I nearly bailed on my invitation to a preview screening of Baby Driver.*
I’d seen the groundswell for this film build for several months, and early reviews seemed positive, but the more I watched the trailer I felt sure that it was a great idea – a tinnitus affected getaway driver listens to music on his iPod to soothe the ringing in his ears while he drives like a demon and helps bank robbers escape – that would somehow be ruined by the many meddling opportunities that exist to undo the artistic vision of the modern film-maker.
Perhaps I should have had more faith in Edgar Wright, because I have to say – this is the best film since Pulp Fiction.
Wright has basically thrown down the gauntlet to Quentin Tarantino as if to say – alright mate – you’ve got one film left, top that.
Wright’s use of music, (which will HAVE to win an Oscar for at least one audio category) in his choices, sound design and playful incorporation into the story is just profound.
It’s like he has taken the Blues Brothers and used that ode to rhythm and blues music as a template and updated it with nods to punk, hip hop and classic rock.
There is probably not a single scene that does not reference some famous or obscure piece of film history. And in any scene where he is being totally original, he is being totally original. “The code word is bananas”.
The cinematography From Bill Pope (Army of Darkness & The Matrix) perfectly captures the energy of Wright’s vision in a way that makes the Fast and the Furious look like the Slow and the Timid.
The casting that gives us one time Usual Suspect and all the time Frank Underwood Kevin Spacey as Doc – a small time Atlanta robber who is the brains behind a series of bank jobs and armoured truck heists plaguing the city that would be at home in films like The Town and Point Break.
Jon Hamm, (who played for the other side in said Town film) is Buddy, who along with his girl (Darling, played by Eiza González ) are part of a crew of robbers that Spacey has put together for the final job of the film.
Django (Jaime Fox) makes three as Bats, and Baby (YA fiction adaptation heartthrob Ansel Elgort) – that’s B-A-B-Y – Baby makes four.
The baby-faced getaway driver with the hearing issues is the only crook that Doc uses more than once, in fact he hasn’t pulled off a job without Baby in the crew and Doc feels he is a good luck charm.
Baby meanwhile is caring for his foster Dad who raised him after Baby lost his parents – it is worth a mention that they died in a car crash? And his mum was a singer. Because Baby is obsessed with driving and listening to music. Preferably at the same time.
Everything in Baby Driver references every other thing in Baby Driver.
The opening track – Bell Bottoms is by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Jon Spencer pops up at the end of the film as a prison guard. In an early scene, Baby gets the criminal crew coffee after eluding cops in an epic chase, and as he sings along to the track on his ipod, the lyrics pop up in different ways on the screen.
On a pole poster, on graffiti sprayed on walls, a trumpet in the song is mimed being played by Baby as he dances past a music store window displaying brass instruments.
It’s the kind of choreography we used to see in music videos by “auteurs” back in the day, except it’s been done for every single frame of this film.
There’s a line in a making of vignette that preceded my screening and it sums up the picture perfectly.
“The film is driven by the music”. It is a film ABOUT driving, an ABOUT music, and the film itself is driven by music.
It is almost as if Edgar Wright dreamt up this film as the one film he wanted to make (Hello Damien Chazelle’s La La Land) and made his other handful of terrific films, purely as a stepping stone to arrive here.
Turns out this is kind of true, as (according to the Wiki Gods I consulted after writing this review) Wright says he had the idea for the film in 1994, but unwittingly made a music video for Mint Royale that used the idea that became unexpectedly popular.
Baby Driver is a stunning piece of work – a piece de resistance to be proud of for life.
The film, which I might remind you is a about a getaway driver with tinnitus, literally starts with the relentless, annoying ringing tone that afflicts all sufferers.
The tone continues through the titles to come to a stop as a car wheel pulls into shot – the tone matching up with the sound that brakes make when they rub together.
Baby Driver is a film that rewards filmgoers who love to pay attention to what is happening in front of their eyes and in their ears.
The car pulls up in front of The First Bank of Atlanta.
The film’s first heist goes smoothly and Baby Driver executes some genius driving strategies to elude the various law enforcement in pursuit.
Back at their hideout, one of this first crew of robbers chides Baby for listening to music when Spacey is briefing them on the job.
When Baby confirm he heard every detail, the bad guy claims “You’re hard as nails or scared as shit”, of course Baby is more the latter than the former, but he is hard, he has had to be to survive losing his folks as a child.
Misjudge Baby at your own peril.
(God I just want to watch it again).
At one point Doc hands Baby a pair of gloves that I’m pretty sure are the exact same pair that Ryan Gosling wore in Drive.
We see flashbacks of Baby’s earlier life as we listen to music he creates in the apartment he shares with is old black deaf foster father.
Baby has a little (Sony naturally) Dictaphone that he uses to record snippets of conversation that he later replays and remixes to form the basis of songs he records onto cassette tapes he keeps in a big box.
He’s like an old school, lo-fi Mr Robot.
He has a collection of iPods and we even see a flashback to his Mum giving him his first iPod, and I must say it comes in rather a large box.
While killing time between jobs at his crib, Baby watches TV with his foster Dad. As he flicks through channels he picks up snippets of dialogue that he regurgitates at appropriate moments.
He channel surfs through Monsters Inc, Fight Club and a couple more. (Wait – why would anyone surf on past EITHER of those two films…?!)
The whole cassette tape nostalgia thing is an interesting coincidence (or not) with another quirky cinema character who made a second appearance this year – Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, who also uses cassette tapes to reconnect with his dead mother.
The dialogue pops with gags that go off like firecrackers.
“Meet JD – he puts the Asian in Home Invasion” says Doc as he introduces the next crew to ride with Baby.
Baby questions JD’s unorthodox neck tattoo.
“It looks like it used to say ‘hate’ says Baby”.
“Yeah, it was impacting on my employment prospects so I changed it” replies JD.
“So now it says ‘hat’” says Baby.
“Who doesn’t love hats” says JD.
The dialogue, now that I think of it, has a musical quality like the way Disc Jockey’s or footy callers in the 80s used to speak, “spinning the platters that matter”, everything hums and adds a depth and vibrancy to the interplay between the characters.
And the locations?
Well if not in an apartment with a sick vinyl collection, or in the vast warehouse hideout, where else would you expect these characters to hang out in betyween robberies?
A diner? Tick.
How about a laundromat? Double Tick.
Naturally Baby falls for a waitress (Debora – Lily James) in the diner and they share a heartfelt moment in a laundromat as colour co-ordinated loads of primary coloured clothes spin in the machines behind them.
There is not a single accidental thing in this film and it is genius.
Flea is in the film – his nickname is Eddie No-Nose – “Why do they call you no-nose?” asks JD.
“Nobody asks No-Nose about his nose was clearly in the briefing notes” replies No-Nose.
Did I mention No-Nose is in an armoured car robbery with JD, and they agree to wear masks? (Hello Point Break!)
If you were asked to obtain Michael Myers Halloween masks for the robbery, would you agree that this instruction has two possible outcomes…?
Think about it.
Like the signature products in the Tarantino Universe such as Red Apple brand smokes, Baby only ever carries “Octane” brand coffee.
When Baby finishes his one last job for Spacey, his foster dad suggests he become a pizza driver. The restaurant? Goodfellas.
The songs, OMG. The credits reveal some ultra-cool and some ultra-quirky choices.
There’s Handsome Boy Modelling School “Holy Calamity” (scream insanity, all you’re ever gonna be’s another great fan of me”.
Queen’s Brighton Rock, The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat, The Commodores’ Easy, there’s a track for every purpose and Wright flexes his music knowledge alongside his film buffery and you realise very quickly he is the guy you want in your pub trivia team.
There is so much more in this film that is happening on another level, that could only be apparent to either a savant or to somebody enjoying repeat viewings.
This is an unforgettable, eternally quotable cult classic film that sets the bar at a new high for referential film adoration.
If La La Land paid tribute to the history of musicals, then Baby Driver pays homage to every cool film ever made in the modern era.
This film will encourage a new generation of romantic youngsters to “Head West on 20 in a car we can’t afford with a plan we don’t have”
The film builds to multiple climaxes, including a showdown with “The Butcher”, an ambitious job at a post office and an epic final confrontation in a car park, where Hamm’s Buddy is bathed in an eerie red glow like something out of The Shining.
I for one will be seeing this film multiple times on the big screen, and again as soon as it is available with a directors commentary.
It is the kind of film that comes along every so often in a lifetime.
As for Baby – this actor Ansel Elgort , and his lover Lily James, you can expect to see them in some big films from here on out.
5 Stars – The Best Movie Since Pulp Fiction
* As I made my way by bus to my screening I listened to the Kermode and May BBC film podcast recorded on Friday June 16th, where they discuss their anticipation for seeing the film after the weekend, and they mention that Kevin Spacey appearing on their program is still the most YouTube clip from their time together.
As an aside, I was invited to a screening with George Miller interviewing Edgar Wright, here in Sydney, and now that I have seen this masterpiece I totally understand why that makes perfect sense and if I were not on the other side of the world, I would be there in the front row with the word HAT inked on my neck.