British writer-director Edgar Wright has built a successful career on reimagining familiar film genres. His “Cornetto Trilogy” brought fresh ideas and unexpected laughs to the zombie movie (Shaun of the Dead), the cop picture (Hot Fuzz) and the sci-fi epic (The World’s End). One key element shared by all these films is a well-chosen popular-music soundtrack that helps elevate Wright’s work above that of many of his genre-hopping peers.
None of those films set the stage for Wright’s innovative and entertaining Baby Driver. The story of a young getaway specialist trying to extricate himself from a life of crime, the film draws some inspiration from movies with classic car-chase sequences such as Bullit or The French Connection. But Baby Driver quickly moves beyond its predecessors in hopes of pioneering a new way to integrate music and film on screen.
The film stars Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) as Baby, a getaway driver so talented he makes regular bank robberies in broad daylight seem a good idea. Baby is beholden to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and says little while working with hardened criminals (Jamie Foxx and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, among others). He suffers from tinnitus he acquired in a car wreck as a child, and listens to music on stolen iPods and cell phones pretty much all the time to drown out the ringing in his ears. Baby’s private soundtrack also has become the fuel he needs to perform amazing stunts as a driver.
Armed with that simple premise, Wright developed techniques to make an action movie driven entirely by the songs he chose for the soundtrack. Every movement that occurs in a scene — from gunfights to windshield wipers on the getaway car to Baby’s stunt driving, in particular — is timed precisely to reflect the music currently playing in Baby’s ears, and ours. The actors wore earpieces and were required to perform in synch with each song as it played.
The hard part is making all this meticulous choreography seem subtle and natural, as Baby Driver is meant to be the antithesis of a Hollywood musical in which characters sing and dance to a score. The film’s opening sequence — a bank heist carefully choreographed and shot to the ups and downs of “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — demonstrates the full potential of the director’s methods with positively thrilling results. If Wright had merely edited his scenes later to match the songs, the result would have been a pedestrian and completely unwatchable two-hour music video.
Baby Driver also wouldn’t have worked if Wright didn’t possess the knowledge and passion of a dedicated lifelong music fan. The soundtrack moves easily across the entire spectrum of popular music from the last 50 years or so, from Sam & Dave, Dave Brubeck and The Commodores to T. Rex, The Damned and Danger Mouse. It’s a pleasure to hear Wright pay no heed to what’s currently considered hip among music aficionados. This is a soundtrack for the ages.
For all its successes, Baby Driver also has significant flaws. Wright’s screenplay occasionally serves up tired crime-story clichés. Baby’s at-home dance moves sometimes recall Tom Cruise in Risky Business, which is off-putting enough to be risky indeed. Though Jamie Foxx makes a menacing bad guy, he delivers some stiff line readings that should have been reshot. And like most of Wright’s films, this one is a little too long and begins to wear out its welcome. Brevity should be regarded as a close ally of the genre picture — even as regards those with something truly special to offer.
Baby Driver opens on Wednesday, June 28 (with previews on Tuesday night) at the Broad, Canal Place, Elmwood and Westbank theaters.