The Flipside #2: Baby Driver
In the new bi-weekly column, critics Brice Ezell and Evan Sawdey saw Edgar Wright's Baby Driver and trace its heist-film lineage and iPod fetishization to its funky ends.
The Flipside is a bi-weekly column where critics Brice Ezell and Evan Sawdey examine a piece of pop culture -- new, forgotten, neglected, or undiscovered -- and bring it to light, offering two differing opinions for the same artifact. After all, with any given topic, there's always a flipside.
Sawdey: 2017 has been the Summer of Too Many Sequels, which is why virtually every single one of them has been underperforming. Audiences claim they want original, new properties, and smack-dab in the middle of the summer comes a film I've personally been anticipating for some time: Baby Driver, the fifth (OK, sixth if you want to get nit-picky) feature film from British writer-director Edgar Wright.
Like his previous collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Baby Driver is very much a genre exercise, this time Wright aiming straight for the heist film, but with his crate-digging soundtrack-centric spin on the whole thing, with a boat-load of award-caliber actors to boot.
While I have my thoughts on just how successful Wright was in his proceedings, Mr. Ezell:, what were your impressions?
Ezell: I am of two minds about Wright's latest colorful concoction. First and foremost, Baby Driver is an extremely enjoyable film, one that kept me glued to my theater seat for the entirety of its runtime. I haven't seen all of Wright's filmography -- At World's End passed me by, and I still haven't caught up to it -- but what I have seen is just plain fun. Seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in theaters reminded me of why it's worth going to the theater to see great films. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz blast the audience with wit and action. Baby Driver continues and expands Wright's style. The quips come quick -- Kevin Spacey is, as ever, totally game for the insanity on screen, as is Jamie Foxx -- and the action builds to a thrill-a-minute crescendo. As a devotee of heist films in all forms, Baby Driver fulfilled my expectations of that genre to a T.
And therein lies my second feeling about Baby Driver, which has to do with something I call "the problem of over-consciousness." This idea came to me upon my second viewing of La La Land, a film I enjoyed in spite of the ridiculous Oscars hive-mind circle jerk it became the center of. La La Land falters most significantly when it is most conscious of the movie musicals that came before it. Damien Chazelle insistently quotes throughout the film, so much so that he gives the impression that he is running for "Student Council President of the Movies," to use the delightful phrase of A.S. Hamrah's. There's Singin' in the Rain! There's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a movie that Chazelle mentioned at almost every press junket for La La Land! The cinematography of La La Land captivates, and Justin Hurwitz's fine score swanks up the film significantly. Yet when I wanted to enjoy La La Land as a musical on its own terms, La La Land pushed upon me the question: "Can the old-school musical exist in the modern day?" In being "over-conscious," as I call it, of its ripped-out-of-time aesthetic, La La Land can't fully commit to itself.
Baby Driver approaches this problem, though it swerves out of the way at the last second. Wright's film cannot help but remember its ancestors in the heist genre, a point made even more clear to me at my viewing of the film at one of Austin, Texas' many Alamo Drafthouses, which began with an exclusive interview with Wright where he catalogued his favorite cinematic heists, car chases, and crashes. Wright crams in a whole bunch of heist tropes into Baby Driver: "one last job," the eccentric gang of thieves, the crook trying to turn himself straight, and so on.
What prevents Baby Driver from succumbing to the over-consciousness that plagues La La Land is the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort), easily the film's strongest innovation to the heist genre. Before I explain why, I'm wondering if you see the problem of "over-consciousness" cropping up in the way I do, Evan.
Sawdey: As in, devoted to its tropes a bit too obviously and carefully? Well only hardcore cinephiles will see immediate parallels between, say, this and the 1968 car chase film to end all car chase films in the form of Steve McQueen's Bullitt (but let's be real: San Francisco makes for more interesting terrain than Baby Driver's Atlanta), but honestly, a heist film in love with heist films is something I'm OK with: there sure as hell aren't enough in the genre so in working from such a limited subset of films, there's more to play with.
So while I enjoyed the film quite a bit, the thing that ranks this in the lower portions of the Wright echelon is how much it stuck to convention. When Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza González) all visit the diner where Baby's girlfriend Debora (Lily James) works, I was tense, as I genuinely did not know where the film was heading at that point. By the time things end in a relatively conventional cat-and-mouse setup of one character becoming the uber-villain hellbent on taking away the things that Baby loves -- well, that felt pretty by-the-numbers. Wright directs with panache and style and writes with overcaffeinated verve (resulting in one of my favorite-ever lines in a film: "Who doesn't like hats?"), but he still has nothing new to say about young love, the criminal lifestyle, or heist films in general.
While one could argue that a mainstream flick like Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy beat Baby Driver's retro-song revitalization aspect, the soundtrack is still a strong selling point to the film. Each song has been optimized for maximum impact, avoiding easy favorites in favor of deep cuts like Beck's "Debbie" and Queen's "Brighton Rock" to soundtrack especially pointed scenes. In many ways, for all its flourishes, the songs are the thing I keep coming back to, and due to the fact that the characters are interacting with these songs and also clearly enjoying them, so are we, the audience.
Ezell: What you touch on in your apt description of the film's soundtrack is what, for me, prevents Baby Driver from lapsing into the problem of over-consciousness: the iPods. As Lindsay Zoladz brilliantly argued over at The Ringer, the movie fetishizes iPods, a technological device that's not that old. For me, the appeal of the iPod in the film and its relationship to the character of Baby is how it captures the unique 21st century phenomenon David Byrne describes in How Music Works:
"The iPod, like the Walkman cassette player before it, allows us to listen to our music wherever we want. Previously, recording technology had unlinked music from the concert hall, the café, and the saloon, but now music can always be carried with us. Michael Bull, who has frequently written about the impact of the Walkman and the iPod, points out that we often use devices to 'aestheticize urban space.' We carry our soundtrack with us wherever we go, and the world around us is overlaid with our music. Our whole life becomes a movie, and we can alter the score for it over and over again: one minute it's a tragedy, and the next it's an action film. Energetic, dreamy, or ominous and dark: everyone has their private movie going on in their heads, and no two are the same."
Baby Driver, viewed through Byrne's words, is a movie about how movies are soundtracked and scored. Baby's attachment to his iPod came about as a result of a childhood car accident that left him with permanent tinnitus, so the rotating cast of iPods (I use the word "cast" deliberately, as each iPod is a kind of character in its own right) isn't merely a stylistic tic on his part. Medical necessity dictates his oh-so-cool playlist. Yet Baby doesn't just pick any old songs to dull the noise constantly abuzz in his ears; his curated playlist sets distinct moods for all of the various "scenes" in his life. The soundtrack moves Baby Driver far more than its plot, which at its base consists of stapled-together Bonnie & Clyde and "one last job" tropes.
So while I generally agree with you that Baby Driver doesn't represent a total rethinking of the heist genre, it does cleverly juxtapose Baby's desire to escape the heist lifestyle, symbolized by his iPod playlists, with the chaotic action that happens in the world outside his earbuds. Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm's characters are the heist movie clichés; the iPods are Baby's, and the audience's, escape. Baby Driver is about a character trying to escape a heist film.
Sawdey: I agree. It may not upend and embrace conventions in the way that his genre exercises with Pegg did (specifically Hot Fuzz, which also has a rather punctual and fascinating soundtrack, and is arguably his masterpiece), there is still a lot of wit, humor, and charm to Baby Driver. I still very much think that its many action sequences run of a very similar ilk, that momentum somewhat plateauing after car chase number X, but I'm glad I saw this movie, already own the soundtrack, and will be happy to be there rewatching it with other people who have never seen it before.
Of course, outside of your final thoughts, I must ask what you think the best song on the soundtrack is. For me, it's "The Edge" by David McCullum, a jazzy, brassy instrumental which ended up being sampled and serving as the entire musical backing for Dr. Dre's excellent 2000 hit "The Next Episode". Yourself, Baby Brice?
Ezell: My vote for favorite song goes to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' "Egyptian Reggae." Although T. Rex's "Debora" comes close.
If I think of Baby Driver as a heist film, it's a flashy and fun but not meaningfully deep take on the genre. If I think of Baby Driver as an interrogation of the heist film, I think it has some clever things to say, particularly with how it juxtaposes the world of the thieves with Baby's own private soundtrack. As an Edgar Wright movie, it's extremely fun; not one I'd rank as his best, but one I'd say has a high rewatchability factor, a feature shared by most of Wright's pictures. The press for Baby Driver has been exuberant, if not exultant, but while I enjoy the movie, I'd say my enjoyment is tempered significantly by its at times heightened consciousness of the heist genre. I'd never pick Baby Driver if I wanted to watch a heist movie generally; I'd probably go to the originals, like those amazing works by Jean-Pierre Melville (Le doulos, Le cercle rouge), John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), and Basil Dearden (The League of Gentlemen).
Sawdey: Meanwhile I'd just go with the Robert De Niro/Jeffrey Dean Morgan/Dave Bautista 2015 masterpiece Heist which we all saw, and all universally acknowledge as the greatest movie ever made. (Not to be confused with the equally-regarded 2001 masterpiece Heist starring Gene Hackman and, um, Danny DeVito.)
Ezell: Danny DeVito gets one of the best lines of dialogue in any heist film ever made (or film generally, for that matter): "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."
Sawdey: *casually pushes Brice out of a moving getaway car while listening to The Wiseguys' "Who the Hell?", earbuds firmly in place as he hits a rip-roaring 35 miles per hour*