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Baby Driver (2017) – a review and a mixtape

[This review is made possible by the Looking Closer Specialists — a generous crew who support this website. Thank you, Specialists, for understanding the time and resources that are necessary to keep a site like this alive. You are my best audience, and more: you are partners and friends.]

Pro tip: If you go see Baby Driver — and you should — stay in your theater seat until the end credits are finished. No, not because there’s a post-credits surprise (there isn’t). Not because there are so many important matters to reflect on and discuss (there aren’t). Hang out in the theater lobby a while because no road within a 10-mile radius of a theater showing Baby Driver is safe. Let your fellow moviegoers go to their cars, gun their engines, run the red lights, mistake the interstate for a racetrack, and forget the difference between the movie and make-believe.

I started noticing, all the way back in high school, while Die Hard was still in theaters, that the power of movies to draw us into its protagonist’s point of view can have an effect on a viewer’s energy and physicality. I came out of Die Hard feeling like the smug, sarcastic John McClane. I walked differently. I smiled differently. Recently, I left Paterson feeling like I was the title character: taking life at a slower, more observant pace, absorbing light and color and beauty all around me.

And I came out of Baby Driver wanting to blast my favorite freeway playlist and push the speed limit all night.

It’s a dangerous influence, this power. Be aware of it in yourself. Be aware of it in those around you. Love is contagious. Movies love things. They want you to love them too. So it’s always good to ask: This movie that you’re seeing — what does it love?

Writer/director Edgar Wright has made a lot of movies in a lot of genres. Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant spoof that beats most zombie movies at their own game. Hot Fuzz does the same thing for buddy-cop movies. The World’s End is a hilarious send-up of alien invasion films. And Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a colorful, innovative comic book adaptation. They’re all fast-paced, they’re all funny, and they all run like well-oiled machines: engines of action fueled with comedy, engines of comedy fueled with action.

Like Guy Ritchie, Wright is master of energy: He knows how to weld imagery and music together with precision editing so that every movie feels like a ride in a high-end race car driven by a champion. But Wright is smarter than Ritchie, funnier, and he spends more time packing more ideas into a space than it seems likely to hold, making his films far more rewarding for repeat viewing.

So, for fans of Wright’s oeuvre, Baby Driver amounts to two hours of saying, “Well, of course he made a movie about a getaway car driver whose mastery of machines is made possible by music.”

Let’s get our spoiler-free synopsis out of the way so we can get to what really matters:

Baby — played by Ansel Elgort (the kid who made all the girls swoon during The Fault in Our Stars) — is the reluctant driver of a getaway car for a gang of bank robbers. And he’s willing to do “one last job” (of course), because he owes it to the team’s mastermind (a wonderfully understated Kevin Spacey).

Yeah, right. As any fan of heist movies, gangster movies, or stories about reluctant crooks will know — there’s no such thing as “one last job.”

And so, surrounded by volatile thieves who distrust his method — he always wears his earbuds because his magic behind the wheel flows from the music in his myriad mixtapes and iPods — Baby maneuvers to make his escape from a life of crime. While his past is scarred by the death of his mother (every superhero has his wound), Baby still has a lot to live for — namely, a caring and hard-of-hearing foster father (CJ Jones) and a pretty waitress (Lily James, looking like a cosplay version of the Double-R Diner’s Shelley from Twin Peaks).

But, well, you know how these things go.

Except you don’t. It’s exactly in the “how this thing goes” that Baby Driver becomes exceptional.

The cast is winsome and clever. Although they lack the chemistry that made Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” films, so satisfying, each one of them gives it their all. Elgort is fine, but it’s hard not to shake the sense that Wright might have hoped for a star with more charisma. (A few years ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt would’ve been perfect. And I can see Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya knocking this out of the park.) Lily James makes me want to fall for Deborah, Baby’s sweetheart; it’s not James’s fault that her role needs more substance and purpose. Jon Hamm fares best, playing a hired gun whose volcanic temper is just waiting for its moment. You can count on Hamm earning more supervillain roles. Eiza González, as Hamm’s decorative partner-in-automatic-weapons, gets the second insufficiently envisioned female role. And Jamie Foxx plays some muscle who boasts of “mental problems” — a promise that the movie never really fulfills.

A supporting cast of musical legends spice up the stew: Flea, Killer Mike, even Paul “The Rainbow Connection” Williams. Their characters collide in unpredictable and amusing ways, filling the story with surprises — including a surprisingly anticlimactic showdown that keeps its characters contained in a parking garage just when you’re ready for the biggest, best chase scene of all time.

And yet, for all of its faults, Baby Driver keeps the audience securely seat-belted into its exhilarating amusement-park ride by knowing what it loves, and by loving that thing well. What does this movie love? It loves music. It loves choreographing everything from incidental moments (like Baby’s walks from Point A to Point B) to its heart-in-your-throat action scenes precisely to the beat of its brilliant playlist.

And, if you’re listening, you’ll notice that its greatest innovations occur as Wright calibrates the noises of sirens, squealing brakes, even gunshots to participate in its pop-to-punk playlists, bringing new bursts of inspiration to familiar tracks.

That, I believe, is the movie’s most redeeming influence: It sharpens our awareness of the symphony of sound all around us, and how it serves as both an inspiration for, and an extension of, the songs that engage our adrenaline, that awaken our creative capacity.

If you look closely enough, you might glimpse within Baby Driver the story of a mad genius filmmaker stuck in the corporate machine, wanting to be turned loose to do his best work without criminal compromise. Is it worth mentioning here that Edgar Wright was making Marvel’s Ant-Man and had the studio take it away from him over creative differences? Watching Baby Driver, I wished even more that I could have seen that Ant-Man movie.

But maybe it’s for the best. Maybe we don’t need Edgar Wright focusing his energies on a huge corporate franchise. Maybe we need his stories, his characters, his playlists, his hands on the wheel and his heartbeat pounding through the subwoofers.

And so, rather than unleashing my post-Driver delirium behind the wheel, I’ll turn it loose in a playlist.

Baby’s playlists are heavy on nostalgia: Queen, The Damned, The Beach Boys, “Harlem Shuffle,” and, in the film’s most inspired musical flourishes, Beck’s “Debra” and T-Rex’s “Deborah.” 

Mine? I’m going to respond to Baby Driver with a playlist of my favorite turn-it-up-loud driving music from 2017 so far.

I play these songs for the following occasions:

If I need automatic happiness:

This Is the Kit – “Moonshine Freeze”

And…

Magnetic Fields – “How to Play the Synthesizer”

And…

Valerie June – Shakedown

If the news headlines of the day make me feel that all-too-familiar ache of rage and grief…

Algiers – Cry of the Martyrs

And…

Depeche Mode — “Where’s the Revolution”

 

If I need medicine for my soul…

Elbow – “Magnificent (She Says)”

If I need caffeine and don’t have any…

Ibibiyo Sound Machine – Give Me a Reason

If I feel like I need to escape under the cover of night…

Rhinannon Giddens – “Julie”

And…

Feist — “I’m Not Running Away”

If I want one song with a groove good enough to play on “Repeat”…

Laura Marling – “Soothing”

 

Vagabon – The Embers

If I just want to go fast…

Tinariwen — “Sastanàqqàm”

 

If I want to hang on to that rush of U2’s recent Joshua Tree concert…

U2 – “In God’s Country”

If I need beauty…

Big Thief – “Mary”

If I need the Gospel…

The Bruised Hearts Revue — “I Saw the Light”

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.