There aren’t enough car chase musicals in modern cinema. As a genre, it’s criminally underserved.
So much so, in fact, that British film director Edgar Wright has had to smuggle his passion project through the studio system under the guise of a Hollywood action thriller to get it made.
It’s a heist movie with energy, style and impeccably choreographed stunt sequences. But behind the big-name actors, set pieces so large they shut down entire city blocks and a high-concept pitch, it’s a love story about driving and music.
Two things that, along with movies, have long been the passions of Wright. “I wouldn't call myself a ‘petrol head’. I’ve never had fancy or classic cars, yet I am obsessed with driving and music. I’ve done road trips in the States where I have just driven around listening to music and that is my idea of a perfect holiday,” says Wright.
Bringing the loves together on screen is something Wright has been trying to do for more than 20 years.
“When I was 21, I was listening to a song called Bellbottoms by the John Spencer Blues Explosion a lot. I kept thinking, ‘this would be a great car chase song’ and that was the first germ of the idea,” he explains.
It was an idea that became the story concept for a pop music video Wright directed for the band Mint Royale in 2002. Starring comedian – and new Great British Bake Off presenter – Noel Fielding, it gave Wright the first chance to debut the character of an ace getaway driver with a musical obsession.
“Then I knew I wanted to make it as a movie. The idea developed into Ansel’s (Ansel Elgort plays the title role) character who is someone who has to listen to music. He has tinnitus from when he was in a car crash when he was younger and needs music all the time to drown that out,” says Wright.
A tinnitus-suffering getaway driver and a script inspired by a twenty-something-year-old song don’t make for an easy pitch in franchise-driven Hollywood.
Both Wright and Elgort have had near-misses when aiming for massive tent-pole movies in recent years. Wright was attached to direct the Marvel big-screen caper Ant-Man before walking away citing “creative differences”. Ansel Elgort, hot on the back of a sci-fi trilogy (The Divergent series) and a couple of weepy young adult movies (The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns) before turning 22, was shortlisted to play the young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars universe prequel. The jobs eventually went to Peyton Reed, whose Ant-Man went on to gross US$520 million (Dhs1.9 billion) worldwide and Alden Ehrenreich, in the as yet untitled Han Solo project that will hit cinemas in 2018.
The closing of those doors meant car doors opened and those franchises’ loss is original storytelling’s gain. Despite being hot property themselves and being joined by a cast including Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and John Hamm, plus starlets Lily James and Eiza Gonzalez, studios were initially cautious about an untried story.
“Getting the movie off the ground was not easy. It was a long sort of process and part of that is getting the cast on board. If Kevin and Jamie had said ‘no’ there might not be a Baby Driver,” says Wright.
“You can’t just do the franchises over and over. I mean, I know they [Hollywood] are, but at some point, there has to be something else, as well. So in that sense, it’s an interesting thing, because sometimes original movies become like side projects. It’s like, they say, “We’ll make this big franchise that we know is a dead cert and let’s take a risk on this as well. I think for the future of cinema you have to take more risks on stuff.”
The studios are not the only ones taking a risk. Love interest Lily James, best known for costume dramas such as Downton Abbey, War & Peace and Cinderella, took the risk of leaving period scripts behind for violent modern-day Atlanta’s criminal underworld. “I was feeling slightly stifled by the corsets,” says James, reeling off a well-rehearsed sidestep of her career highlights to date.
John Hamm’s risk was leaving behind the sharp suits and stylised charm of Mad Men’s Don Draper to play a gun-toting tattooed psychopath. As with rising stars Elgort and James and on-screen girlfriend Eiza Gonzalez, Hamm is quick to point out it was the chance to work with Edgar Wright that attracted him to a role he has been promised since a first-draft read-through with Wright back in 2010.
“Edgar is a massive cinephile. He has this vocabulary that’s extensive from the cinematic universe and he has made this unique little thing that doesn’t really exist anymore in the studio aspect,” says Hamm. “Nobody does this anymore. There’s not a piece of intellectual property that has existed for 40 years that they’re not trying to explode into a universe or make a franchise out of. Nobody makes original films any more. I just want to work with interesting people who have a point of view and Edgar is one of the few. Quentin Tarantino is another, and Nicolas Refn. These guys are few and far between. And they’re having a hard time getting stuff made.”
Stylistically, Baby Driver is closer to the Tarantino-penned True Romance or Refn’s noir thriller Drive than the UK-based comedies that made Wright famous. “I really admire and am influenced by Walter Hill’s The Driver and films like Reservoir Dogs, Heat and Point Break,” says Wright.
To achieve the realism and enter into a world so different to those typical of his previous films, Wright spent months interviewing real bank robbers and former criminals, going as far as to hire some as technical consultants on the film. Advising on everything from the types of cars best used in a heist (the duller and more forgettable the better, apparently) to tidbits on when to steal a car, the consultants bring added authenticity to the highly choreographed set pieces dreamt up by Wright over the many years of development.
Despite the explosive performances of Hamm and Foxx, the assured cool of Ansel Elgort and a snappy turn as the criminal boss who brings them all together by Kevin Spacey, it’s the action set pieces that will linger with audiences.
Each scene is set to music. Choreographed down to the individual beats with a meticulous precision by Wright, who storyboarded every moment beforehand. Don’t expect La La Land-style production numbers with characters breaking into song. This is more like a soundtrack coming to life in a very real way.
“I’ve always loved doing music and action together and I like lots of movies that use soundtracks really well. Directors like Scorsese and Tarantino,” says Wright. Remember that scene in Shaun of the Dead when a zombie attack was synced to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now? Expect plenty more of the same here.
“I thought this was an idea where you could basically have the lead character playing the music in every scene. So the music is always diegetic in that it’s either in his ears, or on the stereo, or on a radio, or on the TV, or in a mall. It’s never score, the music is happening in their world, always.”
True Romance meets La La Land meets Bonnie and Clyde meets The Fast and Furious with a sprinkling of British humour and a psycho John Hamm? This might well be the coolest film of the year.
Baby Driver is in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday July 20.
“Edgar told me he picked the group of songs first. And then wrote the movie to the songs,” says the film’s star Ansel Elgort. When the actors were sent the script it was in the form of an app, which came with the music pre-installed, allowing them to hear the soundtrack simultaneously while learning lines. With music so central to the style and plot of the film, Time Out looks at some of the highlights from what will be the soundtrack of the year.
Baby Driver by Simon & Garfunkel
The film takes its name from Simon & Garfunkel’s happy rock ’n’ roll song about a boy in search of adventure.
Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Edgar Wright’s obsessive listening to this track in his bedroom first gave him the idea for a car chase scene using the song.
Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl
The opening bars were sampled in Jump Around by House of Pain, but with this R&B original, Wright has created one of the greatest walking sequences in cinema. Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever meets a Goodfellas’ steadicam shot.
Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas
This popular Motown hit has appeared on many soundtracks, notably Good Morning Vietnam with Robin Williams. The lyrics reveal important plot themes of the film and in particular Ansel’s character.
Tequila by The Button Down Brass
A shoot-out scene using this Latin-tinged party anthem is set to be dissected and talked over by movie buffs and film students for many years to come.