“Enough lines from Monster’s Inc. It pisses me off!”
The first two nights of SXSW featured films that act more as a visual soundtrack than just being movies with music. The more successful of the two came Saturday with the premiere of Edgar Wright’s passion project 22 years in the making, Baby Driver — a Walter Hill-inspired action piece mixed with the famed director’s favorite soundtracks as the driving force.
During a Q&A following the film’s screening, Wright noted with the exception of one, how all these songs — ranging from Lionel Richie’s “Saturday Morning” to the frequently ill-used “Tequila” song — were preselected, and he’d write scenes around them. While it’s a meticulous process, considering the decades it took to finally make (he finished the script in 2011), wrapping the scenes around songs makes for a more fine-tuned product than it would be reverse engineered.
While some viewers may not immediately recognize Baby Driver as a Wright joint, it has all the hallmarks of his most renowned work, especially a story following a regular guy asked to perform extraordinary tasks to survive an equally stressful situation. In past films, that’s come by way of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the Cornetto Trilogy. Here, it’s Baby (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver under the control of a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who enlists a new crew for each heist.
The first robbery plays out just as one would expect: a flawless job that kicks-off the lawlessness these characters abide by, taking influence from Drive and The Driver (though the latter influenced the former as well). But Wright’s addition of the pop soundtrack adds a new layer that those other ultra-cool heist flicks mostly left out. While using pop songs of yesteryear could get repetitive and fall flat, it all comes together, being used as diegetic sound — the film’s music comes through the earbuds of Baby.
As a child, Baby suffered tinnitus and has constant ringing in his ears. The only way for him to drain that out and focus is to constantly listen to music. His mother was also a singer, giving the songs an emotional meaning, not just a physical guide for Baby and the audience.
But while Baby is the film’s driver, Wright places Baby’s sudden connection with a young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), as the true force behind the film. It’s the only thing that pushes Baby to get out of this life of crime. Not even his deaf foster father is able to convince him to get out, as Spacey’s crime boss character has complete control over Baby’s situation before Deborah arrives on the scene.
Still, more characters get in the way as their trust in Baby runs dry. Coworkers like Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) are at first strong allies of Baby while Bats (Jamie Foxx) is always suspicious of Baby’s talent. But as Baby pushes for a new life outside of driving, the world starts closing in on him, filled with one epic chase scene after another.
Calling a film’s action sequences top-notch always gets people into trouble, as most modern actioners often seem to have satisfying set pieces. But Wright takes his chases to a constant higher level, never using CGI and rarely using green screens to accomplish the sequences. Seeing a Subaru weave through cars in an alley in reverse is truly awe-inspiring, and that’s just the opening sequence, followed by even more next-level stunts. It’s a feat not often (if ever) seen in comedies.
As fun as all these scenes are, the meat of the film still lies within the script and the ensemble. Known mostly for his young-adult work, Elgort brings a surprising turn to the screen as one part Ryan Gosling in Drive, and one part Gosling from La La Land. The actor is typically not the one in the car (leaving that to actual stuntmen), but he is the one on set dancing through his apartment with his foster father, showing off his background as a musician and dancer.
Though Elgort is the main focus, Hamm and Spacey are true scene stealers as well, as should be the case of an Emmy and a two-time Oscar winner respectively. Spacey’s able to draw back on his Frank Underwood personality and delivers some of the film’s funniest and most memorable lines. Hamm’s role is driven by more physical acting, showing off his chops as a possible action star one day.
Baby Driver is a more than welcome return to the screen for Wright. If it’s any indicator of what he’s capable of writing a script on his own, he’s more than welcome to do it again.