Some directors prefer Gershwin, some prefer Strauss. But if you flip from A.M.-dial auteurs like Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick over to the other bandwidth, many directors prefer filling their films with the catchy (and occasionally ironic) hooks of popular music. There’s Scorsese and Tarantino, of course, but few truly excel at this.
Now, with this week’s release of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has snatched himself a prime spot in the pantheon of DJ directors, pumping 30 high-octane songs into the 113-minute tank of this action-heist vehicle and flooring it. And those songs aren’t just background noise or something to keep the audience humming while speeding from Point A to B — they’re the film’s lifeforce.
Usually a soundtrack is chosen in post-production to fit the action on screen, but like his titular getaway prodigy, Wright had no problem going in reverse. When the writer/director first sent the script to the cast — which includes Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx — it arrived with a thumb drive featuring the movie’s playlist, which was compiled over the two decades since Wright first came up with the idea of a bank-heist driver who sets his chases (and life) to the songs endlessly playing in his earbuds.
Wright has always found a novel use for music in his films, and we’re not just talking about using a Sade LP as a zombie-killing discus. He began his professional career layering ‘90s UK dance cuts into the Channel 4 cult hit Spaced. The show launched his career alongside frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and gave him a perfect playground to practice his hyper-active but hyper-controlled filmmaking style.
He then polished that style to a shine in the medium that most closely twins image and song, music videos, helming a Bugsy Malone tribute for the Bluetones in 2002 and Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” in 2003, which features The Mighty Boosh star Noel Fielding as a music-loving getaway driver (sound familiar?) in a sequence that is essentially a trial-run for the first few minutes of Baby Driver.
One can see where all this practice paid off while watching his breakout feature Shaun of the Dead. It’s hard to think of another first-time filmmaker with such a tight control over sound and vision. Take the scene where Shaun and Co. battle zombies to Queen’s ideally incongruous “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Watch and see how the music not just propels the scene, but shapes it (those pool cues are perfectly cued to Freddie). Baby Driver is practically a feature-length version of that scene, timing nearly all its myriad gunshots and vroom-vrooms to the soundtrack in a way that’s as easy to watch as it must have been hard to shoot. The ultimate culmination of this is a standout sequence with the best use of “Tequila” since Pee-Wee clambered onto a bar top.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is possibly his best film, and certainly the only one with as much of a song in its heart as Baby Driver. Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb figures prominently in the story, so music ends up forming the third leg of the film’s tripod of inspiration, the other two being comic books and video games. Scott Pilgrim is also the only of Wright’s films to primarily use original songs.
Unsurprisingly for a music geek, he collaborated with some very talented folks for the soundtrack, including Beck, Broken Social Scene, Cornelius, and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The result is electric: the songs not only sound legitimate, but they come alive as Wright transforms their chunky guitars and throbbing bass lines into striking visuals. The Battle of the Bands sequence takes it one step further, manifesting the dueling band-joes’ songs as a pair of battling kaiju who proceed to very nearly (and literally) tear the roof off the sucker.
The key to Edgar Wright’s movies is that they’re musical even when there’s nothing playing. After all, the maxim of “timing is everything” holds true for both comedy and song, and Wright is a man born with a stopwatch in his hand. Quick cuts and sound effects are deployed to a rhythm. In his latest film, door chimes and power locks comprise their own mini-orchestra. The dialogue too is peppered with references to pop lyrics, with trailer lines like “That’s my Baby” and “Young Mozart in a Go-Kart over there.” Music plays a fundamental role in the lives of many of his characters, like Baby, Scott, and Gary from The World’s End, who holds on desperately to a mixtape of Brit-pop and Madchester classics from his youth. Heck, even the title Baby Driver comes from the name of a Simon and Garfunkel track. We can be fairly certain, though, that whatever his next movie is, it won’t be called The Sound of Silence.