At first, it’s hard to know just what to make of Baby Driver. It has an obvious Drive vibe and an earphoned protagonist named “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) who’s like an iPod commercial meets the Asian bad guy from Fargo. Sunglasses and ear buds firmly in place, Baby sits through heist-planning blackboard montages, a la every heist movie ever, in which he the driver is unconvincingly acknowledged as the most important element of the heist, a la the Fast/Furious franchise. Then he goes home to his deaf, elderly, black foster dad (not to be confused with Deadpool‘s blind, elderly, black roommate). Perhaps along the way he stops off to meet his diner waitress girlfriend Deborah (Lily James), with whom he’s bonded over their imperfect parentage and mutual tragic pasts (every teen romance ever?).
When the stick-ups start, Baby cranks up a song that becomes the soundtrack for the job, complete with rhythmic editing, just like one of Star Lord’s Awesome Mixes from Guardians of the Galaxy. Baby’s musical tastes, much like the six-year-old from Big Little Lies who loves Leon Bridges, are wildly improbable for a fresh-faced Atlantan born in the mid- to late-’90s, tending towards deep-cut Queen tracks, Chess records classics, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They seem — and you’ll never believe this — more like a playlist compiled by a Gen X British hipster (like Edgar Wright, in other words). When Wright shoots a simple conversation between Baby and his girlfriend, the camera swoops and vrooms towards them, almost as if he was shooting a car chase. (Recall The Fast and the Furious director Rob Cohen saying he tried to shoot every scene like a street race.) When they’re really digging each other, it spins around them like classic Michael Bay.
Nearly everything in Baby Driver feels like pop culture déjà vu, an echo of something you’ve seen somewhere else. And yet, unlike, say, The Mummy, for which the previous sentence could also be applied, they’re not just crudely smooshed together in a businessman’s sad attempt at pandering to his idea of “what the kids like.” Nor, weirdly, do any of these familiar elements seem designed to send up, to satirize, or otherwise parody. They’re not winks or attempts to signal self-awareness, which you can tell by the simple fact that the car chases aren’t really designed to make you laugh; they’re legitimately thrilling. The stakes are real. I looked over at the lady next to me during one and she was actually leaning forward chewing on her fingers, like some real-life attempt to pantomime both “edge of your seat” and “nail biter.”
What’s going on here? I couldn’t figure it out at first. I just knew that I was having fun. And then right around the time Baby started making actual music out of snippets of conversation he’d recorded on his cassette recorder with a synthesizer, I realized: Edgar Wright isn’t pandering or parodying or trying to disguise the elements he’s borrowing. He’s sampling. He’s taking these odd snippets of pop culture detritus — the sad, sweet diner waitress; the doe-eyed wunderkind wheelman — and repurposing them. And in the process often identifying a groove that either wasn’t present in the original or was detectable only to him. He wasn’t just referencing pop culture, he was finding its soul.
Not only that, but he was doing it in a distinctly cinematic way. Film is a narrative medium (or at least, it usually is) so it’s not quite enough to just throw together some things you like. Hence why The Mummy, where vestigial plot elements are just kind of crammed together in competing, cacophonous fashion, sucks. Edgar Wright doesn’t do that. Baby Driver is busy, to be sure, but when Wright includes these sort of pop culture samples, he uses them largely to weave a more coherent story.
Baby and his headphones are a perfect example. For whatever reason, pop culture seems to love this idea of the head-bopping tune head who works better with his headphones on, from Star Lord to Meemo from Fargo — the guy who doesn’t seem to be listening but actually hears everything. Whereas in Fargo, all we ever learn about Meemo’s headphones is that Noah Hawley thinks they look cool, Edgar Wright gives Baby’s a backstory: Baby has a hum in his ear from an accident that he can only drown out with music. It adds some shape and nuance to his character. There’s some ambiguity in the way this information is delivered, and it’s more mythical than didactic, but the point is that he’s turned it into real characterization (go with me here, I’m being a little vague to avoid spoilers). It’s not a pat explanation present solely to keep you from questioning (though that does help), it’s part of an origin story. It adds an emotional resonance, a groove as opposed to just gilding.