This column discusses some of the basic plot elements of “Baby Driver.”
While working my way through Edgar Wright‘s oeuvre last week — in preparation for an interview with the director about his new heist-musical, “Baby Driver,” opening on Wednesday — it was hard to shake the feeling that the British director is one of the more versatile directors working today, a man who can jump in and out of genres all whilst almost entirely avoiding the mainstream cinema’s predilection for previously produced materials.
Over the past decade-plus, Wright has made a zombie movie (“Shaun of the Dead“), a cop/action movie (“Hot Fuzz“), a comic book movie (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World“), a sci-fi/apocalypse movie (“The World’s End“), and now a heist flick. But none of these are straight-ahead examples of the genre in which they superficially reside; it would be safer to say they are genre-adjacent.
“Even as far back as doing ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ it wasn’t like we said we’re going to do a straight zombie film — because why bother?” Wright, 43, said of his second feature film during our interview. “There’s many of them, and some of them are very good. So you have to think of your take on it. So, what if it’s a romantic comedy where a zombie epidemic is actually interrupting a different movie.”
The same question was on Wright’s mind while working on “Baby Driver,” which stars Ansel Elgort as the eponymous chauffeur, Kevin Spacey as his crime boss handler, and Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza Gonzalez as a team of hoods taking down scores.
“Why do another heist film when there’s like, millions of them. And it was like ‘Why don’t you do a heist film where the lead character has to listen to music the whole time and the soundtrack is actually motivating the entire movie?'” Wright asked. The result is something akin to a musical with cars, a rhythmic dance of vehicular violence set to an eclectic iPod playlist.
“Baby Driver” is something of an oddity for the sweltering cinematic season: an original property with a modest budget with an unknown actor in the starring role. In a summer dominated by comic book films (“Wonder Woman,” “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”) and enormously budgeted sequels (the fifth entries in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” series), “Baby Driver” is a breath of fresh air, something new and vibrant and fun. Maintaining that original vibe, however, was always a worry for Wright, who said he has been noodling through “Baby Driver” for the last decade or so.
“You’re just hoping that people won’t use some of the songs you have in mind. So occasionally they crop up in like adverts and stuff. ‘Hocus Pocus‘ was in a Nike ad and when I heard it I was like ‘Ahhhh, I wanted to use that.’ But then I thought ‘It’s not in a film, so,'” Wright said, laughing and shrugging a bit. Trickier was keeping tabs on what showed up in his art form — but what was used well. A movie like “Suicide Squad,” with its tacked on (and tacky) pop soundtrack isn’t too much of a threat. But the clever incorporation of music was something of which Wright was keenly aware.
“James Gunn [the director of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’], who’s a friend of mine, we had this funny Twitter conversation — a secret conversation, rather, DMs — where I sort of, I messaged him, and I said ‘I hope nothing in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 2’ is in ‘Baby Driver.'”‘ Wright said. “And he goes, ‘Oh, that’s a good point,’ and he says ‘Do you use ELO’ and I said ‘No’ and I said ‘Do you use Queen’ and he said ‘No.’ We just went back and forth: ‘Do you use Barry White?’ ‘I nearly used Barry White,’ but no. … So it just went back and forth like that, where we’re playing this amazing guessing game where neither of us would say what the tracks were but we’re just confirming that the same artists were not on the soundtrack.”
Gunn and Wright understand the power of pop, the importance of release. The music in “Baby Driver” is almost entirely diegetic — that is, it’s music that would be heard by characters on the screen; we hear the songs Baby hears emanating from his iPod’s earbuds and shopping mall speakers alike — and its absence is felt by audiences, as Wright inserted a tinnitus whine similar to the one Baby himself suffers from in order to induce anxiety in viewers.
“I think most people use music in their lives as an escape. It’s a positive thing, but it’s also an escape from daily life in some way. And it’s also I think for a lot of people the one thing they can control,” Wright said. “Especially with headphones, or in your car on your own, it’s a sort of very personal experience.”
A very personal experience in a very original movie — a very unusual sensation during a very bloated movie season.