When Baby and Debora first meet, they fret about who’s got more songs based off their name. “You’ve got us beat,” Debora remarks of Baby. “You’re in all the songs!” She’s not wrong. Baby Driver takes its name from a Simon & Garfunkel song, while Debora, referencing a 90’s Beck song, notes that the track isn’t even about her, but a sister named Jenny, the lead singer wanting to get with the two of them. Neither Baby nor Debora need to spin themselves in circles about their namesake because writer-director Edgar Wright spins an ode to genre cinema and jukebox nostalgia, one so rhythmic and catchy that we’ll be singing to the tune of Baby and Debora while gleefully soaring down the highway. At a reasonable speed, of course.
Baby Driver quotes music the way most films reference other movies, though Wright, ever the film fan, can’t help himself. Baby Driver’s most obvious reference is Walter Hill’s The Driver (with Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive as a contemporary). Wright’s film seems to operate within the intertextual framework of the great crime-thrillers of yesteryear (Point Break, Reservoir Dogs, Heat). The film features a diner setting taken right out of Pulp Fiction, along with a centerpiece love story reminiscent of True Romance. Wright ostensibly wears his cinematic obsessions on his sleeve yet manages to craft something wholly original. Whereas the films aforementioned feature a soundtrack complimenting its characters and story, Baby Driver pulls a reverse 180 – a film structured according to its eclectic soundtrack.
Only Wright could pull off this concept with this much kineticism and flair. His previous films have always had a musicality to them (see Shaun of the Dead’s pool cue scene), but it’s never been more than a single scene. Here, Wright has an entire movie dedicated to scratching this very particular itch. In many ways, the soundtrack is the movie. It dictates the tempo of every breathtaking car chase, each one faster and more furious than the last (if you’ve never heard “Bellbottoms,” then buckle up).
Other times the music is a signifier of mood (Baby’s stroll for coffee set to “Harlem Shuffle” is something right out of La La Land or, as Wright would have it, a Gene Kelly musical). Baby Driver is an action movie musical unlike any action movie or musical. The choreography is synced to the music as opposed to underscoring it, the music setting the pace and payoff of the action. Wright takes a track like “Tequila” and conducts one of the most violently operatic shootouts ever committed to film.
It’s more than just a cool gimmick, though there’s no shortage of existential cool. Utilizing music as a storytelling device, Wright places the audience into the headspace of his title character. We’re not merely sharing an earbud with Baby, we see the world just as he does – a never-ending symphony of sound. Baby even records every day conversation and mixes them into song, and later, momentarily halts a job so he can restart the track and cue the robbers to the beat.
Baby is an emblem of our fidgety impulses. He needs a rhythm to his step. Simply put, he cannot exist without music. This existence is what enables him to connect with Debora when they meet, and the two exchange a whirlwind of music knowledge that all but cements their budding romance (very Tarantino-esque, where characters voice and bond over their pop culture obsessions).
Music is Baby’s form of expression, more so than the driving, liberating him from his hum-in-the-drum and the otherwise hum-drum aspects of life. But most importantly, music helps tune out the violence lingering in the rear-view mirror. In a wonderful comic bit, Bats and his incompetent crew make do with a Mike Myers get-up (something lost in translation – Bats meant Michael Myers). And yet the Halloween reference, mixed up or not, underscores the horrific violence that is so often doled out when there’s gunplay involved. No matter how far Baby tries to distance himself, he can never quite get away as he is reminded by a quietly menacing Kevin Spacey, though he himself isn’t Baby’s ultimate threat. In truly horror movie fashion, the eventual villain of the film lurks in the backseat.
Like all well-meaning criminals, Baby desires to be free and we find him on the cusp of that freedom. Early on, Baby catches sight of Debora sporting headphones of her own, humming along to her own soundtrack. It’s love at first listen. Debora moves to the free-flowing melody of her life, but can’t quite let herself go as she is often attuned to life’s overriding tempo. It’d be easy to write off Baby’s fascination with Debora as simple desire. But on a personal level, it’s a recognition of eager and young souls. Debora herself is trapped in an environment full of obligation and little reason to stay. The connection deepens when we learn that Baby’s mother used to work at said diner, a mother whom was caught in the trials of an abusive marriage. You do the math.
The titles of the tracks, too, cue us in on the narrative beats. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” sums up Baby’s endgame, while “Nowhere to Run” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” literally give context to the character’s looming anxiety of being cornered (Doc and crew aren’t going to like Baby’s penchant for recording conversation). The Commodores’ “Easy” is perhaps the most poignant track, one that recalls a vivid memory of Baby’s mother and a very special gift (spoiler: it’s an Apple device), while Queen’s “Brighton Rock” takes center stage in the film’s roaring showdown set appropriately to dueling guitar solos.
Baby Driver sheds a light on the role music plays in all our lives. For Baby, it’s an escape, one that may be temporary, but enjoyable while it lasts. Edgar Wright has given film fans something to geek out about, something that isn’t branded under Marvel or part of a larger film universe (which, quite frankly, is a relief). Superheroes and shared universes may be the current trend, but in the 70s it was the Westerns, crime thrillers, and car culture movies that dominated the cultural conscience of the theater-going experience. Baby Driver is a delightful throwback to the thrill and verve of genre cinema at every turn. Just as Baby evades the cops by the narrowest possible outcome, Baby Driver is movie escapism at its finest.