There is a scene roughly halfway through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 backstage masterpiece The Red Shoes where Ballet Russe impresario Lermontov comforts his understandably nervous principal dancer, Vicky Page.
“Nothing matters by the music,” Lermontov assures her.
He hums the notes and Page relaxes, the steps have returned to her mind and her body regains confidence. Without the music, she’s just a bunch of limbs failing about; with the music, her body and her movements become a work of art.
Maybe a post-war tragedy about the all-consuming desire to create isn’t the most obvious connection to Baby Driver — the new heist/getaway film from British writer/director Edgar Wright — but neither is Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 musical comedy Love Me Tonight. Or the candy-colored costuming and fluid choreography of Jacques Demy’s romantic French trilogy. Yet, there they are; up on the screen, alongside Walter Hill’s The Driver, Richard Rush’s Freebie and the Bean and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Much in the same way the French New Wave blew a breath of fresh air into gangster pictures, Wright makes a mix tape musical — a “rock opera” in his words — and brings the ghosts of the past to life.
But Baby Driver is more than a simple sum of its reference points; it is an energetic race down the crime-soaked streets of Atlanta and up freeways of young love. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend (Lily James), the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a demon of a wheelman for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, always good, rarely better). Budd (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), lovers who steal to fuel their drug habit, and Bats (Jamie Foxx), a stick-up man with a proletariat ax to grind, round out the remainder of the crew.
Sexy, sleek, and stylish, Baby Driver is more than just an exhilarating take on a familiar genre; it’s a magnificent mash-up of music and movies. Pre-recorded rock ‘n’ roll, pop, jazz, R&B, and rap are no strangers to mainstream cinema, but few filmmakers have found ways to use it as inventively. The songs are not here to carry the story when it drags or inject energy where there isn’t any; they are here because they are just as elemental to Wright’s composition as the images. They bump up against each other, bleed into the one another, and drown out Baby’s tinnitus — a constant reminder of the car crash that took both of his parents.
But Baby doesn’t just listen to the music, he moves to it. He mouths the words, sings to himself and others, and, most importantly, he creates it. The songs he selects for each job are carefully curated based on the energy and timing needed. In one robbery, a bit of riffing from the criminals delays Baby long enough that he has to restart his getaway song to get the timing right. Nothing matters but the music.
Written & directed by Edgar Wright
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx
TriStar Pictures, Rated R, Running time 113 minutes, Opens June 28, 2017. Streaming on DirecTV.