Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver

I remember hearing that frantic rock instrumental (with periodic yodels) "Hocus Pocus" by the band Focus while riding the school bus sometime in the mid 1970s.  Vivid recollections of our hippie-ish driver speeding over a gigantic pothole on Belvedere Road, sending us off our seats like rag dolls.  She had a transistor radio on the dashboard, forever cranking out Me Decade rock 'n' roll.  It was probably my first exposure to such music, and that this occurred during episodes of reckless stunt driving is a fitting precursor to my appreciation of this summer's BABY DRIVER, a film that marries the excitement of a great tune with deft tire squealing.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an ace getaway driver for a criminal mastermind named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who employs disparate bands of volatile criminals to pull off various heists.  Baby is taunted by his far more hardened team members for his youth, his habit of not taking much, and constant use of an iPod.  Baby has had tinnitus since childhood, when a car accident took the lives of his parents, and the music effectively masks the offending high pitched ringing.  As an audiologist, I'm aware of FDA approved sound therapies that Baby could use instead, but that music doesn't work as well when throttling at top speed through the streets of Atlanta after a robbery.  Thundering tracks by the likes of The Damned, Queen, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in fact are quite necessary for Baby's impressive stick shifting away from the law.  When he loses his iPod in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, he struggles to find something workable on FM radio.  Haven't we all?

It seems that Baby, who lives with his deaf, elderly foster father, never wanted to be involved in the underworld, but he's still paying on an old debt to Doc.  When Baby meets a cute, music loving waitress named Debora (Lily James, interestingly reminiscent of Madchen Amick when she was on the original Twin Peaks), his incentive to leave the life increases.  In fact, there's even the promise of that infamous "final job" after which Baby can quit the business for good and drive west on I-20 into the sunset with his new friend.  But as any filmgoer knows, if "you're in", exits are hard to come by.  At least one that doesn't involve a body bag.

BABY DRIVER is writer/director Edgar Wright's loving homage to the movies, and not just the obvious influences.  He has cited THE DRIVER as one.  Of course for the thrilling chases. Wright mounts some truly nail biting, wildly exciting and imaginative pursuits.  Real stunts, not computer generated.  Makes a huge difference.  The FAST AND FURIOUS movies by contrast look like heightened Grand Theft Auto video game sessions, with absurdly over the top crack ups. There's no investment (in characters or otherwise) in that.   What makes an effective chase scene is the adrenaline of great editing and stunt choreography but also a sense that someone could really get hurt or killed.  Add some choice pop/rock songs and you have pure cinema.

You've seen it all before, but having the music be so integral to the plot makes it all seem original and fresh.  The film has a massive, well selected soundtrack.  The rhythms and beats also sync with the action onscreen in ways that will take multiple viewings to truly catch.  There is a lot of detail in this movie; the opening title sequence alone is a treasure of clever visuals. What is also distinguishing is how sweet and downright moral the movie is.  Baby is a decent kid who is concerned about others, including innocent bystanders, and Debora does not turn out to be some femme fatale in a tired plot twist.  Seeing genuine folks (who are not angelic dolts) as protagonists in a film like this is increasingly rare.  They are not boring.  And they're just so danged likeable.  Almost like Clarence and Alabama in TRUE ROMANCE.  A certain innocence in a cesspool of peril.

Having actors Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Eliza Gonzalez play such menacing, fearsome lowlifes makes a beautiful counterpoint to our heroes.  Hamm in particular plays a character that is surprisingly complex.  Spacey almost steals the movie with his wily performance, a man who can be fatherly and then deadly at the drop of a dime.

"Hocus Pocus" is one of  those cool tunes on the BABY DRIVER soundtrack, but curiously is used during a chase on foot.  Its nervous energy suits the moment, much like it did when I wondered if my elementary school self would live to see adolescence as we bounced around West Palm Beach back in the day. 

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