Smooth. It’s the word that comes to mind when discussing any of Edgard Wright’s films but feels especially apt to describe his latest genre-smoothie, Baby Driver (2017). Scenes dance from gunfights and street chases to diner chats and car seat makeouts with a confidence that is as intimidating as it is sexy. The camera spins and transitions through a film that almost dares you to look away and miss the next expertly choreographed sip of coffee. The dialogue is smart, but not too smart. It uses just as many words as it needs and lets the music do the rest. And by the time the credits role the film doesn’t appear transcendent, it just feels so much better than what the other guys are doing. In short, Baby Driver is smooth.
It requires little in the way of a prologue: a getaway driver prodigy gets in with the wrong crowd, falls for a waitress, and then must choose between a life of crime or a life of love. Easy, fast, crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster material, or at least it would be at the hands of almost any other director. If Wright loves anything more than Simon Pegg and Queen, it’s taking the most exhausted formulas in Hollywood – the zombie outbreak, buddy-cop flick, superhero rom-com (??) – and showing everyone that these formulas aren’t bad, we’re just looking at them the wrong way. So it goes with Baby Driver, Wright’s answer to the Transporters and Fast and Furiouses of the world which come around each summer with the regularity of an inconvenient oil-change, while being just about as surprising .
Baby Driver does not try overly hard to differentiate itself from its genre stalwarts, largely because it doesn’t have to. Wright’s directing is unmistakable no matter which blockbuster he chooses to dress it up in, personified throughout all his films by a love of music, physical comedy, and a tone which exists in a nebulous gray area between self-seriousness and playful absurdity. Wright has a lot of fun with his films and he wants the audience to have fun too, but he, unlike many of his peers, does not see fun and high-concept filmmaking as being mutually exclusive. In this regard Baby Driver is, surprisingly, one of his least intensely orchestrated works (certainly nowhere close to the unrelenting Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)), but saying that is like comparing an Aston Martin to a Porsche while everyone else is driving Fords. Even at his most restrained Wright is one of the most inventive filmmakers working today, pushing style over safety like a highspeed chase in a Suburu Impreza. Baby Driver is gorgeous, but approachable; easy to watch and understated but no less engaging for it.
While Wright pulls back on visual flair, the film’s audio becomes a character onto itself. After a childhood car accident leaves him with a permanent hum in his ears, Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on his carefully curated series of iPods to drown out the noise while providing the film with a perfect conceit to keep the soundtrack at full bars the whole way through. Where blockbuster peer Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 attempted to discover how to give a Marvel movie a soundtrack people would remember, only to decide on the same dozen or so 70s and 80s hits that have been passed around from blockbuster to blockbuster like a group of teenagers sharing the last hit of a dying joint, Baby Driver populates its soundtrack with obscure deep cuts and B-Sides that will now be permanently married to the film in my mind. Upon leaving the theatre I immediately pulled up the playlist and embarked on a drive to nowhere in particular with my girlfriend for the sole purpose of hearing the songs we missed over the revving engines and gunshots. Somehow, however, the tracks seemed naked without Wright’s directing, highlighting how a great soundtrack isn’t just the songs you pick but how you use them.
One of Wright’s favorite tricks is synchronizing mundane actions with the soundtrack so even something as ordinary as setting a table seems meticulously orchestrated. Baby Driver is effectively Wright’s attempt to turn this trick into an entire film and on paper that is equal parts exciting and distressing. A joke told thrice is only a third as funny as the first time you heard it, after all. Baby Driver sidesteps this issue, however, by never having the music be the joke. Instead, it conducts. There are very few scenes in the film when the music stops and all of them are intentionally jarring. It becomes immediately clear that the music is not just there for flare, it’s setting the pace. Once that pace is broken it seems impossible that the film could ever carry on without it, but thankfully the next perfect track is only ever a clickwheel away.
Baby Driver makes a tremendous argument that anything and everything is better with music. Had you told me a month ago that this year’s blockbusters would include a musical where all the dancers are cars, I would have laughed and wondered which Pixar intern had just got promoted. But had you told me that film would be from Edgard Wright, I’d have paused, taken a moment to consider what exactly that meant, given up, and replied with, “sure, why not?” Wright might be every film-buffs wet dream with a cult-following that can’t decide if he’s a genius or an idiot, but nobody takes bad ideas and makes them sexy quite like Wright. And believe me when I say, Baby Driver is fucking sexy.
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