As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved mixtapes. I’d tape songs off the radio so that my Walkman could provide me a soundtrack for bike rides (a soundtrack prominently featuring the likes of Celine Dion and the Spice Girls). When I amassed a collection of CDs, I’d use my tapedeck to reconstitute my favourite tracks into new configurations; those tapes became burnt CDs with the advent of MP3s. As I grew up, those tapes would become playlists for parties and discs for road trips, but what lingered was the excitement of sharing my musical discoveries with others, of crafting a mood and a narrative from a cobbled-together collection of great tracks.
Edgar Wright obvious loves mixtapes too – so much so that he’s made his into a movie. Baby Driver has been widely compared to musicals; but this ain’t no musical. This is a mixtape movie.
Baby Driver prioritises its soundtrack over everything. It’s a marriage of two films from the ‘70s – The Driver (natch) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (which famously, and not always successfully, used a soundtrack of back-to-back pop songs) – with a hefty dose of Heat that’s driven by nostalgia for the most ‘00s of pop culture artefacts: the iPod. It’s contemporary and old-fashioned and thrilling and technically taut and yet and yet …and yet somehow disappointing.
I must hasten to clarify that Baby Driver is not a bad film. Not by any measure. But nor is it the great film it should have been. Edgar Wright is one of my favourite working directors, and the idea of him working his stylised, oft-hilarious magic on a heist film structured like a mixtape should be fuckin’ perfect. And I have no doubt for many viewers, it will be. Just as some people (utterly inexplicably) regard Hot Fuzz as less than a majestic masterpiece, some people will find their hearts sing in melody with Wright’s latest creation. Unfortunately, I’m just not among them.
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what doesn’t work about Baby Driver. It’s so immaculately put together that you can’t fault its style, can’t quibble with the way its slickly edited together to align its narrative beats with the drums of its soundtrack (all props to editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, who find the musicality in the mix). Perhaps you can sneer at the unadorned simplicity of its clichéd archetypes, but that plays true to Wright’s influences while being consistent with his oeuvre. He’s always been more interested in playing in the cinematic playground that deep reflections on the folly of human frailty or whatever.
Maybe Ansel Elgort is the problem. As the lead, he’s no Ryan O’Neal, nor a Ryan Gosling. He’s not even a Ryan Reynolds. From the very first scene, he comes across as a poseur, a kid playing at a movie star. Except that’s the point, surely? When Baby struts through the streets to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those moments where a great song kicks in your headphones and you feel like the world is your plaything. It’s not, of course, but it’s nice to believe no matter how silly you surely look shaking your butt down the street. That’s Baby – someone playing pretend at cool without knowing all the words.
And I have no qualms with the supporting cast. Jon Hamm has a killer turn as a bank robber turned vengeful villain; Kevin Spacey delivers Lester Burnham as crime boss and it’s kinda wonderful. Lily James is charming (if under-utilised – female characters have never been Wright’s strong suit) and Jamie Foxx is believably psychotic. Paul Williams turns up for a scene!
The problem’s not the technique, nor the cast. It’s the rhythm. There’s an art to making the perfect mixtape. You have to transition from song to song in a way that’s intuitive, but still surprising. Find comparisons and contrasts that you wouldn’t have expected. But you’ve gotta create a story through the rhythm, putting your foot to the pedal and accelerating the BPM to turn a casual background listen into something enthralling and invigorating. Baby Driver needs to do that – it needs to bring its soundtrack to bear on a final act that should be more exciting and kinetic than anything preceded it! Sometimes it does; there’s a fantastic footchase that swerves and kicks and keeps you on edge throughout. But then, the film stops. It pauses, it repeats itself, it collapses tension. It fails to maintain the soaring pleasures found in Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim.
Oh, and the ending sucks.