We’re so accustomed to bad movies. As a film-going audience, we’ve had such boring films in our lives for so long, we forgot how good we could have it. Not that I don’t enjoy a good franchise flick or some popcorn fun. I do. I’m an unabashed nerd. (I’ve already seen “Wonder Woman” twice.) But if we’re being totally honest, the majority of in-theater releases feel like “30 Rock” punchlines, or the line-up from a theater in the “Idiocracy” universe.
At least, they did. Until…
“Baby Driver” made me feel…well…it made me feel again. Nobody wants to hear about a writer’s personal life when they turn up to read about a movie. So I’ll keep it short. Things have been rough in my neck of the woods. Real rough. And “Baby Driver” sparked something. A joy, an exuberance, a reminder that film, and life, still have so much to give.
If it sounds like I’m overreaching, at least you know what you’re getting yourself into with this write-up. Of course, I do tend to get a little hysterical about movies. A tad pedantic. Time will tell if I’ll be embarrassed by this review. But right now, I’m too enamored to care. Oh yeah, and also, regular spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about everything. If you haven’t seen the movie, turn back now.
Of course, the ever-present cynicism lurks. The sequence of rip-offs that will inevitably follow this may threaten to dull some of this shine we’re feeling right now. But I hope we don’t let it. This is our generation’s French Connection moment and we should savor it.
I’ve tried to write this review a dozen times. Every time it spins in another direction. One review talked about how the movie is more of a western than a gangster film. Baby barely speaks, just like the Man with No Name. It’s all about a young man navigating the space between youth and adulthood by having to defy hyper-masculine or corrupt father figures, a la “The Searchers”. At one point, Kevin Spacey even says, “There’s gold in them thar hills”.
Another draft was about the history of films that started new visual crazes. Another was about how Jon Hamm’s character is the map legend at the center of the story. To cast a genuinely sympathetic character that loses all control with an actor famous for playing a buttoned-up slow burn for seven seasons on TV was a masterful misdirection. Nobody expected him to be the last bad man standing.
But, see? SEE? This is what good movies do! They get you thinking and drawing comparisons and geeking out.
Edgar Wright and team didn’t just make a high-energy movie or a fun movie or a neat movie. Yes, it’s breathlessly paced and exuberant. It’s all the things you’ve heard. But the reason it feels that way is because it’s a very calculated, very intentional movie. There’s structure afoot…
Verse, Chorus, Bridge
The score and soundtrack go beyond being expertly curated. As you probably know, a song is traditionally comprised of verses, a repeated chorus and a bridge. Yes, the songs are elevated from window dressings to plot points and that alone is worthy of attention. The music exists to the characters as music, vs. the omnipresent, unheard force it usually is on film. We’re sharing it with them. While that’s above and beyond standard musical convention, there’s another, more clever layer at play.
The soundtrack is comprised, almost exclusively, of frequently sampled songs. These are recognizable melodies known primarily by the pop or rap tracks that have looped them. For example, most people only know those familiar introductory brass notes of “Harlem Shuffle” from House of Pain’s “Jump Around”. Whether that makes you want to implode with musical nerd rage or whether you were just a nineties kid and didn’t know any better, it’s probably true for the majority of the audience. Like the casting of Jon Hamm, this is also a brilliant bit of misdirection. It lulls you into a feeling of familiarity, only to gently transition you to a feeling of surprise. “Hey, what’s this?” You know this refrain, but you don’t know where it’s going next.
Just as a song repeats a chorus, there are repeated lines of dialogue. Near the beginning of the film, Baby is flipping channels on TV with his foster dad and we hear a few select lines. Examples include, Alfalfa from “Little Rascals” singing “You are so beautiful,” and Mike Wazowski from “Monster’s Inc.” saying “Nothing is more important than our friendship”.
That line from Monsters, Inc. is spoken three times, once during each act of the movie. And every time it’s spoken, it means something different. Just how the chorus in a song gathers added significance with the context of each verse.
If something is spoken in this film, it has meaning. Every single set-up gets a pay off and every single pay off has a concrete effect on Baby’s story. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is simply thrown in because it’s cool or funny. There’s plenty of cool and funny, don’t get me wrong. But everything onscreen has weight or urgency or both. Newton’s third law is in effect here and that’s part of what makes the film so tense. We know when to worry.
And best of all, the movie has an ending. A definitive stopping point, just like a song.
Lyrics, Notes, and Beats
This is a story told in pieces and components, put together for maximum, intended effect. Just like Baby’s driving ipods, the “playlist” for this film had to be made well in advance for production reasons. Single take reasons. This isn’t the kind of movie you can sit with in post and just cut to the beat. I mean, they did that too.
Everything is percussion. Gunshots, car doors slamming, engines revving. We’re hearing the world as Baby hears it at a subliminal level. With that said, the visuals make sure to show us the pieces of everything repeatedly. We see car parts up close. We see tiny matchbox cars on a practice model. We see overhead shots of the city that make the buildings look less like containers for human beings and more like obstructions in the pathways Baby must expertly navigate. We even see close-ups of music equipment as Baby builds a song one piece at a time. The film is telling us that to understand the whole, we must know the parts. One tiny detail I really love is the nuclear family of three mannequins placed prominently in the background of many shots. An ever-present specter of the family Baby once had, the one he’s seeking again.
Also refreshing? The story is trustworthy. There’s no “it was all a dream” ending. Everything we see is real. Wright subverts those expectations by casting the innately untrustworthy Kevin Spacey in a central role. He’s the actor who kick started the great unreliable narrator craze of the nineties. (in films like “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects”)
“Is he slow?”
This movie consistently raises the stakes and, in doing so, raises the storytelling standards sky high. For years, raising the stakes has meant making things utterly miserable. Bleak. Here, things gets worse in a way that keeps us engaged and entertained, asking us to lean in and look closer instead of making us want to look away.
Edgar Wright reminds us that film is a visual, formalistic animal. You can play with color and film speed and sound. And you should, for reasons that matter to your story. We should meet characters we get to know and care about. Not because we’re told to, but because we understand them well enough to root for them.
We care about Baby because he’s a good guy. He’s kind to his foster dad. He has a conscience. He’s been through tragedy. He has serious problems and significant talents. We know that for sure because it was shown to us, not told to us via exposition. And a lot of that showing was due to necessity, thanks to Baby’s tinnitus and his foster father’s deafness.
This goes past a unique conceit and takes us into a world of, gasp, thoughtful and artistic representation. I know that for sure because I have tinnitus in my left ear. I’ve had it since 2014. I’ve never seen it depicted on film and I never dared to dream someone would do it at all, let alone get it so right. I, too, use music as medication. I, too, have an inordinate amount of playlists designed for specific days, moods and tasks.
I’ll shut up now. I know it’s time. Past time. If “Baby Driver” wasn’t the movie for you that it was for me, I hope you can find an equivalent. It’s put me in such a good mood, that rather than arguing with you about it, I’d encourage you to find something that blows your mind. Or remember the movie that changed your life when you were a kid. Just find some art that you love.
And oh yeah, I hope it makes obscene amounts of money and takes home a duffle bag of Oscars.
Audrey (in her super-secret third-person) began writing professionally in 2007. Her work has appeared in places like Geek Monthly, Hello Giggles, on-air via public radio and onscreen at LA Comedy Fest. She has her MA in creative writing and can be found at AudreyWrites.com, Twitter, and anywhere they serve vegan donuts.