Updated: Mar 30
I'm a sucker for musicals; it's a well-known fact about me among my film-watching peers. You want to hear someone defend Les Miserables at length? Or talk about how Moulin Rouge taught an entire generation (and even previous ones) to loosen up and fall in love with the outdated medium? Or how Singin' in the Rain can change the way even the most scholarly of film critics reacts to tone and content? Do you want a man who will, till his dying breath, shout the merits of Pippin, West Side Story, The Producers, On the Town, Doctor Horrible, Cabaret, An American in Paris, Newsies and Little Shop of Horrors, not to mention every film from the golden age of Disney animation? I'm that man. I'll even throw in some Grease and Hairspray love for free. And God help you if we disagree on the longevity of modern classics like Frozen and La La Land. Shit will get real. Musicals get me going. The chords stick just as hard as a clever line of dialogue or perfectly built up (and executed) third act. The performances are grander, the directing more precise, the sets livelier, the editing a feat to behold and the music... well, the music is its own joyous work of art to enjoy. Context just makes the content sweeter.
But there are more ways than one to translate the rules of the musical to the stage or big screen, with equal or double effect. There are plenty of great soundtracks to films that are just as recognizable as the films are themselves: from Footloose to Reservoir Dogs, and Trainspotting to High Fidelity. A great keynote in those films however, is the use of diegetic music (where the characters in the film are aware of the song we, the audience, are also hearing). This adds a contextual layer to the events, as well as a meta experience that transcends the viewing of light projected onto a screen, to a wholly realized, subversive moment of anti-realism. We watch these characters react to, and share their experience of, the very sounds that we are usually solely privy to as spectators. The fourth wall is broken slightly, and we are invited to react accordingly, whether it be in disgust of an ear being removed from a police officer, a man bemoaning his love life or Kevin Bacon being Kevin Bacon in a warehouse. The content of the story is always present, moving as the scene unfolds, but the context suddenly shifts, as we are brought a tiny bit closer to the experience of the characters we are watching. Everybody loves music, so there's no wonder why music would bring us closer to the estranged characters we are learning more about.
Edgar Wright is no stranger to the gem that is musical inclusion within a film's narrative. Many of his character's motivations are highlighted, if not directly influenced by, songs that appear diegetically within the story. Hell, this isn't even his first time stepping up to bat to create a new form of musical in film. He accomplished that with varying degrees of success with 2011's, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, where our main character was a lovelorn bassist, that takes on the past loves of his new boo a la the rules of video games and comic books, with a load of 90's indie rock padding. But in his latest work, Baby Driver, Wright has tapped into the new wave of soundtrack driven narratives, and launches the musical genre into a thrilling spectacle with the aid of his fine directing choices, unbridled love for his characters, and an unparalleled editing palette.
While Baby Driver has plenty to offer its audience – wild practical stunt work, jaw dropping performances from Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx, sharp as razors dialogue – what’s most impressive is its use of music as both device and emotional elevator, treating all the tracks Baby, (or any other character) chooses to play, as a symbol not only for where they stand emotionally, but also as a mode of setting the tone events about to unfold. This is the very constructive tissue of musical playwriting: having a character's most intimate feelings and thoughts expressed through an outburst or uproar of enthusiasm or melancholy. Our main character's condition (tinnitus) requires him to listen to music constantly to drown out the ever-ringing pitch in his ears, a melody to his ailment, so to speak. But this cure also becomes a self-imposed crutch, as we quickly learn that Baby is both fantastic at operating to the beats of his self-scored soundtrack, and also quite unable operate without it. Baby needs music to be able to function properly, a lack of rhythm becoming his personal kryptonite. While in his normal life, music is used to connect with his foster father, or for starting flirty conversations with a certain doe-eyed waitress. On the job however, music is a different matter entirely. Baby has literally scored the robberies and car chases he participates in down to the minute, and his ability to complete these tasks to his utmost, relies on the timing and mood of his chosen songs. Music is his weapon and he is defenseless without it.
Baby takes this weapon one step further, relying on it as an emotional crutch for dealing with people or stressful situations or memories. He uses his earbuds - and a vast collection of sunglasses for that matter – to distance himself from the criminal world around him, blocking out any attempts to connect, whether they be friendly or otherwise. His choice to not talk frequently, or often speak briefly and to the point if need be, is another layer of armor he adds to his persona when dealing with people who are every amount deadlier than he could ever be. He also uses music as a coping mechanism to deal with any amount of shame or fear he may have for his currently occupation, remixing threats and compliments alike into catchy, lo-fi tracks he then records onto cassette tapes, and places alongside his most treasured possession: a recording of his mom singing, the only vestige he owns of her besides his own memories.
Taking all of this into consideration, it makes sense how music would inform Baby's behavior and the decisions he makes when listening to various tracks. Whether it's dancing down the street on a coffee run, making a loved one their favorite sandwich, sharing a personal tune with a new friend at the laundromat, or evading police helicopters on the freeways of Atlanta, Baby exudes the mood of the chosen song, enabling him to go from cheesy line-spitting Motown goodness, to ride or die rock n’ roll sensibilities with a click of the skip bottom. Much like so many musicals, the music of the moment invades every aspect of Baby's world, so of course it would invade our experience of watching his story unfold. You don't necessarily need characters bursting out lyrics or breaking into dance numbers (which you do get a bit of in this film, if I may say), to be enamored with the thrill of what a musical can do. You need a good beat and someone in love. It's all smooth riding from there. Music can be exhilarating, motivating or debilitating, but one thing we can all agree on is that it is most certainly always an escape.
Luckily for us, Baby isn't the only one willing to give themselves over to the power of the meta-musical on display. Debora gets a great entrance singing along to “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas, the perfect choice to snag our hero's attention. Doc practically dances out an elaborate robbery sketch, while unloading an immense amount of exposition on our characters and their situations, culminating in his own holler of pride for how damn good he is. Bats gets a great moment to shine to a rendition of The Champ's, “Tequila” (here “TaKillYa” by Vinnie Maniscalco), during a bombastic shoot-out with undercover cops, and even Darling gets a metaphor-driven sing-along scene to “Nowhere to Run,” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, after Baby has found himself in way more over his head than he is used to.
But it's Buddy who gets the greatest moment alongside the running trope of diagetic music throughout the film. If Debora is Baby's replacement for the dream of his mother, (which I assure you she is), then Buddy is the dream of his abusive father, even if Baby doesn't realize it at first. That honor up front goes to Bats, (but we'll get into that a bit later). At first glance, Buddy is a very supportive guy to Baby. He defends him, as does Doc, (another father figure in his own way throughout the story), from the bullies of the criminal underworld. Buddy even shares the sweetest of moments with Baby, listening, one earbud each, to one of Baby's favorite songs, “Brighton Rock” by Queen, telling him about his days boosting cars and blasting music as he sped away in his stolen prizes. He even gives Baby the benefit of the doubt when it seems like he may be up to something that could jeopardize the heist, or worse, incriminate all those a part of it. It's only through the act of eliminating Bats - in a moment echoing the accident that took out his own father - that Baby makes the mistake of turning this father figure against him. Buddy is much smarter and more cunning then he lets on, and when he is placed in the position of antagonist to Baby, whom he blames for his love’s demise, he knows just which cards to play. Buddy uses both Debora and his affinity for music against Baby, first by blasting “Brighton Rock” while trying to murder him in the film's climactic set piece, (which ends in a parking garage of all places), and then by threatening to take away the one thing he loves most, which he follows by shooting off bullets directly next to both of Baby’s ears, robbing him of his hearing, if only temporarily, while he moves next to kill Debora right in front of him. His understanding of what motivates Baby becomes the biggest threat to our lover's escape.
Baby's obsession with music sometimes acts as his shield from the outside world, other times acting as his most valuable weapon for escape and self-preservation. He uses it to connect with people, but also to distance himself from the hard truth: that he is just as much a criminal as the scum hired to work alongside him. At the end of the day, Edgar Wright has presented a thrilling action-musical that forces our protagonist to reevaluate his relationship to music, and maybe, help him get that happy ending with the girl of his dreams, a road he's never seen, and a song or two that is music to all of our ears.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.