There was a time when the term ‘summer blockbuster’ meant an original, thrilling ride. But as Transformers: Who Gives a Shit and Spider-Man: Yes, Another Reboot attest, nowadays those words tend not to be worth the promotional material they’re printed on. Which is why it is nothing short of a small wonder to have received a glimmer of hope this year in the form of British director Edgar Wright’s homage to heist films, Baby Driver.
For the sake of those ensconced beneath a rock, a brief synopsis. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is our silent hero, a getaway driver with a case of tinnitus he keeps at bay with a pair of headphones permanently plugged into one of his many iPods. It doesn’t hurt that the iPod’s accompanying diegetic music score helps fuel Baby’s ability to drive, as arch-villain Doc (Kevin Spacey) describes, like “a devil behind the wheel.” The rest follows like a classic high stakes action thriller: boy meets girl, makes promise to skip town after “one last job,” but things don’t quite go according to plan. In short, the whole thing plays out like a finely choreographed high speed musical set to car chases, and if you haven’t seen it yet and call yourself a film fan, get thee to the cinema.
If it isn’t yet apparent, I rather enjoyed Baby Driver. And I’m not alone. The film has already tripled its $34 million production budget at the global box office and has truly earned the right to call itself a blockbuster. After leaving the cinema for the second time, I began to wonder what had me and millions fanboying over this film so hard. I’ve since come to find an answer in the simple yet timeless phrase:
Rock ‘n Roll.
No, I’m not referring to Baby Driver’s killer soundtrack, which I’ll get to soon enough. It’s a less literal and more ethereal sort of feeling; something one might describe as a ‘spirit.’ How can moving pictures and sound capture that rarefied essence usually reserved for the likes of an ‘axe’-wielding frontman enrapturing a live crowd, you say? Let’s take a quick trip back to the rock ‘n roll heyday of the 60s when the artist Bruce Conner first conceived of splicing popular music with film.
The short was called Cosmic Ray (1961) and it shook the very bedrock of pop culture. It did so by bombarding viewers with Conner’s footage of a dancing woman clothed solely in pearls, clips of Mickey Mouse, and newsreel footage of atomic bomb explosions, edited perfectly in synch to the Ray Charles hit single “What’d I Say” (1959). Decades before MTV this was nothing short of revolutionary. Conner had essentially made the first music video and in doing so, describes Art Institute of Chicago film professor Bruce Jenkins, harnessed “the power of the medium and the power of rock.”
In a 2014 interview with Pitchfork, Greil Marcus explained how ‘Shake Some Action’ by the Flamin’ Groovies provided early inspiration for his book, History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs. “For years and years whenever I heard that song, on the radio or just playing it myself, I just thought, this is it. This is what rock ‘n’ roll is,” said Greil, describing that distinct quality as something that “has a drive… a melodic momentum.”
Wright got that same feeling when at age 22 he first heard ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He describes the sensation as a form of “synesthesia” that overcame him. Only instead of light and color, Wright saw a car chase. Fast forward to today—in fact, as I write these very words—audiences across the world sit mesmerized as ‘Bellbottoms’ accompanies the first six minutes of Baby Driver, which plays out like one of the best damn rock shows in a cinema this side of the century.
Like Conner, Wright has harnessed the power of his medium and the power of rock. How? For one, it’s the sense of movement that accompanies Baby Driver. This comes down to the ridiculous level of care that went into choreography and editing—two aspect that lend the film its kinetic force and make you feel like you’re experiencing something physical. Of course then there’s also the songs.
Take ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus. Not even a veritable spelunker of crate diggers would likely have come across this insane yodel-filled prog rock opus prior to witnessing Baby sprint full speed through an Atlanta shopping mall to it’s chords. The Foundation’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ or ‘Tequila’ by Button Down Brass may have sounded slightly more familiar, but even those tracks subvert expectations with the former being used more frequently as a sample, and the latter, an obscure cover.
And that’s why Baby Driver is pure rock ‘n roll. It feels familiar, but still manages to create surprises that make you want to punch the air every five minutes. That’s because beyond all else, it uses a language we all know and love to create something truly original. In this day and age, that’s something worth celebrating.
Robin Scher is a New York-based South African writer, Robin is also a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.