The new film by Edgar Wright, “Baby Driver”, isn’t strictly a musical, in that none of the characters bursts into song, but it’s not far off. The gimmick is that a gifted young getaway driver nicknamed Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens to music at all times. He’s suffered from tinnitus ever since he was in a car crash which killed his parents, and now he is always plugged in to his iPod, both to remind him of his beloved mother and to drown out the whine in his ears. Whether he’s waiting outside a bank which is being robbed by his associates, or hurtling away from the scene of the crime, he has funk and rock’n’roll pumping through his earbuds. What’s more, the world around him synchronises miraculously with what he’s hearing. Gun shots coincide with drum beats, explosions coincide with power chords. If Baby strolls past a shop with brass instruments in the window, trumpets will blare at that precise moment.
But “Baby Driver” isn’t quite as original as it might seem. The sketchy story is that Baby has been blackmailed into working for a smarmy criminal mastermind (Kevin Spacey). He is forced to chauffeur a host of professional crooks (played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal among others) who trade self-consciously snappy pop-culture banter as they plan each job. But he realises that it’s time to drive off into the sunset when he falls for a luminous diner waitress, Debora (Lily James). In other words, the central couple from the Quentin Tarantino-scripted “True Romance” is up against the crooks from Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”.
As well as characters, Wright has borrowed Tarantino’s use of retro pop hits. It was in “Reservoir Dogs”, 25 years ago, that the sadistic Mr Blonde danced to “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies” in the aftermath of a botched robbery. And then came the famous scene in “Pulp Fiction” in which Uma Thurman and John Travolta shimmied to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”. In the race to counterpoint grisly shoot-outs with hipster juke-box favourites, Wright is trailing a long way behind. The difference is that while Tarantino’s writing is always as catchy as his music selection, Wright is so smitten by his groovy soundtrack that he emphasises it over logic and plausibility. Why, for instance, would any man in his early twenties introduce himself as Baby? No reason except that there’s a Simon and Garfunkel track called “Baby Driver” which Wright couldn’t resist using.
Wright isn’t just echoing Tarantino’s films, though. Another point of comparison is “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which made as much use of 1970s pop in its editing and marketing as “Reservoir Dogs” did. (Indeed, both soundtracks feature “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede.) In Marvel’s irreverent space opera, Chris Pratt’s character, Star-Lord, listens to a mix-tape on his Walkman throughout his intergalactic adventures, because the tape, which was compiled by his mother, is his last connection to planet Earth. He is a mummy’s boy, just as Baby is.
Watching “Baby Driver”, it’s hard to see Baby without wishing that you were seeing Star-Lord instead. Partly, this is because Pratt is far more charismatic than Elgort, who is as blank when his sunglasses are off as he is when they’re on – and they’re usually on. But mainly it’s because Wright cares more about the tracks his characters are listening to than the characters themselves. They’re all hard-boiled pastiches rather than human beings, from their names – Buddy, Darling, Doc, Bats – to the stylised dialogue which strains to be quotable without actually being funny: “The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.” Even the characters in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Top Hat” sounded more believable than that.
That’s not to say that “Baby Driver” isn’t propulsive and distinctive Friday-night entertainment. The exhilarating set pieces are enough to make it worth seeing. In the opening sequence, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s raucous “Bell Bottoms” blasts out during a pedal-to-the-metal car chase through downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and the driving is as energetic and as painstakingly choreographed as any dance number. But Wright doesn’t persuade us that we’re watching real people in dangerous situations. He’s too busy persuading us to high-five him for having such an awesome record collection.
It’s worth noting that, as well as emulating Tarantino and “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Wright is imitating himself: he tried out the idea of a music-obsessed getaway driver in a video for a band called Mint Royale in 2003. Given how insubstantial “Baby Driver” ended up being, maybe the gimmick was better suited to a three-minute pop song than to a 113-minute film, after all.