Suffused with a heightened, stylised, self-conscious sense of cool, and immaculately curated at every turn, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver may not work all that consistently as a film – especially in its later stages – but it does work brilliantly to evoke how music and life intersect at our particular moment in time. At its heart is a twenty-something known as Baby, played by Ansel Egort, who has been continually plugged into an iPod, and orchestrated his entire life around his playlists, ever since his parents were killed in an accident when he was a young child. Since then, he’s hooked up with a heist crew led by Doc (Kevin Spacey), whose members are continually changing, but which for most the film consists of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx)a pair of old school criminals who, in their very different ways, express no small degree of incredulity at Baby’s musical habits and modus operandi. For, while Baby might well be the best getaway driver in the business, he can only maintain his cool by staging every drive and every heist to a soundtrack of his choice, keeping his earbuds in at all times and barely communicating with the rest of the crew except for when they directly address him. Along the way, Baby falls in love with a diner waitress, Debora (Lily James), who provides him with the final incentive he needs to concot a plan to get out of the heist business for good and build himself a better kind of life.
For the first part of the film, that narrative momentum is more or less subsumed into a series of semi-related set pieces, in which we are immersed in all the different ways in which Bay arranges and orchestrates his world around his iPods and playlists. Sometimes the two sync up perfectly, but they’re just as often ruptured by the kinds of spontaneous, sudden and schizoid bursts of self-expression typical of short-form social media – vines and snaps in particular – along with the gamified relationality with which their users and creators view the world. Yet these manic bursts don’t rupture Baby’s flow so much as reset it, time and time again, and often within the same song, as if continually modulating and regulating his integration of body and world in the face of a continuous and unrelenting flow of stimuli that turns even a semblance of haptic cohesion into the most precious and fleeting of achievements. From the sign language that he uses to communicate with his deaf father-in-law, to the barely registered tics that he uses to communicate with the heist crew, Baby exudes the need to preserve and manage his own audiovisual expression as much as possible, as if anxious to give too much back to the affective intensity of the world around him, or to participate in it in too unqualified or absolute a manner, for fear of being swallowed up and subsumed in the totality of its informational and computational overload.
In order to meet that overload head on, Baby evinces an endlessly flexible combinatory genius that makes the film feel like a mashup, but also a site for or incentive to future mashups – an incitement to discourse – most poetically in an extended sequence in which Baby makes a recording of Doc’s voice and then chops and screws it onto a cassette, part of a broader tendency to record and remix every sonic fragment and residue of his daily life. No surprise, then, that Baby is especially drawn to music that is already dramatically combinatory in nature, as well as music that exists as a kind of open invitation for future artists to recombine it further, as in a terrific scene in which one of the more experimental moments from Pet Sounds drifts in and out of another more emergent musical landscape. In the process, Wright beautifully evokes a digital milieu that has jettisoned music from any clear sense of linearity or temporality – partly by dissociating it from any object that might date it, and partly due to the recombinatory ahistoricity of streamling platfoms themselves.
In that sense, Baby Driver offers an intoxicating fever dream of what it means, and how it feels, to listen to a song, or attach to a musician, in an era in which you can do so without ever having glimpsed a physical object that they released, or having even heard their name spoken aloud. One of Baby’s few glitches comes when he describes “T-Rex” as “Trex,” – a return of the repressed material substrate of pop and rock music that also occurs in and through his attachment to the physicality and tangibility of his iPod collection, which he separates into different moods and atmospheres, and which is presented here as a defiantly distinct entity from all-purpose SmartPhones. Even the most canonical of songs take on a kind of vertiginous affective freefall when experienced in this way – so vertiginous, indeed, that Baby ultimately finds himself using the heists to manage and contain that freefall, rather than using it to manage and contain the heists themselves. To that end, Baby’s modus operandi consists of taking songs that have been wrenched from their original material-social milieu – songs that have been disembodied – and then using them to build meaning and manage sensory overload in his own quotidian world, brokering the vertiginous queasiness of music experienced in this way into a provisional and partial negotiation with the digital overload and affective precarity that crowds him at every turn.
That’s all perfectly encapsulated at the start of the critical heist – the heist that leaves behind the crew’s first casuality and the heist that reprises Baby’s parents’ death – as the crew find themselves squabbling about the directives they received concerning dress. All of them are in agreement that they were instructed, by Doc, to come as Michael Meyers and to reference Halloween, but the critical connection between those two references remains unclear, with some of them coming as character Michael Meyers from Halloween, and some coming as comedian Mike Meyers as he might be imagined to appear and behave on Halloween. As each party justifies their choice, there’s an overwhelming sense that no reference is entirely accurate, and that no reference to the past can be guaranteed to land a stable or singular referent – a referential freefall, in other words, that sees Baby panicking for the first time, before asking everyone to wait while he restarts his song of choice (“Neat Neat Neat” by the Damned) in order to reset the scene for himself and the crew once more.
Across this scene, and others like it, Wright does a terrific job of evoking the young adult media ecology as a disjointed field of overlapping styles and references – a free-floating bliss with almost nothing to anchor it, save a series of apparently endless continguities and “recommendations” that refashion taste itself in terms of the dexterity with which Baby shifts from one style or register to the next, rather than a stable or static canon of work. In the process, music is presented as the most pervasive, insidious and seductive form of social media, but also the best conduit through which to manage social media, which is here condensed to Baby’s pervasive tinnitus – a condition that he can’t fully thwart or escape, but simply manage, negotiate and creatively repurpose with each new playlist, mixtape or mashup. As many critics have noted, that can make Baby seem “flat,” but in some ways that’s only because he’s really more attuned to the digital ether than any of his more adult companions, and so requires even more haptic managemenent to engage with it properly.
Nowhere is that digital ether clearer than in Wright’s tracking-shots, although it’s probably something of an understatement to speak of tracking-shots, as the camera tries to replicate, commune with and, ultimately, inhabit, the weaving body language of a world in which sharing headphones is the most profound way to maintain a connection. To that end, Wright promulgates an omniscient, circumlocutious, hyper-aware camerambience that collapses the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic space much as Baby’s perennial earbuds collapse any distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. At every moment, Bay is moving to an imaginary camera, but also using that imaginary camera to propel his movement beyond it, performing for a perpetual audience that alternates between his own solipsistic self-regard, but also a wider and more reparative spectatorial ambience that often seems to directly include whatever audience happens to be watching it, breaking down any clear distinction between Baby’s character and Elgort’s presence, and often subsuming even the most extravagant of cinematic touches into something closer to digital docudrama. In doing so, Wright beautifully captures the sense of cinephilic serendipity that comes from listening to an iPod when walking along the street or driving in a car – the feeling that even (or especially) the most incidental and fleeting of details are being choreographed for the benefit of both song and listener, and conflating them in turn.
As the film presents it, then, affect management is the greatest challenge for millennials, requiring a superhuman effort that momentarily turns Baby himself into a new kind of superhero just to negotiate it. If Baby is a superhero, then his trademark outfit are his earbuds, and especially his signature pose of one earbud in, one earbud out – a pose that encapsulates the way in which his life, and the film, seems to inhere in the transitional moments of both films and songs; the connective tissue at which the music and image syncs up, and some kind of breathless revelation seems to be imminent. Like all superheros, too, Baby has a backstory, as Wright provides quite a deft and elegant myth of origins for how the amorphous and vertiginous musical landscape that we all inhabit originally came about. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Baby was born to a dysfunctional marriage and an abusive father – a nuclear family that found temporary cohesion around his iPod, but that lost it just as quickly when his father’s haranguing led to a car crash in which both his parents passed away. Meanwhile, Baby himself was in the back seat, iPod plugged in, gazing at the oncoming truck advancing through the windscreen, before regaining consciousness and glimpsing the shattered windscreen and shattered iPod screen – a pair of images that he has tried to contain ever since through his combination of iPod curation and heist work.
With Baby’s iPod coming to stand for the failure of paternal authority – and a surrogate for maternal warmth – the film gradually comes to feel like a more specific comment upon a milieu in which musical knowledge has been irrevocably jettisoned from straight, white, male discourses of canonicity and longevity, even or especially those types of music – like T-Rex (or Trex) – that once seemed most conducive to it. As might be expected, that really works for Spacey, who shines in these kinds of perverse paternal roles, even as his supremely and sublimely smug awareness of the camera offset’s Baby’s continual renegotiation of the threshold between diegetic and non-diegetic subjectivity with an older kind of performatively “non-diegetic” self-awareness and self-referentiality. Even by itself, that fact would be enough to make Spacey’s career and history resonate in a peculiarly memorable way here, but his presence takes on an additional poignance as the last of his performances – before his part was cut from All The Money In The World – that we could enjoy innocently, without knowing about his history of abuse behind the scenes, and without realising the full extent of his continuity with the monstrous paternalism – both musically and familially – that Baby’s modus operandi is designed to elude and depart from.
It’s at this point, perhaps, that Baby Driver starts to become problematic, since for all that he brilliantly evokes a musical milieu jettisoned from conventional discourses of canonicity, there’s a part of Wright’s vision and direction that wants to double down on those discourses as well, especially in the later parts of the film. As Baby’s supposedly eclectic, omnivorous and ecumenical taste gradually reveals itself to be little more than 70s and 80s white soul and funk, the film grows nostalgic for a time when white men could still command these genres as if they were their own (and as if they weren’t actually drawing upon an established canon of African-American work). At its worst, the film increasingly traffics in the “freefall” of white dudes discovering black innovations as if for the first time, with many of Baby’s supposed innovations – turntablism, chopping and screwing, mixing and splicing – actually turning out to be fairly old hat for African-American musical communities, who started experimenting with mobile musical performance and experiences much earlier than their white counterparts. It makes sense, then, that Jamie Foxx’s “Bats” is the most sceptical member of the crew, the only really disruptive presence in the film, and the first side character to be disposed of, whlle it’s hard not to feel that there’s something a bit questionable about the presence of Baby’s black-skinned, blue-eyed foster father, both as a kind of beneficent patron saint of his musical cannibalism but also as an infirm who needs Baby’s recombinatory musical genius to sustain him in his weakness and older age.
It’s not just the film’s racial politics either, but its narrative drive that starts to grow problematic here, since while Wright’s hyper-organised, super-serenditpitous sense of flow might produce wonderful moments, it tends to preclude any broader sense of momentum, let alone any genuine suspense or pacing. With everything happening at exactly the right time – you can almost predict the scene if you know the song – Wright’s vision is more conducive to the semi-continuous tableaux of the opening act than any more sustained assemblage of narrative. Similarly, since the power of the first forty minutes stems largely from the way in which Wright dissociates audiovisual experience from either film or music as discrete or concrete experiences, it’s inevitably anticlimactic when Baby Driver settles down into a more conventional film, and the music settles down into a more conventional soundtrack. It’s at these later stages that you realise that Wright does narrative ambience, prescience and potentiality better than narrative itself, and that his gift lies in tableaux that brim with the overdeterminated, revelatory and breathless sense of anticipation that comes when the bridge of a brilliant song syncs up with a brilliance sequence in just the right way.
Indeed one really vivid moment in the second half doesn’t really further the story at all, involving a chase through the Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta, where the film is set. As Baby dodges and weaves his way through the crowds, he settles into a momentum that feels as if it could last indefinitely, and almost brings a strange kind of peace as he navigates one apparent dead end after another. Throughout the film, Baby has repeatedly stated that he just wants to drive forever and live forever, even as the film has seemed to situate him a strange, suspended subjectivity in which he is never completely removed from music or from driving either. In this sequence, that state of suspension finds its smoothest and most elegant vehicle, as Wright harkens back to the classic action trope of high-speed chases through postmodern spaces, spaces that – like the Peachtree Center – often seemed to have been designed with exactly this purpose in mind, so perfectly did they align with the hyper-kinetic thrills of big-budget Hollywood entertainment. In this case, however, the postmodern exoticism of the Peachtree Center – designed by the same firm as the Westin Bonaventure – suddenly fades away, as the multiplicity of the space becomes navigable and even serendipitous with the aid of an iPod, and all the fixtures that once made postmodern space so utterly bewildering here becomes points of eludication and modes of orientation.
Writing about these spaces – and, specifically, about the Bonaventure – Fredric Jameson once observed that “we We do not yet posess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism.” More emphatically than any film I have yet seen, Baby Driver revists those spaces of high postmodernism with the hyperspatial habits required to navigate them, eludicating a vertiginous sense of oneness with the space itself but also generalising it into a mere synecdoche for the bewildering digital architecture that forms Baby’s daily sensory challenges and stimuli. Effectively retrofitting the alienating futurity of postmodern architecture for a post-architectural present, Wright creates a new kind of musical mythos in the extravagant fantasies that he concocts to envisage how vinyl, tape decks and other fetishistic hardware might make their way back into the fabric of everyday life, as the Peachtree Center’s bewildering thresholds anchor themselves around a series of increasingly visible and tangible screens that provide a wayfinding imperative despite themselves, guiding Baby through and out the other side.
Once he gets there, however, Wright is faced with the considerable formal challenge of how to conclude a film that never quite constitutes itself as a film – or, at least, is strongest when it never quite constitutes itself as a film. That prospect becomes even more urgent when “Buddy” shoots Baby’s iPod and then fires a pair of shots right next to Baby’s ears, generating an escalating ambient noise, glitch, hum and subambient ring that is even more threatening than the police and criminals converging on him and Debora. As the action climaxes, t feels more contrived, culminating with Baby’s final getaway car, which is the first and only moment he listens to rap, the first and only moment the film can concede that black people might have some hegemony in the present, and the first and only moment that the film recognises that hip-hop is more than likely to be the go-to musical option for a young man in his mid-twenties. As Eminem’s iconic single attests, Bonnie and Clyde have often been used as a defiant emblem of disenfranchised whiteness – especially in the face of black musical ascendance – and so it is here, with Baby and Debora now self-consciously stepping into Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s shoes, as Wright amps up the palette until the whiteness of their skin almost looks pink – or whiteness itself becomes a kind of stately blush, as occurs so often throughout the first season of Netflix’s Riverdale. With Baby now partly deaf, his approach to the world has to be even more haptic than ever before, and we conclude with him heading to jail, but not without learning how to “feel” music in a new kind of way, putting his hands on the speaker of the car and hearing the vibration rather than merely “seeing” it or “hearing” it along any kind of traditional audiovisual continuum.
In many ways, I was in two minds about these closing scenes. On the one hand, it feels as if the film has gradually transitioned from an insider’s take on young adult musical experience to an outsider’s take – the perspective of a forty-something white dude with nowhere to situate their vinyl collection – culminating with the title track by Simon and Garfunkel that plays over the closing credits. Yet there’s also something powerful about the way in which music eventually exceeds both audio and visual stimuli here to become a tactile, haptic presence that Baby can use to manage his sensorium more expansively than ever before. In that sense, the ending feels both inspired and banal, true to the brilliant opening act but also something of a retreat from it. Yet perhaps that contradiction is inherent to such an unevenly and differently developed musical milieu – a milieu that seems to dissolve generations in a single playlist but to also reiterate them more emphatically and traumatically than ever before, and a musical milieu that is both more seamless and fractured than any before it – a milieu Baby Driver embodies as much as it possibly can.