There’s this baby-faced young man who in fact goes by the handle of Baby (Ansel Elgort, who impressed me as Tommy Ross in the CARRIE remake) and he’s a whiz kid of a getaway driver for armed robberies. He loves listening to music, and uses his favorite songs to inspire and time his driving, which is spectacular. He can maneuver and slide and spin and he is living proof that not everybody followed the disclaimer at the end of TOKYO DRIFT.
(He would’ve been about twelve when it came out, and surely influenced by it during his driver’s exam.)
Some have described this is a musical, which makes some sense. At times it feels like a movie based on the current trailer fad of editing gunshots and other sound effects as percussion playing along with the music.
After they get away, when the gang meets up to split the money, they make Baby go buy the coffee. Here’s one thing they carefully edited out of the trailers: he’s a total dork. In the car, but also at home, or walking in public, he listens to his earbuds and sings along and does little dance moves and shit. The whole walk to and from the coffee shop he seems like he’s on the verge of busting into a full on SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN number. I wonder if they considered casting Moose from the STEP UP sequels in this.
The people he’s driving, being tough guys as well as grown adults, do not necessarily understand this kid’s eccentricities, or like hanging around him. Griff (Jon Bernthal, FURY, SNITCH) thinks he’s “a retard” and picks on him like a schoolyard bully. In truth, Baby was in a car accident as a child that gave him tinnitus, and uses the music to drown it out. Also maybe the accident gave him superhuman aloofness, I don’t know. But he sits in his sunglasses listening to music and air-keyboarding like he’s off somewhere else and still has total recall of the elaborate plans laid out by their boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, SUPERMAN RETURNS).
Eventually we learn how he got this unlikely job, and it involves him being in debt to Doc. Only one more job and they’re even, he says. We don’t fucking trust him.
Around this time Baby also falls for a cute diner waitress named Debora (Lily James, WRATH OF THE TITANS, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES). It seems like she’s immediately head-over-heels with him, but I think this is exacerbated by the fact that she calls him by his name alot. They have a cute, giggly flirtation and talk about songs with their names in them. Baby has everyone beat on that and it’s a fun gimmick that these songs will show up on the soundtrack. Martha and the Vandellas singing “There’s nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide” suddenly becomes ominous.
Oh wow – and come to think of it they never use “Baby You Can Drive My Car.” Respect!
The soundtrack is pretty good and eclectic, anchored by lots of old soul songs. For my tastes they coulda started with more of a knockout than John Spenser Blues Explosion, but people seem to like that one. I noticed a tendency toward recordings that have been famously sampled – you think it’s the intro to “Jump Around” but it’s actually “Harlem Shuffle,” you think it’s “The Next Episode” but it goes into “The Edge.” In both cases, I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed when it doesn’t go into the hip hop song. David Axelrod is great, but his song doesn’t get my blood pumping the way Dre’s version does. Let’s listen:
As long as I have completely derailed the review to sit and play records let me tell you about a concert moment that gave me chills. In 2000 I went to The Up In Smoke Tour, a big stadium show with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg together as the headliners, and they opened with “The Next Episode.” I was hoping they would, and it made for perfect showmanship because the Tacoma Dome is dark and that dramatic intro plays and the crowd is screaming and suddenly big lanky Snoop is hopping out singing that “da da da da da” and introducing himself and Dre by name. And a minute later I’m thinking wait a minute, I wonder if Nate Dogg is actually gonna be here? Then all the sudden the door on the fake liquor store facade on stage swings open and indeed Nate Dogg struts out exactly in time to sing:
Sometimes it works to give the audience exactly what they want. But BABY DRIVER’s sample-sourcing is still fun and I believe intentional because I noticed they used “Kashmere” by the legendary high school funk band Kashmere Stage Band (see the documentary THUNDER SOUL for more info) and a little later we hear Handsome Boy Modeling School sampling it in “Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II).” Apparently there’s also a new Dangermouse song in there that samples the John Spencer song, but I didn’t pick up on that.
Baby stockpiles old beat-up iPods to store all his playlists. Remember when BLADE: TRINITY had a character who listens to an iPod during vampire slaying, and it seemed corny because it was so new – now they’re almost obsolete because of the way people use their phones! But in case that’s not nostalgic enough equipment for you writer-director Edgar Wright (HOT FUZZ) is happy to give him analog equipment as well. Baby has a collection of audio tapes, and one has an emotional meaning to him oddly similar to the one that drives the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies. More original is his odd habit of recording conversations and sampling them in weird little songs (actually created by Kid Koala). This makes for a criminal dilemma I’ve never seen before: having to convince the crew that yes, he made recordings of them but he’s not a rat, he’s just a weirdo.
Have you noticed the movie cliche that flashbacks to happier times, before your spouse/parent/kid died, look like blown out Super-8 home movies? I thought it was interesting that Baby’s memories have a definite ’70s/’80s look to the clothes, hair, car and cinematography, even though they’ve gotta be taking place in the early 2000s, as acknowledged by his use of an iPod. I picture Wright setting the scene up with more historical accuracy, seeing how not-old it looks and saying “fuck it, just make it look like 1979. Childhood memories look like 1979.” And I don’t disagree.
Doc believes in rotating his crews for each heist. Nice to see Flea in there briefly. For the main heist Doc brings in Bats (Jamie Foxx, MIAMI VICE, STEALTH), a guy who brags about how crazy he is. Foxx is very good and menacing as sort of the Mr. Blonde of the crew, but I don’t like that he replaces Bernthal’s Griff and then has the exact same role of guy-who-goes-out-of-his-way-to-be-an-asshole-to-Baby-100%-of-the-time. If he’s not in his face bullying him he’s doing the pretending-to-be-nice-in-a-way-that’s-obviously-actually-threatening-him routine. The one time he’s arguably trying to give him sincere advice he’s pointing a gun at him.
He’s an effective villain, but after DJANGO UNCHAINED I think it’s clear that Foxx deserves roles with more dimension. Jon Hamm (SPACE COWBOYS) as Buddy (last name Van Horn in homage to the great Clint Eastwood stunt double and director) gets to have more range. He shares genuine moments of friendship with the kid, bonding over music, before the relationship has reason to sour.
Doc seems like the worst of all of them, keeping Baby in indentured servitude by threatening his loved ones, (not-huge SPOILER) but abruptly turns into a loyal guardian. It seems like it would be a really satisfying turn if I believed it.
But the lead couple are easy to root for, nice kids trying to stay innocent in a world of violence, and as the traditional crime movie tension starts to squeeze tighter (people dead, people angry, family threatened, police circling, options narrowing) I couldn’t help but be more and more drawn in. For me there was suspense not only about getting away but about “is Wright gonna fuck this up and not have a big car chase as the climax?” I mean (SPOILER to the answer to that question) I question why he doesn’t really, but I found the conclusion very effective anyway.
(SPOILER NOTE: I always think it’s funny though in movies when a couple has been together for like a week or something and then the girl is still in love with him and waiting for him when he gets out of prison five years later.)
I have this problem. Wright seems like a really cool guy with great taste in movies and he’s made several very enjoyable comedies. I’ve liked almost all of them, but they are held in such high regard by others that I can’t discuss them without turning into the wet blanket parade-pisser representing the “well, I wouldn’t go that far” viewpoint. There’s a vocal internet contingent that feel every time he makes a movie he completely reinvents cinema, starting with when SHAUN OF THE DEAD changed the very definition of horror so that you’re allowed to put a funny comedy with zombie movie homages on the lists of the best actual horror or zombie movies.
So I was excited to see that BABY DRIVER is something different for Wright, a legitimate crime movie with danger and tension meant to be taken seriously. Baby my be an unlikely character to be in a heist movie, but that’s not a joke, he’s not constantly out of his element and talking about heist movies and amazed to be in a simulation of one. Not that there’s anything wrong with those genre homages, but straight up genre movie is more my speed. Get it, speed, because it’s– I mean, you get it, I think you get. Anyway I was sincerely convinced this was gonna be the one where I got to join the Edgar Wright marching band. The one I was finally gonna like as much as everybody else.
Well, the weeks or months of breathless adulation from film festivals and critic’s screenings have set the bar way too high for me. I can’t hang with some of these claims of groundbreaking filmatistic prowess, but I can’t let that shit bother me either. At least I’m narrowing the gap. Yeah, I enjoyed this one.
P.S. Did you know Wright had the idea for this in the early ’90s and it made its way into a 1994 music video for Mint Royale? You can see this is pretty similar to the opening scene, and I guess that lip-synching habit that prevents Baby from being Steve McQueen must be a holdover from this.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.