In the Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy directed by Edgar Wright, the joke was that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters find themselves thrust into an ersatz version of the media they consume. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), it was zombie movies, in Hot Fuzz (2007), action blockbusters, and in The World’s End (2013), apocalyptic sci-fi. Similarly, in the same director’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), a geeky musician in Toronto is faced with a set of super-villains to battle. The film was adapted from a series of graphic novels and incorporates comic-book styling in its mise en scene as well as its plot. Its structure and visual style also intentionally recall video games, and the Xbox and PlayStation adaptations were released alongside the movie.
Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, is about a young man living inside a music video, or attempting to. Specifically, a music video that Wright himself directed, for ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale, in which Noel Fielding plays a getaway driver who grooves along to a track on his CD player while his fellow crims rob a bank. Our callow, taciturn hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), was listening to his iPod when his parents were killed in a car collision, and now he can only get through the day with his earplugs in, tapping his head to a carefully selected soundtrack, and lipreading his way through his interactions with others. The tunes are there to down out his tinnitus, caused by the crash, but it’s heavily implied that they protect him from emotionally engaging with other people too.
On a good day for Baby, as for all of us, his iPod track of choice synchs perfectly with the world around him. There is an especially fun sequence, almost like something from a musical, when he buys coffee to the sound of ‘Harlem Shuffle’. Or, in his work as a getaway driver, he can play air-drums to ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the time it takes for his employers to relieve a bank of its cash. On a bad day, the city does not groove to Baby’s vibe, and a holdup in the holdup will mean he has to grab his iPod and rewind ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by the Damned to keep on track.
There’s something very attractive about staying plugged in, and living life to your own soundtrack, seeing the world as if it were a silent movie, or a succession of three-to-five-minute silent movies, all strung together. So I was intrigued by Wright’s new film, as a former Walkman-addicted teenager, and a silent-movie buff both. Of course, Baby’s failure to listen to the world around him would make his stunt-driving even more lethal than it already is. And his lip-reading skill a) has to be explained by giving him a deaf foster father* and b) has to be translated on screen into floating intertitles.
Though, to be honest, the dialogue is largely redundant in this likeable, if slight film: Baby drives a getaway car for a man called Doc (Kevin Spacey, camp as Christmas); Baby falls in love with a waitress called Debora (Lily James, doing the best she can) and wants to go straight; Baby has to do One Last Job. The film begins as quite charming, almost whimsical, but gets better, and far more action-heavy in the last half hour. Sadly the characters that surround young Baby are barely sketched, or even named. He has a colleague called Bats who is, well, batty (Jamie Foxx, providing most of the humour) and another just called Buddy (a menacing, enjoyably odd, Jon Hamm), whose girlfriend is called Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, though why they bothered casting anyone for such a thinly drawn role is beyond me).
The influences on Baby Driver extend beyond the world of pop videos, but not much further. Much here, from the slightly dreamy twist on60s-Americana settings (check out the Technicolor washing in the laundromat) to the pop-culture chit-chat, recalls Quentin Tarantino (apparently a supporter of the project) and it is little surprise that when a pizza restaurant appears it is called Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster saga is surely the ultimate in jukebox movies, and although Wright’s playlists skew more 90s indie and cult classics than the stomping sounds of the 60s and 70s, it’s clear what Baby Driver’s pop collage aspires to. As those two influences suggest, there’s a retro tinge to Baby Driver. Baby may be only a young man, but this is an action movie with a title taken from a Simon and Garfunkel B-side and a soundtrack that could have been lifted straight from Radio 6 Music. Even Baby’s collection of iPods, like his C90s full of sampled electronica, are pretty outdated these days. Hasn’t he heard of Spotify Premium?
However it appears, the film is smothered in music, and a lot has been written about Hollywood films ditching most of their dialogue to play well in Asian markets, but surely these aural reference points would reverse that? And Baby Driver is full of chatter too, which even if it isn’t as comic as Wright’s previous work, is often full of geeky pleasures. Debora and Baby leap straight into a discussion about the songs featuring their names; the best, possibly only, joke here, involves a heavy mistaking comedian Mike Myers for Michael Myers from Halloween. Ultimately, Baby Driver is a very likeable, entertaining film (Spacey is fabulous and the stunt sequences are brilliant) but emotionally every bit as a shallow as a pop video. After every setpiece, it seems to start again from first positions, especially for the blank female characters. It’s like La La Land, but if nobody got out of their cars. And Baby’s non-committal moral stance and self-enforced social isolation is hard to root for, which wouldn’t be a problem if the plot didn’t later hinge on him being a saintly kind of criminal.
Maybe one day Wright will channel this particular strategy, which has worked so often before, but backfired here, into a drama about a young man whose world transforms into a silent drama. That I would like to see. Or a woman, for once, even more so.
- Baby Driver is released on 28 June, but preview screenings are available now.
*I give the film credit for casting a deaf actor, CJ Jones, in this role.