You know that feeling when you get behind the wheel and YOUR song comes on? That song belongs to you and no one else, and it makes you feel like you can do anything, like you can tear up the road, and like you’ve never felt an emotion this strongly before. As you tap on the steering wheel and sing along to the lyrics, someone on the outside looking in might think you look pretty stupid. And you know what? You do, and you kind of know it. What crazy song is that you’re listening to anyways?
Edgar Wright knows that feeling. “Baby Driver” is that feeling. You could be listening to some ‘50s soul song that would be humiliating if anyone knew what you were jamming. Your name could be something silly like “Ansel Elgort,” and you could be wearing a cheap pair of drug store sunglasses as you strut down the road awkwardly avoiding foot and street traffic. But you are in that perfect moment. No one looks cooler. You’ve never felt more confident, inspired or uplifted. This feels awesome.
“Baby Driver” is in love with itself, with its style, its soundtrack and its energy. But Wright gets that to some degree this is just a little lame. If it was trying to be cool he would’ve filled it with Top 40 bangers and jukebox favorites. Instead he picked the deep cuts you dance to when no one is watching. “Baby Driver” is a heist and action movie with the volume turned up to 11, but Wright has selected a soundtrack so in tune with the movie he’s always wanted to make that it feels like a deeply personal statement.
The film’s hero, Baby (Elgort), that’s B-A-B-Y Baby, listens to this music constantly. He has white Apple earbuds dangling from both ears and he owns an arsenal of iPod Classics each programmed with different songs to suit his mood. He needs to constantly have the right song playing, because when he’s plugged in to the right tune to fit the moment, he can drive a getaway car like he’s Ryan Gosling. In an opening scene reminiscent of “Drive,” Baby rocks out in the car while his three partners rob a bank. The action isn’t inside the bank; it’s in the car. As they make their escape, Baby drifts through alleys, drives along sloping walls and fools a helicopter by hiding between two identical sedans on the highway. But it all stays in rhythm, and Baby keeps right along mouthing the lyrics.
Is everything here not just impossible, but laughable? Yes, and this has been true of Wright’s action scenes since “Shaun of the Dead.” But it’s so slick and funny and impeccably timed that it would be a crime to stop the song and pull it out of that groove.
The difference is that while “Hot Fuzz” explicitly nodded to other action films, “Baby Driver” has a style all its own. Wright’s influences are baked into the film like a perfectly curated mixtape. The camera will twirl and dance without ever looking forced. The editing will step on the gas at just the right second when Wright needs to whoosh into a moment. And he lets us know that everyone on screen can hear the music, so all the action feels organically choreographed.
Those earbuds Baby wears are important. Other robbers working with him on these heists are always talking in his ear, questioning his maturity, testing his resolve. Eventually his music will be too loud, he’ll get out of sync, and he’ll have blood on his hands. Is he listening?
Elgort is a star in the making. He exudes effortless good looks and confident charm but also has the fresh-faced innocence of a kid in way over his head, whether he’s got a tattooed tough sitting shotgun while literally holding a shotgun, or whether he’s face to face with his girlfriend Debora (Lily James). Kevin Spacey as the mob boss has the type of role that Spacey’s both nailed and phoned in a dozen times before. Wright pulls out a performance where he’s clearly having fun. Jamie Foxx speaks faster than Wright’s camera can even move. At one point he rattles off the three vices sex, drugs, money and action, and he concludes that’s actually four things before you even did. His character is Bats, as in bats— crazy, and that rapid-fire cadence he has makes the movie scarily volatile. And last is Jon Hamm, decked out with rough facial hair that makes him look like John Wick in his prime. If you’ve been waiting for Hamm to become a movie star, this is it. His hitman Buddy combines the suave darkness of Don Draper with the cornball energy of his work on “30 Rock.”
When a song is perfect and you know it, it doesn’t have to stand up to scrutiny. Whether a shameless pop anthem or a serious musical statement, being immersed between headphones is momentary bliss. “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright’s masterpiece. It has hits for days and liner notes that have the mark of genius, but it’s best enjoyed with the volume cranked.