When Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens, the whole world’s a song. The most sought-after wheelman in town, he earned his nickname because he speaks so rarely it’s as if he never learned to talk—but singing is another matter. With his earbuds in and his sunglasses on, every heist is a carefully chosen playlist, each squeal of the getaway car’s tires a harmony. In Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, even the machine guns fire in time with the beat.
Not all of Baby’s co-criminals—an ever-rotating crew assembled by Kevin Spacey’s meticulous fixer, Doc—cotton to his methods or his withdrawn personality. One hired gun wonders if he’s “slow,” and Jamie Foxx’s Bats, a volatile crook whose every word seethes with the potential for violence, sniffs that “You don’t need a score for the score.” But for Baby, music is life. He’s never without an iPod or four (there’s no way would he trust his constant need for a personal soundtrack to the vicissitudes of streaming), each keyed to a different mood or circumstance. And when the music he needs doesn’t exist, he creates it, taping his interactions with other people and building sound collages around their vocals.
That’s not a bad synecdoche for Baby Driver itself. Wright’s movie is part greatest-hits compilation, part remix, a high-speed all-access tour of car-chase movies that still manages to find a new route. It’s studded with cameos from the worlds of music and film, the most substantial (and nerdy) of which comes as such an unexpected surprise that I gasped out loud in the theater. Wright’s most novel idea is to approach the heist movie like one of Michael Powell’s “composed films,” where every element plays its part in a larger symphony. When Baby struts down the street to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” everything around him falls into place; a trumpet blares, and there’s a shop window with a trumpet in it, tilted just so that Baby can arch his back and pretend to blow into it at the perfect moment. Wright worked with choreographer Ryan Heffington, best known for videos such as Sia’s “Chandelier,” and the result is like a screen musical staged for an audience of one, with a song list so irresistible that even people who can’t hear the music get swept into Baby’s world. Even listening to the soundtrack album in advance feels like a spoiler—moreso even than a recounting of the film’s plot.
Baby’s attachment to music has a grounding in childhood trauma. As a boy, he was in a car accident that claimed his parents’ lives, and he’s been stuck with tinnitus—a “hum in the drum,” in the movie’s overcooked argot—ever since. But it also puts him in a long line of Wright protagonists who find their place in the world through an obsession with popular culture and are sometimes incapable of functioning without it. In the TV series Spaced, Wright’s underemployed twentysomethings escaped their own humdrum monotony by imagining themselves into the kinds of zombie films, buddy-cop actioners, and sci-fi epics that the protagonists of Wright’s later feature films would find themselves living out for real. When he’s not working a job, Baby seems to live a life of near-total isolation; his only regular contact is his hard-of-hearing foster father (played by deaf entertainer C.J. Jones), and you can tell he’s a musical autodidact by the way he refers to Marc Bolan’s band as “Trex.” But in his mind, he’s the coolest thing around. When one of Doc’s more confrontational accomplices tries to rile Baby by yanking off his sunglasses, Baby pulls out another; he does it again, and Baby still has a pair of shades in reserve.
After a while, you may feel like yanking those shades off Baby Driver’s head, too—possibly about the time that Doc begins a pre-heist briefing by saying, “Shop—let’s talk it.” This is a movie in love with its own coolness—or, more accurately, in love with what it feels like to be in love, to put on a song and feel like your body is no longer wholly your own, or to move through traffic so smoothly that you feel like you’re shooting the rapids, even if you’ve got a booster seat in the back and a trunk full of gardening tools. Its roots lie in the cycle of quasi-mystical car movies that followed Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, where fast driving was a way for a man (and it was always a man) to achieve a kind of existential purity, to break society’s shackles and simply be. The driver in Walter Hill’s The Driver, one of Baby Driver’s acknowledged touchstones (Hill’s voice makes a cameo), doesn’t have a name because he doesn’t need one: He is what he does. Baby aspires to that kind of existential self-definition, but a few things hold him back: the memory of his mother (Sky Ferreira), his foster dad’s warnings about getting mixed up with the wrong kind of people, and eventually a budding romance with Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress who harbors her own dreams of automotive escape. We learn that Baby’s criminal career is a matter of indenture, not choice, and that, at least in theory, he only has one last job before his debt is paid in full. (If Baby was as obsessive about movies as he is about music, he’d have known in advance how that situation usually turns out.)
There’s so much to love in Baby Driver, from the opening snarl of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” to the subtle grace of its melancholy coda, that it feels almost churlish to remain unmoved, especially if you’re as in love with the movies it’s drawn from as Wright is. But its hard-boiled borrowings feel like a copy of a copy; blood is shed, but it only seems like ketchup. At its headiest, it’s like Singin’ in the Rain with a souped-up engine, but even if Baby is the Gene Kelly of the getaway car, watching Baby Driver always feels like watching someone else do the driving rather than being behind the wheel yourself. It’s Uber, but for musicals.