There’s a scene in the first act of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver that I just can’t shake. It’s not an especially flashy one, but it’s critical in establishing our leading man.
We open on a dingy, ’50s-style diner, the kind with little jukeboxes at every table and squeaky, red vinyl-covered booths. Lily James’ waitress Debora strolls by Ansel Elgort, playing Baby, as she hums along to Carla Thomas’ 1966 hit, “B-A-B-Y.”
“B-A-B-Y, baby,” she sings, drawing out each syllable as she walks through the swinging kitchen doors.
Baby’s head snaps up. He has been fiddling around with an iPod, skipping between songs as he contemplates leaving behind his life of driving for Kevin Spacey’s crime lord, but now he stares at those now-closed doors in wonder. Everything slows down, and for a while it’s just Debora and Baby and “B-A-B-Y.”
Baby’s universe has suddenly shrunk, and it begins and ends with "B-A-B-Y": those two minutes and 56 seconds that keep looping around Debora’s head until she brings the melody to life at just the right moment. And as she unwittingly calls out his name, Baby knows -- and you, the viewer, know -- that he won’t ever be the same again.
Just in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Baby’s in love.
Cut to: the next scene, as the track filters through tall speaker towers in the movie theater. But the song can just as easily be spinning around in Baby’s head as it dawns on him that he’s fallen headfirst for this woman, setting into motion the events of the rest of the film.
It’s the oldest trope in the book and you, the viewer, know this, too. But there’s something about Wright’s tightly staged meet-cute that overrides audiences’ otherwise rational cynicism.
Debora is a one-dimensional female character in a movie that pretty much fails the Bechdel test at every turn. This would require at least two women in the movie to talk to each other about something other than men.
But in the high-octane universe of Baby Driver, there’s little room for women to be anything but emotional triggers. The audience barely gets a handle on Debora’s history or motivations outside of Baby’s desire for her, and the couple's dialogue winds up feeling less flirtatious than it does forced.
So something other than the characters alone has to do the heavy emotional lifting here, set up the stakes, get the audience invested -- and that’s where the Baby Driver soundtrack comes in. More so than a love story -- and an action story, and a tragicomedy, and so many other things -- this is a story about music. It’s about how our lead character uses earbuds and vintage iPods and an infinite collection of classics to navigate and comprehend his life, to embrace the good and cope with the bad that comes with it.
Is Baby’s connection to music an emotional crutch? Definitely -- from witnessing his mother (a singer) die in a car crash to getting tinnitus (here described as a constant ringing in his ears) from the same accident, music is clearly his way of coping with childhood trauma.
But at the same time, Baby’s approach to music is still widely relatable. With his musical dependence, his insistent belief that reality can be translated into Barry White lyrics and Brian May guitar solos, the character’s an exaggerated surrogate for the young music fan of 2017.
Especially in the era of the faceless action-heavy summer blockbuster, Baby’s listening habits feel extremely human -- and, for lack of a better word, extremely millennial. His relationship to his tunes is uniquely true to the era of streaming and playlists. Enabled and emboldened by the option to skip and sort songs across genre, era and convention, millennial listeners have the unprecedented ability to sync their lives to a soundtrack of their own choosing.
It’s almost as if we can choose exactly what falling in love or speeding down the highway sounds like to us. The ability to tap into a song’s emotion is nothing new -- but the possibility of accessing that music whenever and however we feel like it, over and over until we’re satisfied? That’s new. That’s big.
That enables music to take on a much more regular, pervasive role in defining our day-to-day lives, and this is something that Baby Driver understands, gleefully so.
Baby Driver’s been marketed as an action flick, but this is a film more akin to the musicals of yore, the Singin’ in the Rains and The American in Parises that set Hollywood’s standard for exposition via song. Much like the cinematic musical, Baby’s music directly influences every one of his actions and feelings in this film. The music dictates when and how he falls in love. It synchronizes to every gunshot and explosion. It choreographs his elegant getaway sequences.
But in Baby Driver’s wonderfully meta take on the musical, Baby actually gets to manipulate this music, to pick and choose to his preference. This is integral to the character. He’s not just swept up in the song -- he consciously decides when and how to score his life, and what to score it with.
Take, for instance, a notable scene where he actually pauses a heist midway to restart The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” so that a musical cue lines up with their plan. Or when he steals a car with the cops in hot pursuit, only to stop for a few beats as he finds a suitable radio station to drive to. Even the mesmerizing opening sequence -- as he dances alone in the driver’s seat to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion -- is perfectly timed with a crew of thieves then sliding into the backseat.
It’s the very real way that Baby’s feelings are inextricably linked to his rapid-fire, unconventional listening habits that makes these moments, and the movie as a whole, so alluring. We are there with him in the passenger seat the whole time, on a ride of Baby’s own making, listening to his playlist as he assembles it in real time. We never stood a chance.