Baby Driver squealed into theaters last week, debuting as the first great action movie of the summer. Sporting a top-shelf ensemble cast, inventive chase scenes—both on road and on foot—and one of the coolest soundtracks since Guardians of the Galaxy, the newest offering from director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is pleasing moviegoers across the nation.
It is also presenting a new model for filmmakers: the movie-as-vehicle for a bitchin playlist.
Epic soundtracks have long been a part of the movie industry. Historically, though, they have been hard to pull together. Licensing fees have sunk would-be greats (Coyote Ugly comes to mind), and many directors balked at music execs demanding that specific songs be used for certain sequences because studios wanted greater exposure for new musical talent.
In spite of various hurdles, masterpieces came together: Dirty Dancing, Singles, Juice, Pulp Fiction, Shrek, Forrest Gump, Oh Brother Where Art Thou…
In some cases, the movies were about making music, and the songs themselves were central to the storytelling: 8 Mile, Walk the Line, Ray…
But Baby Driver is a different beast entirely. Director Wright has made clear that in many cases, the music came first, and the story was crafted to weave around whatever song he had in mind. Instead of the music serving the story, the story serves the music.
This is more akin to a musical than a straight movie.
In fact, Wright has explained in multiple interviews how entire scenes were carefully choreographed so that lines of dialogue, street noise, and action—gunshots used as percussive beats—would blend emphatically into soundtrack. Instead of the music merely accompanying a sequence, we get Ansel Elgort lip-syncing, dancing, tapping, and bee-bopping to near-full-length renditions of “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Bob & Earl’s version of “Harlem Shuffle”.
What Wright has created is a new mid-space between the straight movie with a great soundtrack and the musical itself, a hybrid that values the visual and the auditory equally.
It is the perfect vehicle for a generation more used to crafting personalized playlists (or buying them on Amazon) than actually purchasing entire albums. The music industry has struggled to adapt to a world that no longer cares to buy whole CDs, and interestingly the movie industry is supplying at least a partial solution: the playlist movie.
It is the music industry’s struggles themselves that are partially responsible for the success of modern soundtracks. As CD sales plummeted, artists and studios have become more willing to license back catalogs. Especially for one-hit-wonders or little-known bands.
Couple this with a nostalgia boom that is sending filmmakers back to the 70s and 80s, and it’s no surprise that compilations like Guardians of the Galaxy have scored huge successes (Guardians became the first-ever soundtrack to reach number one on Billboard without a single new song).
It remains to be seen whether or not Wright’s new model will inspire a wave of imitators. It should be noted that Baby Driver is not a perfect film. The characters are mostly stock stereotypes, played well by a fantastic cast, but paper-thin nonetheless. Backstories, when offered, lack any real depth. The movie’s few scenes of graphic, Tarantino-esque violence feel out-of-sync with the rest of the film, like guitar solos executed in the wrong key.
The setting in time also seems unhinged: Ansel Elgort drives alternately a 2015 Chevrolet Cruze and a 2015 Dodge Challenger, but listens to music on outdated iPods, waits for Kevin Spacey to call him on an ancient flip-phone, and has flashback memories of his parents which seem to be squarely set in the 1970s.
The last movie I can recall with such a touch-and-go connection to point in time was It Follows, another film that mashed-up timelines to great effect.
Baby Driver succeeds in spite of these failings: providing audiences with a much more satisfying experience than other recent car chase thrillers (the entire Fast and the Furious franchise, for example).
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the soundtrack, take a peek below at the full 30-song playlist:
1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘Bellbottoms’
2. Bob & Earl – ‘Harlem Shuffle’
3. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Egyptian Reggae’
4. Googie Rene – ‘Smokey Joe’s La La’
5. The Beach Boys – ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’
6. Carla Thomas – ‘B-A-B-Y’
7. Kashmere Stage Band – ‘Kashmere’
8. Dave Brubeck – ‘Unsquare Dance’
9. The Damned – ‘Neat Neat Neat’
10. The Commodores – ‘Easy (Single Version)’
11. T. Rex – ‘Debora’
12. Beck – ‘Debra’
13. Incredible Bongo Band – ‘Bongolia’
14. The Detroit Emeralds – ‘Baby Let Me Take You (in My Arms)’
15. Alexis Korner – ‘Early In The Morning’
16. David McCallum – ‘The Edge’
17. Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Nowhere To Run’
18. The Button Down Brass – ‘Tequila’
19. Sam & Dave – ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’
20. Brenda Holloway – ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’
21. Blur – ‘Intermission’
22. Focus – ‘Hocus Pocus (Original Single Version)’
23. Golden Earring – ‘Radar Love (1973 Single Edit)’
24. Barry White – ‘Never, Never Gone Give Ya Up’
25. Young MC – ‘Know How’
26. Queen – ‘Brighton Rock’
27. Sky Ferreira – ‘Easy’
28. Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Baby Driver’
29. Kid Koala – ‘Was He Slow (Credit Roll Version)’
30. Danger Mouse (featuring Run The Jewels and Big Boi) – ‘Chase Me’