In 1995, then-21-year-old Edgar Wright heard the song Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for the first time, and couldn’t get it out of his head.
In the intervening decades, Wright became something of a cult-film hero with his TV series Spaced, and later the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, including zombie flick Shaun of the Dead and buddy cop film Hot Fuzz. But he was daydreaming about his latest movie long before any of that.
“I had this vision of the song set to a car chase,” he says in Melbourne, 22 years after hearing Bellbottoms for the first time. He’s in Australia for the premiere of Baby Driver, his new wild car-chase heist film that opens with that very song.
Wright swerves in a dozen different directions before answering any of my questions. We digress into London traffic (“This had to be an American movie because London is car-chase proof”); Mad Max (“Holy shit, Fury Road is a masterpiece. I told George Miller I was writing a car movie, and he told me which car-mounted camera rigs to use”) and his favourite ’70s car chase movies, such as The Driver, The French Connection and Bullitt, all of which had an impact on his new film.
Wright’s a film nerd, in general. It’s hard to progress our conversation without seguing into his favourite movies and cinematic influences. But above all, we keep coming back to music.
Baby Driver is a car movie, but it’s not just a car movie: the frantic, unrelenting energy of its manic soundtrack, assembled across artists and genres, from the Beach Boys to Beck to Dave Brubeck to Danger Mouse, makes this heist movie different to its forebears.
The plot is simple: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who’s permanently wearing a set of earbuds. (He has a severe case of tinnitus that’s only eased by pumping music into his ears.) All he wants to do is disappear with his girl Debora, but he’s reluctantly drawn into one last heist job.
If you take a premise as hammy and cliched as that, you need real conviction and skill to pull it off. Luckily, that's not a problem here. Baby Driver has a lot in common with other driving crime capers, such as Walter Hill’s The Driver, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but this is far more irreverent than either of those. And there’s something else: it’s a meticulously choreographed action film, yes, but it’s the soundtrack, which Wright has been plotting for years, that makes it special.
Everything in this film, from the editing to the script, was dictated by the soundtrack.
“I had 10 tracks nailed down already before I wrote the first draft,” Wright says. “When I wrote, I really mapped out what was happening based on the songs. If I didn’t have the right song for a scene, I’d have to stop and find it.”
Each scene in Baby Driver is a number, as if it were a musical, with the action determined by the song to which it is set. So for a dreamy, romantic scene that’s about two-and-a-half minutes long, Wright first had to find the right song before he’d write the scene. For an on-foot chase scene, he chose the track Hocus Pocus, a seven-minute rock odyssey of face-melting guitar, crashing drum solos and … yodelling. “That song has a dramatic structure,” says Wright. “He’s running, he’s running, he’s running, then there’s a yodelling [break]. Guitars, guitars, guitars, then, another break.” The music is punctuation; it’s a character.
Out of his favourite films, perhaps it’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that has the most relevance to Baby Driver: composer Ennio Morricone wrote the film’s iconic score before filming began. Like Wright, director Sergio Leone’s visuals were led by the music.
“So in that final scene, one of the greatest bits of music and cinema ever,” says Wright excitedly, “the bit with Morricone’s score over that cemetery scene – imagine this: they played the music on set! The stylisation of it, with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach confidently standing in the cemetery while nothing is happening – that comes down to the music being on then and there. The actors are listening to it.”
“Someone watched Baby Driver and called it a car opera,” Wright continues. “Well, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a western opera. It’s not the same kind of movie, but it’s the same process.”
It’s a point of pride that Wright can make little comparisons between his films and those of his heroes. Like any of his movies, Baby Driver is a patchwork of influences. But far from being a checklist of references, his movies are tightly wound symphonies. The trick is making it look easy.
Baby Driver is in wide release across Australia. Watch the trailer here.