Baby Driver

July 22, 2017
Ansel Elgort revs up his iPod in Baby Driver
Ansel Elgort revs up his iPod in Baby Driver

Baby Driver is one hell of a soundtrack in search of a film. A big step up for British director, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), it tells the story of a youthful getaway car driver named Baby, who can’t seem to get through any part of the day without musical accompaniment. The highlight in this respect is when Baby makes the hold-up gang pause before leaving the car while he resets his iPod to the beginning of a song.

The setting is Atlanta, but it could be almost anywhere in urban America. What we have is a version of The Fast and the Furious with better music and something resembling a story. Neither is there any trace of Vin Diesel or The Rock, which can only improve one’s viewing experience.

Having said that, Anselm Elgort’s Baby is not exactly Mr. Personality. It takes a lot to move him from his habitual blank-faced, silent demeanour. After getting through the frantic car chase that begins the movie we find Baby is only driving these cars because he is paying off a debt to criminal mastermind, Doc – played by Kevin Spacey, with the same menacing deadpan tone he used as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, when no members of the voting public were present.

As a little boy, Baby was in a car crash in which both of his parents were killed. This has given him a permanent case of tinnitus, and an inexplicable passion for fast and dangerous driving. He got mixed up with Doc when trying to steal his car, and looks forward to the day when his debt is paid in full.

He thinks that day is approaching, but Doc has other ideas. In the meantime, Baby acts as carer for his old, deaf-mute foster father, Joe (C.J.Jones) and forms a romantic attachment to a a fresh-faced young waitress, Debora (Lily James). It’s his day job that brings him into unpleasantly close contact with a group of thugs and homocidal maniacs. Chief among psychos is Jamie Foxx’s Bats. Jon Hamm and Eiza González play Buddy and Darling, a pair of gun-toting lovebirds who can’t keep their hands off each other.

These are the people Baby is chauffeuring around, from one heist to the next, in a series of hair-raising, high speed chases that should satisfy the connoisseurs. Personally, I felt it had nothing on a tuk-tuk ride I once experienced in Varanasi.

Baby’s tinnitus has made him a man of few words. During Doc’s briefings he keeps the music on, wears earbuds and lip-reads. Whether he is buying coffee or racing a dozen police cars he has the right iPod and the right tune for the occasion. The play-list begins with Bellbottoms from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – a suitably cultish launch for a movie that often feels like an episode of RocKwiz. We sense, in some semi-conscious part of the brain, that each handbrake turn or burst of acceleration is synchronised to the beat of the music.

It would be virtually impossible to define Baby’s taste in tunes. For him it’s all mood and moment, with alternative iPods kept in his pockets for different scenarios. He also carries around an inexhaustible supply of cheap sunglasses, and a pocket recorder, with which he indulges a dangerous habit of taping his companions’ speech so he can make cut-up word-and-rhythm tracks in his bedroom.

The title of the movie may come from Simon and Garfunkel, but Baby’s repertoire ranges from T-Rex to the Damned, from Queen to the Commodores. Pop, soul, blues, funk, hard rock, punk… Could anybody like so many completely incompatible types of music? Here we must all look guiltily at our own iPods.

One thing not on the play-list is gritty realism. Baby is only the most improbable character in a radically improbable ensemble. The bad guys, festooned with tattoos and eager to inflict bodily harm, are full of sharp one-liners. Spacey’s Doc delivers a series of quips with the droll humour of a stand-up comedian. Debora tells Baby she wants to “head west on 20, in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have.”

It’s pure pulp, and enjoyable as such, but the script is more than an interval between car chases. Aside from the sly references to earlier movies such as Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), one thinks of the crime-comedies of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. We get drawn into this fairy tale, sucking up the violence as if it were all part of a fabulous game.

If one were to pause and count the corpses it would put a different complexion on this tale, but Wright never gives us that option. We bounce from one gun fight to the next, one car chase to another, the carnage keeping pace with the music. Viewers will find themselves tapping their toes while the blood flows.

Baby Driver
Written & directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, C.J.Jones
UK/USA rated MA 15+, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 July, 2017