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Edgar Wright’s Visual, Musical Style in Baby Driver

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SPOILER ALERT: This article will dive into some finer points of plot and characters in Baby Driver and may spoil the plot for those who have yet to see the film. Proceed accordingly.

What came first—the music or the misery? asks Rob, the main character from Nick Hornby’s breakthrough novel, High Fidelity.

Throughout his story, Rob muses this intriguing chicken-and-egg concept about how the soundtrack of his life is no longer being dictated by his feelings, but his feelings are actually being dictated by his favorite songs. The main character in Edgar Wright’s newest film, Baby Driver, lives a life completely and fully directed by the songs he chooses on his multitude of iPods. What started as a necessity (a bad case of tinnitus is only eased by listening to his library of music) becomes compulsive behavior. His every movement and behavior hums along to the song he currently listens to. He walks around oblivious to his surroundings—fellow pedestrians crash into his oft-swinging body—and the walls and street signs surrounding him actually begin to display pieces of the lyrics. He’s consumed. In the case of this film’s protagonist (eponymously named Baby), the misery certainly preceded the music.

But it’s the music that decided to stay for the long haul.

baby driver cast Photo by Wilson Webb, © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Much in the way Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy masquerading as a zombie film, Baby Driver is a soundtrack film parading as a car chase heist flick. Moreover, Baby Driver is Wright’s first film set in America, and that setting is not incidental or peripheral. Throughout the film, we see the aspects of American pop culture that he is most fascinated with: fast cars, gun violence and, most importantly, pop music. Wright uses the music of the film to tell an appropriately American tale of redemption, criminality and (of course) young love. That the character of Baby is perpetually living within his own personal film—that he is constantly humming along to his own curated soundtrack—is no accident. Like Rob, Baby imprisons himself within his Realm of Tunes, but that formerly comforting world of sound is quickly becoming the very thing that drives his most destructive behavior: helping criminals. This is Wright’s version of the American Songbook: a tale of heroism overcoming a self-enforced solipsism.

lily james Photo by Wilson Webb, © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

About half-way through the film, Jamie Foxx’s character Bats spouts a monologue detailing his skepticism with Baby’s music dependence. He recalls a partner who called pop songs a “hex” on the proposed jobs they’re about to pull. We, the audience, think that this is a world-building set-up for Bats to be Baby’s ultimate Big Boss, the music-devote vs. the music-skeptic.

But Wright’s film is much more clever, constantly pulling the rug from under you in your expectation of who the final Big Boss will be (see: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Hot Fuzz to see how adept Wright is at paying off Big Boss showdowns). By the end, it’s surprisingly Jon Hamm’s Buddy who is Baby’s Big Boss, the very character who earlier in the film was sharing Baby’s affinity for Queen’s anthem “Brighton Rock.” By the end of the film, it’s the villain most similar to Baby himself that he must ultimately defeat, breaking free from his mindless attachment to the music that helped him pull off so many heists in the past.

Photo by Wilson Webb, ©2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All Rights Reserved.

So much of Edgar Wright’s features revolve around some deconstruction of a classical screenwriting archetype. He’s similar to the Coen Brothers this way, but while they twist the rules of film noir and screwball comedy into something almost unrecognizable, Wright feels right at home within the confines of our most treasured genres. The pleasure of an Edgar Wright movie is hardly in the suspense—his films are usually so textbook that we have a good idea what will happen by the film’s end: the hero will win, the villain will fall, the world will be fixed. It’s the way Wright chooses to display this predictability that makes him so exciting.

Baby Driver is no different. The film is filled with long takes revolving around various conversations, clever pieces of editing, and a color palette so eye-popping and vibrant that it’s almost tasty. But it’s the music in Driver that makes it so unique among his other films. The most important visual storytelling tool that Wright utilizes throughout Driver is the three-minute pop song. And he wields it beautifully, attaching songs to the spattering rhythms of firing bullets and car crashes, to characters’ entrances and exits, and mostly as an audible description of the usually non-emotive Baby’s psychological standing.

Baby Driver takes place in Atlanta, a city that is movie business-friendly, but also functions perfectly with what Wright is doing here. It’s a modern city within the Deep South, both urban and deep within the Bible Belt. Its contradictions allow Wright to truly span the canvas of American culture. Baby’s Southern drawl clashes with other characters’ distinctive speech, that range from Financial District business speak and South Central menace. Along with the soundtrack—which is equal parts catchy folk, classic R&B/funk and window shattering arena rock—Wright is envisioning his concept of a cinematic America, which is both an innocent existence of 50s-themed diners and milkshakes, as well as a ferociously callous wilderness of criminals driven by merciless greed. In two instances, Baby imagines a Heaven-like reality in which his love interest Debora (Lily James) waits for him, over-washed in bright light, next to a Cadillac like a pin-up girl.

This is just one impressive example of how, underneath Baby’s tale of recovering his soul, Wright is weaving his poignantly clear vision of American culture; a culture constantly embattled by its love of both automatic weapons and the perfect, toe-tapping tune.



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