Second Sight: The Musical Mayhem of Baby Driver

Edgar Wright's latest offering is a musically infused crime story steeped in golden age Hollywood homages for an MP3 generation.  It’s always refreshing to view a picture that has been intimately crafted by a film lover.  Wright's meticulous design is encased in a symphony of violence and screeching tires, a metropolitan skeleton through which music is the heart’s blood.  From the powerhouse introductory car chase to the classical ending, Wright's Atlanta based urban fairy tale Baby Driver is one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of 2017.

Baby is a good natured getaway driver for groups of professional thieves, who (due to a hearing disorder) choreographs his vehicular escapes to a plethora of musical anthems.  After falling for a local waitress, Baby risks everything to escape his life of crime in the pursuit of love.  Wright originally conceived the idea for the film over 20 years ago and after stepping away from Ant-Man, he decided to pursue his passion project.  Ansel Elgort stars as the eponymous driver, giving a layered performance that mixes the often nonchalant dreaminess of musicals with the somber grit of a crime epic.  He is supported by Kevin Spacey in a fun, albeit overly familiar role, Jaime Foxx as an unhinged foil, Eiza Gonzalez as a dangerous compatriot, and Jon Hamm, in one of his most unconventional turns yet as rugged criminal expatriate from the gilded halls of high society.  

Lily James stars as the love interest, and her performance is the film’s biggest weakness, if only for her lack of anything substantial to do.  Flea, Jon Bernthal, Sky Ferreira, Big Boi, and Killer Mike all have cameos, each of which add to the tonal chaos that swirls around Baby.  However, C.J. Jones' performance as Baby's ailing foster father is one of the film's endearing surprises.  His natural chemistry with Elgort combines with remarkable body work to deliver a touching, unflinchingly paternal embodiment that anchors Baby in reality, reminding him of the safety and happiness of a law abiding existence.  

The patiently curated soundtrack is perhaps the greatest aspect of the production.  Taking its title from an iconic Simon and Garfunkel song, Wright's eclectic selection is a treasure trove of classic and obscure tracks.  Grammy nominated dance choreographer Ryan Heffington was enlisted by Wright to assist with training the cast members so that their movements and actions stayed in tune with the music.  This is the essence of Baby Driver.  While it is a passable, at best, crime saga, it is a delightful and intimately constructed love song to both music and cinema.  The choice to forego a complex narrative initially seems uninspired, however, fables are often simplistic morality tales in which the basic messages of love and acceptance overshadow the richness of the main characters, and Wright adheres to this notion through breakneck pacing and the creation of world that moves to its own beat.  While Baby's romantic quest for freedom is the tree, every dangerous avenue and fully fleshed out criminal is a branch that wraps the simple story in a world of bass and fury.  

While rhythm is integral to the design, Baby Driver also contains a wealth of homages to films whose influence is sprinkled throughout the presentation.  Perhaps the boldest is a perfectly timed tracking shot of Baby getting coffee, singing, dancing, and paying tribute to the Jewel of the South.  Elgort's Baby glides across sidewalks and through cafes, singing lyrics that are spray painted on the walls behind him like graffiti tattoos on concrete skin.  The entire sequence conjures memories of Singin' in the Rain, with Elgort's modern Gene Kelly spinning and marveling at the world around him, perfectly in tune with the melodies of the city.  

The theme of crimes being timed to music was also explored in Michael Lehmann's critically panned Hudson Hawk, with Daniel Waters' underrated script featuring several heists in which Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello sing and move as they ply their trade and its influence is undeniable here.  Classic car chase films, such as The Blues Brothers, The Driver, and The French Connection are also heavily prevalent within Baby Driver's furious DNA, however, as with the musical and choreographed elements, Wright pays respects to these icons but never devolves into unfocused fandom.  It is undeniable that Baby Driver would not exist without these works, and while that may appear unoriginal, the immense amount of craft that Wright has used to wind these various themes together is remarkable.  

Bill Pope's cinematography, particularly during the chase sequences has a fluid quality that never seems to stop.  Whether on foot or four wheels, the viewer is always at the center of action, with the smell of cordite and petroleum raining from the screen in a shower of auditory sparks.  Swift editing brings everything together, matching perfect shots with pulsating beats while managing several complicated pursuits with extreme precision, allowing the viewer to remain informed on each encounter, which only enhances not only the amount of buy in to the characters, but also keeps everything fresh and exciting.  

In theaters now, Baby Driver is one of the year's best feature films.  Avoiding paint peeling exposition and sigh inducing parody, Wright's greatest directorial effort (thus far) stays between the lines of entertainment and tribute while its characters cross boundaries whenever possible.  It is the perfect marriage of b-flat and bullets whose offspring is a one of a kind experience.  If you're looking for a thrilling, crowd pleasing story about the importance of love and the healing power of music, Baby Driver is essential viewing for 2017.

- Kyle Jonathan