Baby Driver’s Automatic Rhythms

by Jacquelyn Thayer

There’s a form of lived choreography that any music lover will know intimately: you act on the rhythms of your personal soundtrack, attached to a playlist or the looped tunes in your own head. It informs the footsteps and fidgets, enhances triumph and trauma. It’s automatic.

In Baby Driver, the trappings of action are the MacGuffin for a film that, more than paying homage to that amateur dancer, itself embodies the notion. Director Edgar Wright curated its eclectic, often retro-leaning, soundtrack for a purpose beyond casual thematic drop-ins: he wrote and filmed to the selections, weaving action and pacing within each song’s structure.

Baby (a fluently charming Ansel Elgort) is that music obsessive, unceasingly tuned into his iPods for certain narrative — but not terribly critical — reasons. As such, he frequently moves with intentional choreography, both deliberate gestures of dance and the mundane motions we generate when moving to our own soundtrack. It sets our pace in a jog; it direct his specific steps in Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” — “Move to the right.” Later, at home, he’ll twirl, serve toast, mime to the tunes on his record player — the visual and percussive elements, meanwhile, the only markers of music for Joseph (CJ Jones), the ironically deaf foster father with whom he dwells. (And Joseph bears witness to the irksome preciousness our protagonist misses — an elaborate dance ritual needn’t so intricately delay and tease a man’s toast delivery.)

Initially, much of Baby’s musical world exists in isolation; “Egyptian Reggae” scores no one’s activities but his own, and moreover, there’s something jarring to the absolute visual dissonance between his motions and those of the criminal band around him. It’s a temporary unease. To the strains of Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance,” we see directly through Baby’s eyes and, with that, an expansion on the choreographed realm: the suggestion of a spiritual kinship between boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and Baby as Doc’s gestures gradually begin to sync up with the irregular rhythms. In another scene, Doc’s speech will adjust itself to the beats of “Early in the Morning,” a pattern that says more about character relationships than an intentional Baby-like performance on the other man’s part. (Indeed, intentional musicality is not always confined to the visual; take in the patter of a news report rhythmically intersecting with “Smokey Joe’s La La.”)

This idea of a larger choreography within the Baby Driver world was alluded to with the film’s opening heist; is it artful direction that allows one trio of robbers to move so easily to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”? In a meta sense, of course, yes — but in story itself, Baby’s need to direct his immediate world will be lampshaded in one comic moment as he holds back his passengers until he can properly time The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” to their robbery’s onset. (Another meta-explanation: the song’s short length, like that of one or two other major pieces in the film, demands a pause and rewind to even accommodate such an action sequence.)

The deliberate nature of music here also lays bare the times when it’s used in a most traditional sense: Baby’s hero stride to the Commodores’ “Easy,” reflecting on the memory of the car crash that killed his parents when he was young. This is a recognizable movie moment, and that’s a fact Baby knows: if he can choreograph his breezy-cool morning rituals, so too will he choreograph his moments of internal turmoil, the better to process them.

But if rhythm can establish Baby’s closest professional alliance, music is most obviously set to establish a soulmate bond — and not merely via the obvious introduction of love interest Debora (Lily James) as a fellow musical traveler, singing “B-A-B-Y” for herself and touting her desire to travel the open road with her tunes. Their first date, of a sort, comes on a laundry errand, and here the whole world adjusts itself to their soundtrack — a pair of eponymous tunes, starting with T. Rex’s “Debora.” Machines whirl and cameras swirl as feet tap and conversation itself adopts an easy linking rhythm — “We could get together some other time / some other place,” she muses. “We could go to / Bacchanalia,” he suggests. “I’ve never been,” she says. “I hear it’s nice.” “Oh, it’s the finest wining / and dining / of all the wines and dines / in town.” Outro on Beck’s “Debra,” spinning laundry dissolving into Baby spinning at home. Naturally, the duet enters full harmony, if only for a moment, at Bacchanalia — this time a dance in isolation, as the surrounding world, heedless to the strains of “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)” carries on with its own activities .

But to talk of romance and character set pieces is to frankly overlook the film’s raison d’etre: the heist flick. And it is, no mistake, what is says it is. But it’s the musical underpinning that transforms car chases and gunfire into their own choreographic act, and it’s impossible to miss the deliberate rat-a-tat of the automatic that accompanies “Tequila” or “Hocus Pocus,” the elaborate wheelwork of “Bellbottoms.” And it’s an intentional process that, we’ll discover, Baby shares with robber — and soon-to-be enemy — Buddy (Jon Hamm). Buddy is more obviously sympathetic to this criminal ballet than the impatient Bats (Jamie Foxx); he ruminates on the “killer track,” the song necessary to both motivate and execute a perfect heist. But Bats, for his part, explains that he mentally conjures up his own soundtrack, sobered by the memory of a friend who was taken down by external music — a car radio playing the drowsy “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” (“Hotel California,” he adds, presents a similar liability.)

It’s key, of course, that music has a macro presence as well. Blur’s vaudevillian instrumental “Intermission” provides a darkly humorous counterpoint to a violent — and darkly humorous — heist sequence; Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up,” conversely, musically juxtaposes itself with threat and terror — but, on a literal level, provides a not unreasonable lyrical backdrop. Buddy is instantly immersed in the rhythm of this piece, sipping coffee in time and establishing a strange and scary little pas de trois with Baby and Debora — and this before he co-opts one of Baby’s earbuds to even hear the song. If Doc and Debora are Baby’s compatriots, Buddy is his darker self, a peer in musical obsession of a most killer type indeed.

Baby Driver may not reinvent the heist flick, but its mission is something else anyway: transfer the twitches and beats of the musical to a genre where the only singing and dancing come in a minute or two’s worth of a day’s work — like you at home, tapping out a pattern on a bus ride, unleashing your ballad-loving diva behind the wheel. In so intimately capturing this personal choreography — and transforming heavy machinery into an impromptu ballet troupe — Wright’s production is really something far more subtle, and far more engaging, than its marquee crash-and-blam sequences.

(But another minute of “Radar Love” may not have hurt.)