Baby Driver: The Heist Musical You Never Knew You Wanted
#1 With A Bullet
In the most simplistic of terms, the opening if Baby Driver is a pulse pounding, syncopated bank robbery. One that showcases our protagonist, Baby and his excellent driving skills. He whips his red Subaru WRX through the streets with equal parts reckless abandon and precision. Placing you, the audience member in the awkward position of hoping you can trust him to make it through this safely, but encouraging him, not to get away, in hopes that you can prolong this high octane depiction of “get busy livin” just a little bit longer.
Yes, you could say that is the opening scene of Baby Driver, but what really opens the movie, ultimately showing director/writer, Edgar Wright’s hand is the epilogue to that scene, and the one in which the opening credits actually run, and that would be the musical number. The titular, Baby, waltzes through the streets of Atlanta, on his way to pick up coffee for the rest of the crew, while The Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl plays. Not in the background, but dictating the scene. Not only are the lyrics, scrawled across walls and street signs, but the song itself if worked into the very fabric of the scene. It is in this moment where Wright lets us know just what ride we’re going on, and you’re either buckled in, or begging the attendant to let you off.
Baby Driver isn’t reinventing the wheel, but remixing it, ever so slightly. Allowing you to step into some well worn dancing shoes while you go to the hot new nightclub. It’s very much a “one last job”, heist flick. Baby (Ansel Elgort) after spending much of his life under the thumb of Doc (Kevin Spacey) has one more job to square his debt. From there, the plot as it were is fairly standard. Baby finds love, a no no in that business, gets pulled back in for another job, and things go left. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, something so cookie cutter could be a death knell, but this is Edgar Wright. The man behind films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the criminally underrated Scott Pilgrim VS. The World. He knows that we know these movies in and out, which allows him to not so much color outside the lines, but make Barney a fire breathing, golden dinosaur with tear drop tattoos instead of the purple hugger we expected.
The use of tinnitus(Baby’s affliction) to explain the flood of music, while a thin plot device, that only really comes into play in minor ways, allows Wright to tinker with conventions while never losing control of the tone. Even while “Tequila” blares in the background during a gunfight, you’re tickled but aware of the danger. The playlist may not fit, but it’s woven into the tapestry of the film. Even so far as to actually sync the music with the gun blasts, outbursts and lines of dialogue. It’s a millennial musical with Baby at the center.
I’m not using that as a term of denigration either. This film very much embraces the age and mindset of a prototypical millennial. Baby has an iPod for every occasion, but still makes mixtape remixes of conversations that happen around him. He has an eclectic taste for music, ranging from Queen to Run the Jewels, but pronounces the band T-Rex as Trex, because he’s probably never actually spoken to anyone about them other than Deborah, his new girlfriend. Either through circumstance or intentionally, Baby has made himself the center of a lonely universe that’s he’s only now beginning to share or even experience.
Baby is our anchor. We see the world through his Ray-Ban covered eyes and on that journey we recognize that while he’s fully involved with the criminal underbelly of Atlanta, he tries to shield himself from it as much as possible. He purposefully distracts himself during the more brutal moments of the robberies. Driving just out of view of shootings, not to protect his identity, but to salvage what’s left of the good boy inside him. It’s actions like that, along with his general demeanor that rub multiple baddies the wrong way, most of all Bats (Jamie Foxx). Baby’s hands are just as dirty as everyone else’s, and no amount of dancing or daydreaming will change that. It’s that realization that makes the tail end so claustrophobic. The carefully constructed life Baby has made for himself is crumbling around him. He’s our hero, but his peace isn’t yet earned. At least not when we meet him. His playlists act as his comfort blanket that he can use to hid under while the real monsters do their work. But as we find out from almost each crew member on the various jobs has their “something” to rob and kill for. The thrill, the skill, or really just because. Baby may not want to be one of the them, but his hands are far from clean.
That last bit may seem heavy, but that’s the beauty of Baby Driver. You’re never so bogged down to be sad or sorrowful, even as alliances shake out and good people get hurt, but you’re never so off put by the whimsy of the soundtrack that you forget what’s happening. Blood is being spilt. There is a rooting interest in seeing Baby make it to his version of freedom but he’s never not a criminal. And just like any good heist flick, great joy is to be had in watching the particular specialists do their thing.
There wasn’t a point during Baby Driver where there wasn’t a smile on my face. The performances are stellar and the soundtrack top notch. A random collection of B-sides and pseudo hits that keep your tapping your feet and singing along. Edgar Wright has another classic on his hands that works as much as a cinematic benchmark as it does a party starter.