last year that the Golden Age Hollywood musical genre could still be executed to near perfection in La La Land. John Carney showed similar musical and cinematic integrity with Sing Street, a coming-of-age musical drama that proved to be both underappreciated and emotionally impactful. It pleases me to report that we can add another accomplished director to the lineup, as well as one of my personal favorites. Edgar Wright returns from his post-Ant-Man Marvel drama and a renewed focus toward original filmmaking in his newest outing, and the landscape of film is all the better for it. The man has basically directed the best music videos ever put to film in Baby Driver, never mind that it’s a music video that is two hours long and features deep characters and a smart, stylish narrative. With quite possibly his most fun film yet, and featuring great performances, fast-paced action, and above all, a flawless, meticulously sorted soundtrack, Wright proves ready again to show the world how to make a film that wears its charisma on its sleeve; one that it becomes increasingly easier to fall in love with as it progresses.
From his time writing and directing the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright proved his inherent versatility in directing different genre films, and transcending those genre conventions through satirical and often hilarious avenues of filmmaking…kind of like Terry Gilliam did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but with arguably more wit and with better grasp of the visual language (Gilliam’s films use a lot of dutch angle shots that make me want to hurl, but that’s another article.) This immediate adherence and subsequent up-ending of genre conventions prove just as apt a description for his newest outing. Baby Driver features a breakneck pace that rarely lets up, and when it does, it’s for necessary character development. The film does not have as much constant humor as his Cornetto films, rather, it sprinkles humor throughout as it is appropriate, keeping the focus mainly on the music and the violence. This sounds like a bad idea on paper, as Wright’s sense of humor has always been a huge selling point of his films, and the dialing back of this element for Wright fans poses a huge risk to his tried-and-true, successful formula. Luckily, his writing remains sharp as ever, and his technical prowess as a director shows only growth. Not only is the music a huge technical asset to the film, but even the editing is literally beat-for-beat matched to the gunshots, punches, kicks, and automobile collisions that the film throws at the audience in gratuitous, unapologetic fury. Even when the action slows down towards the film’s second act, the focus on music and the inherent beauty of experiencing life through the auditory bliss of a good, classy record remains an undercurrent in the film’s most intimate scenes.
The cast of the film prove to have great chemistry with one another, as the back-and-forth banter proves to be almost reminiscent of early Tarantino and Scorsese, but with a decidedly more down-at-home feel. Up and comer Ansel Elgort leads the cast as Baby, and he taps into a similar charm that he was able to maintain throughout the runtime of his previous leading man outing, The Fault In Our Stars. While a romantic subplot quickly develops between him and classy love interest Debora, played by Lily James, it ties into the narrative nicely, and the romance never feels contrived, even if the third act evokes certain classic Hollywood tropes to solidify their onscreen relationship. Rounding out the supporting cast are similarly great performers, who all bring their A-game to the film. Jamie Foxx portrays Bats, a sinister thug with greater intelligence than initially perceived, Jon Hamm works as Buddy, a former wall street broker who fell on hard times, and Kevin Spacey shows commitment to his character Doc, a mysterious criminal mastermind who heads the illegal operations that the crew takes part in. Jamie Foxx’s performance is probably the most outright gripping, as his character’s psychotic intensity manages to simmer throughout his screen time, always to the point of bursting, and his character’s unpredictability is endlessly entertaining to watch. Spacey and Hamm are great in their roles, but neither actor really eschews the scenery as much as Foxx or Elgort. Despite several of these characters being despicable human beings, they have enough quirks to make you care about their fates, and it’s a joy to see that Edgar Wright still knows how to write characters with an arc in mind.
This paragraph is normally where I talk about the technical merits of the film, such as direction, cinematography and score. I’m making one exception for this review of this film, at least in terms of its soundtrack. Its soundtrack needs to be experienced fresh, because the film relies on it from both a narrative and an editing standpoint, and to talk too much about the soundtrack would be to diminish its impact. I highly recommend watching the film before listening to the soundtrack itself, not because the soundtrack is bad, but because it’s incredible how meticulously Wright was able to match audio with visual cues on screen in this film. Much time must have been spent editing this film, and I believe that it’s the best edited film of the year so far because of this heightened synchronicity between music and cinema. As far as the cinematography and direction go, this is one of Wright’s beautifully executed films to date, with incredible automobile stunt work, tracking shots that do not overstay their welcome, and a texture reminiscent of the gangster films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that inspired it. The intro title sequence feels decidedly Tarantino-esque, but the film’s influences never detract from Wright’s signature quick-witted, fast-cut style. The main character also has a condition that explains his reasoning for constant music-listening within the context of the narrative, and some impressive instances of sound editing due to this narrative justification are particularly effective, especially one particularly intense scene in a parking garage in the third act. Wright has come a long way as a director since the days of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and this film shows tremendous growth and continued versatility for the director.
Baby Driver joins the increasingly growing list of music-driven, kinetic cinema, and it has enough differences between its influences, and enough originality in its composition to set it apart from its many inspirations. The message that Wright sends to Hollywood is one that he refuses to be strong-armed by corporations, and that he refuses to compromise on his style. In a mostly disappointing blockbuster summer, it’s fitting to see a stylish mid-level film such as this one succeed so greatly. There’s not too much else that needs to be said. As far as I’m concerned this is yet another incredible film from the British king of wit. Baby Driver is worth a watch or a hundred, and it’s one that you’ll want to check out as soon as possible. May the reign of Wright be long.