Baby Driver isn’t simply a funky soundtrack-driven heist movie – it’s as much about movement as music. There’s a choreographer listed in the credits, and you can see why – as Baby, the driver of the title, makes his naturalistic if slightly gawky way through the world.
In fact the film galvanises so many senses it’s like watching a 4D film in 2D. Sound and scenery, motion and emotion, if I could have eaten it I would have. And be careful what you wish for, as I’m now really hoping Baby Driver isn’t actually the prequel to John Wick I’d been dreaming of.
A misfit underworld love story set to a brilliant playlist, Baby Driver is about a gifted getaway driver with One More Job before he’s free – and I had no idea there were so many cars in Atlanta with gearsticks.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is never without his iPods, or his earbuds in place. Driving to the beat, he has a song for every occasion as he pays back a debt to underworld crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey).
And then Debora (Lily James), a waitress at the world’s least economically-viable diner, the one where Baby’s late mom used to work, sashays in singing the song Baby, and he is smitten. (And that’s the most times I’ve written baby in a sentence since my first, obsessive, post-birth emails eight years ago.)
Baby doesn’t just listen to music – he creates it too, recording conversations, sometimes dangerously, not for personal leverage with his violent employer but to mix into tapes. (And take note of his enormous collection because one day those titles will be a tie-break question in a movie quiz.)
The opening scenes set the pace and tone for the whole movie and it barely flags. Baby is literally rocking in the car while waiting for bankrobbers Buddy (Jon Hamm), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Darling (Eiza González), to return. His timing is perfect, his music choice spot on, and even better, no one laughs at him (take note, people interrupting me in my little Renault as I belt out of Boys Of Summer. And stop asking me why I’m still on my drive. One thing at a time guys, I’m a nervous driver.) Baby takes off in a red sports car, speeding, braking, weaving and backtracking through traffic, hiding in plain sight between two other red cars on the freeway so the helicopter overhead can’t distinguish which is which.
And it’s all very cool and iconic until people start getting shot. It upsets Baby’s equilibrium when it goes wrong and everyone gets twitchy.
It’s very funny though. The emotionally expired Doc deadpans his way through life: bankrobber JD (Lanny Joon) “put the Asian in home invasion” while another, sporting a large artificial protuberance, is called “Eddie No Nose, formerly Eddie the Nose”. A police radio comes on during a car chase and we catch the tiniest snippet of “driving a red…” while the scarlet getaway car appears directly behind them, screech-turns and drives off unnoticed in the opposite direction. There’s even an ironic footchase. Plus a terrific gag about the names of names (names and nicknames are a big deal here. Real names reveal a past and links to others, but the protagonists have either removed themselves from those worlds or had them snatched away).
The little details are brilliantly crammed in: the mirroring of behaviour between characters with a connection (Baby and Debora running their fingers round the tops of their wine glasses in a restaurant, Doc’s attachment to his toy cars vs Baby’s attachment to his tapes); the TV channel-hopping that gives us, for a brief moment, Noel Fielding, who starred in a Mint Royale music video about a getaway driver that was director Edgar Wright’s first stab at the story; the row of dryers in the laundromat each with a different brightly-coloured load – red, blue, white, yellow, like a grittier La La Land.
None of the criminals gets Baby at first as they put their own spin on his behaviour: “you’re either hard as nails or scared as shit, which is it?” says Griff to Baby but actually he’s neither, and nobody understands him at all until they are literally told why he is the way he is. Debora is the only one who takes him at face value.
Of the various bankrobbers Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Buddy really stand out. Bats is trigger-happy and antagonistic to absolutely everyone. Buddy is a thug, but a music-loving one, though he only really gets into gear late on in the film when we indeed find out what Darling said about him earlier – when he gets mad, he gets really mad.
Baby Driver isn’t perfect. It’s yet another very male film, and Debora and Darling simply aren’t in it enough. And while I love all-women films we could easily just have lots more women appear, naturally (and no that doesn’t mean naked), in most movies. Unless it’s set in a golf club, or Eton.
When the women do appear they light up the screen. The easy repartee between Debora and Baby is a delight, as they push their very new relationship forward because they’ve noticed a spark and can’t waste it. And Darling is persistently brutal once she gets going. But while Darling has some agency (even if she and Buddy are driven by a toxic combination of drugs and love), Debora appears to have almost none, standing behind her counter waiting for the diner’s phone to ring.
And although in this movie good and bad people do things for love that seem realistic, when another character does this their apparent change of heart just isn’t believable.
Debora, though something of an empty space for Baby to play out his escapist fantasies (and she hers – her own existence seems based on dreaming of running away), is luminous and has that quality that makes her noticeable whether she wants to be or not. My favourite relationship in the film though is between Baby and his ageing, deaf foster dad, Joseph (a wonderful CJ Jones). They communicate via sign language (and what is that if not choreographed movement) and while Joseph is physically frail he is as sharp as a tack and never stops being dad.
Baby Driver is (and I’m going to say it) a hugely enjoyable ride, peppered with edge-of-your-seat action interspersed with sweet interludes and yes, you’ll come out singing. Just don’t forget to factor some time after the credits, and before you go in to watch it again, to download all those songs.