Premiering at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival ahead of its August release date, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver nearly blew the roof off the Paramount Theater last night as the rowdy Austin, Texas audience reveled in the prolific director’s latest masterpiece. Part intricate heist film and part star-crossed romance, it’s the action-movie version of La La Land, a feel-good musical where the singing and dancing has been swapped out for car chases and shootouts, all set to the pulsing beat of an eclectic soundtrack.
Our film opens with what could best be described as an extended music video for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ – this is the tune blasting through the earbuds that Baby (Ansel Elgort) is rarely seen without, as he waits outside a bank while his three cohorts (Jon Hamm, Eiza González and Jon Bernthal) relieve its coffers of their cash. When they come barreling out the door and into his shiny red Subaru, that’s Baby’s cue to crank up the volume, shifting both the car and the film into high gear with a dizzying array of jaw-dropping stunt driving.
As we eventually learn, a childhood accident left Baby with a nasty case of tinnitus, and his near-constant consumption of music is something of a coping mechanism, allowing the constant ringing to be drowned out by the likes of everything from The Damned to Queen to Lionel Ritcie. The music also helps him remain calm in tense situations, such as fleeing down the highway with an army of police cars in hot pursuit. For some drivers, music may serve as a distraction, but it has the opposite effect on Baby, whose reputation as the most capable getaway driver in the business is well-earned, and frequently showcased over the film’s 115-minute running time.
Despite his flirtations with the criminal underworld, Baby isn’t cut from the same cloth as his comrades. His duties as an expert wheelman are merely a means to an end as he works off off a debt to a cynical robbery mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), who thinks of the kid as his “good luck charm.” Doc never pulls a job with the same crew twice, but even more importantly, he never pulls a job without Baby behind the wheel – and even though Baby’s cut of the merchandise always winds up in Doc’s pocket, he still gets to keep a little bit of cash, which he socks away under the floorboards of the apartment he shares with his deaf foster dad (CJ Jones).
When Baby stops for a cup of coffee at a local diner and watches pretty young waitress Debora (Lily James) sashay past the counter singing Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y,” it’s love at first sight, and soon the pair are plotting a cross-country escape, a plan to head west and never look in the rearview mirror. But before they can hit the road, Baby needs to complete one final job to square up his debt, which finds him paired up with Bats (Jamie Foxx), a violent loose cannon unimpressed with the kid’s flawless resume and unhindered by Doc’s strict code of ethics.
To say the two aspects of Baby’s world are on a collision course would be an understatement, but Wright continues to prove himself an expert at subverting audience expectations and nimbly side-stepping cliches and conventions. What could have been just another dose of “car porn” in the hands of a lesser director is elevated to something else entirely by Wright’s signature sense of style, and it’s hard to imagine a film quite like this existing with someone else behind the camera.
With gunshots and gearshifts perfectly synced to drumbeats and cymbal crashes, there’s never been a film – or a filmmaker – that uses needle drops more creatively and auspiciously than this. The music of Baby Driver is integral to the onscreen action, and one cannot exist without the other – it’s a symbiotic relationship that Wright explores to increasingly satisfying results. If not for the soothing sounds of Martha Reeves’ “Nowhere to Run,” Baby wouldn’t be able to so easily outwit and outmaneuver the various law enforcement officials on his trail.
Sleek, sexy and stylish, Baby Driver is Wright’s most accomplished work to date, featuring a toe-tapping soundtrack, a host of memorably colorful characters, and some of the best car chases this side of the Fast and Furious franchise. It’s also a breakout role for Elgort, so charming and so charismatic that we can easily see why Debora is so smitten with him, because the feeling is mutual – and that goes double for the film itself.