The following contains spoilers for Baby Driver. Do not read until you’ve seen the film.
It’s fairly common to see action movies described in terms of their escapist qualities. A perfectly-calibrated action thriller will transport the audience out of their mundane lives and into a world of gun battles, burnt rubber and the constant threat of callous violence. But what happens if that notion is inverted?
Step forward Baby Driver – Edgar Wright‘s slice of “petrolhead poetry” that has installed itself as the buzziest title of the summer. This is a film in which the central character is desperate to escape from the world of crime and violence in which he finds himself, with his eye on a life of utopian simplicity far away from his existence as a getaway driver. Music is how he allows himself that escape, transforming the darkness of crime into a cinematic slice of car porn in which he is the silent star – with his songs doing the talking.
Wright’s use of music in Baby Driver has been at the centre of many of the ecstatic reviews of the film, which is currently sitting pretty with a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, these reviews often don’t note just how important music is in terms of shaping the character of Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort. Music isn’t just a stylistic gimmick for the film; it’s the heart of its protagonist.
Hum in the drum
We are told during the course of Baby Driver that the reason behind Baby’s constant soundtrack for his life is that he suffers from tinnitus following the car accident that killed his parents. This is a scene we revisit throughout the movie, as we see Baby listening to music in the back seat as his parents’ arguing culminates in a killer crash. It is in this scene that Baby’s tinnitus begins and it never lets up after that moment.
It becomes clear in this respect that Baby’s tinnitus is not just a literal remnant of the accident that changed his life. His tinnitus is also a representation of the grief he feels at the loss of his mother. It’s an elegant metaphor for bereavement, with the severity of the condition frequently minimised by distraction, but always lurking in the background and threatening to envelope Baby’s senses.
Baby’s music can drown out the intensity of his grief for a brief period, but it’s always there ready to intrude whenever he lets the facade of his fantasy slip. This ideas is similar in many ways to the hiding away of The Babadook‘s eponymous ghoul in a basement at the end of the movie – out of sight, but never completely out of mind. It helps Baby Driver join the brilliant roster of recent films which create an interesting and mature depiction of grief – from the bracing realism of Manchester by the Sea to the all-out fantasy of A Monster Calls.
Indeed, Baby’s mother is the source of his entire ethos when it comes to using music as an escape. Through flashbacks, we learn that she frequently used her singing and musical talents to shield herself from the horrors of her seemingly abusive relationship with Baby’s father. Baby has been brought up in a world where people use music to escape from the worst things in their lives, so it’s little surprise that he does the same thing when a bad decision in his youth brings him into the sphere of Kevin Spacey‘s crime boss Doc. Baby is trapped in the world of criminality by his debt to Doc and so retreats into a musical world where he can somehow rationalise his crimes.
Baby’s escapist fantasy allows him to cast himself as the antihero of his own crime thriller, soundtracked to his personal mix of tracks. It’s a way for him to imagine his actions as something other than villainous and, in a way, absolves him of responsibility in his own mind. While his comrades wave guns around and carry out the heists themselves, he jams to his own rhythm and casts himself as someone who is the epitome of old school cool, like Steve McQueen, or Ryan Gosling in Drive. He’s near-silent, wears endless arrays of dark glasses and turns the simple act of buying coffee into a musical montage in which his dance moves to Bob & Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ shape the world around him.
Everything that interrupts the musicality of Baby’s world threatens the stability of his fantasy. Every moment of Baby Driver is perfectly choreographed to the music Baby chooses, as if Baby’s world clicks perfectly into place based on his music. There are numerous occasions in which Baby implores those around him to stop what they are doing so that he can restore the soundtrack to his precision-calibrated world. It’s only with music that Baby can rationalise what he is doing, with the songs allowing him some cognitive distance. This is shown most clearly in the sequence in which Baby, forced to dispose of a body, goes full musical to lip-sync to ‘Easy’ by The Commodores – as if distancing himself from the action by retreating into song.
His musical fantasy extends even outside of the soundtrack to his driving. The tape recorder he carries at all times allows him to turn the conversations he has into music – the only way he is able to parse the world’s evil and confusion. Just as his mother channeled the worst parts of her life into music, Baby uses his own compositions to turn criminality into rhythmic ridiculousness.
I think her name’s Debra…
The musicality of Baby Driver is challenged by the arrival of Debora, with whom Baby bonds as a result of music, but is also comfortable without the constant comfort of his earbuds. Their first meeting, with Debora working in a diner, is the epitome of Baby’s fantasy. He chats to her in a self-consciously mysterious way, as if the only way he knows to have a conversation with a woman is by speaking like Elvis Presley at a drive-in movie. This suits Debora fine, given that she escapes her world through music as well.
Debora is a character trapped in a menial existence, using music as part of her long-running desire to escape into the idyllic notion of the open road. She is drawn to Baby because he represents exactly what she craves – the prospect of a consequence-free, no-strings-attached life travelling freely in “a car I can’t afford”. It’s telling that the two of them scarcely ever have a conversation without some mention of music.
Crucially, though, it’s with Debora that Baby feels like he can separate himself from music. There are very few occasions in Baby Driver where we see Baby without his earbuds, but his dinner date with Debora is one of those occasions and, when the two are together, Baby is often happy to eschew the music that otherwise accompanies every moment of his life. If the tinnitus works as a grief metaphor, as discussed earlier, then this makes sense as Baby’s burgeoning love for Debora is one of the few things capable of muting his sense of grief – and therefore his tinnitus as well. The music that had previously been an escape is now not strictly necessary for Baby. Love can be his escape.
It is this realisation on Baby’s part that drives the third act of Baby Driver. Baby realises that love can provide him with a permanent escape, rather than the temporary respite his music provides him. It is because of that that he abandons the job and takes out Bats, before fleeing from the scene on foot. This is his final attempt to achieve a different kind of fantasy – one in which he doesn’t need to drown out his grief with music and tyre smoke. He risks everything for Debora because she represents the first real opportunity Baby has had for a different life.
When Baby takes on Jon Hamm in the final confrontation of Baby Driver, one of the most shocking moments is the brutality with which Hamm’s character fires his pistol next to each of Baby’s ears – seemingly filling his ears with noise and taking his musical escape away from him. He then declares he is going to kill Debora in front of him, taking away his only other chance to escape from his world. It’s a reflection of the fact that Hamm’s Buddy is the only character who seems to understand what makes Baby tick and, therefore, he knows exactly how to hurt him most. He also turns Baby’s favourite track, Queen’s ‘Brighton Rock’ against him in the finale, playing it as he chases him down like a Terminator.
Buddy is almost taking revenge on Baby for the fact he still has the chance to live his fantasy. Buddy has resigned himself to a life of crime to support his drug habit, far away from the high-flying world of finance he appears to have come from originally. To him, Baby’s happiness is something he craves and covets. Even more obviously, Buddy is jealous that Baby still has a chance at romantic happiness after Buddy’s wife has been gunned down. Buddy has lost his own fantasy life, so he resolves to take out Baby’s chance at that escape.
One final fantasy?
The final moments of Baby Driver can be read in a number of ways. We see Baby’s previous fantasy of Debora, next to a stunning 50s-inspired vehicle, in a black-and-white frame, ready to accompany Baby for a life on the open road. The frame then fills with colour before the credits roll. The most conventional reading would be that, having done his time, Baby is now able to return to the world and escape into his fantasy for real.
Alternatively, though, the ending could be looked at in a different way. Many have remarked that the ending of Baby Driver seems a little convenient and, indeed, it could be the case that it is. Baby is a character with a history of retreating into fantasy and, given that prison represents his lowest ebb, it’s possible that the film’s finale shows him simply allowing himself to melt away completely into that fantasy – completely losing touch with the real world.
Regardless of how you choose to read its final moments, Baby Driver is a very interesting film that uses its ideas around fantasy to provide a real insight into the psyche of its protagonist.
What did you think of Baby Driver and, particularly, its use of music as part of creating fantasy? Let me know in the comments section.