David Hollingshead: Hi Jane! I’m sorry to leave you in the lurch at the eleventh hour but unfortunately I will not be participating in this yak. I stormed out of the theatre immediately upon realizing that Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver would not depict the pleasures and terrors of actual infants driving cars.
Jane Hu: David, I tried to explain the premise of this film to some friends, and it was surprisingly difficult to convince them that it wasn’t 1) animated or 2) about a literal baby. At the end of it all, I’m not sure I was able to sell them on it, but I adore this film–so much as to have watched it twice within the span of three days. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie theatre since Snowpiercer, which is saying a lot.
Hollingshead: Listen, I lied. I too saw the film twice. I now follow Ansel Elgort on Instagram and I bought the soundtrack. I am here for Baby Driver (or as it is called in Canada, Le Petit Homme Qui Conduit Toutes Les Voitures), and am very excited to discuss its weirdness with you.
Here’s some of that good-ass Ansel Elgort content.
Hu: Actually, I’m pretty sure “Baby Driver” translates into
Or, as IMDb tells me, “Baby, le chauffeur.”
Hollingshead: Ahh yes, the world’s oldest profession.
Hu: Also, is it weird that I’m also following Ansel’s ballerina girlfriend Violetta Komyshan on Instagram? She seems to be doing the Baby Driver publicity tours too? Here she is in Australia:
Hollingshead: Pretty nice doggo she’s got there, eh Jane?
Hu: Anyway, I’m so glad you asked me to yak about Baby Driver because, in all honesty, my first response after watching it was “That was a lot of fun! Let’s watch it again!!” But also, without feeling any strong urge to think about it all that critically. Part of that is because it really WORKS for the most part, until, y’know, it really doesn’t.
GENRE & MEDIA
Hollingshead: Can we begin by talking a bit about genre? I am struck by the insistence among reviewers that Baby Driver is a musical. I say this because the film lacks one of the key features of the musical traditionally defined—specifically, the use of diegetic song against non-diegetic instrumentation. What the film does do, though, to really wonderful effect, is synchronize diegetic sounds—gunshots, explosions, tires screeching, windshield wipers wiping, engines revving, etc.–with its non-diegetic pop soundtrack. All of which is to say that calling Baby Driver a musical is interesting because it blurs the distinction between music and noise, asking us to understand nonhuman objects as in some sense “singing” along to The Damned and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion the same way characters might.
Hu: Well, let me be the first to admit that I was one of those who initially compared it to a musical, and I still kind of think it is? It’s true that the film doesn’t portray stand-alone non-diegetic musical numbers, but given that the category of the musical probably needs to be expanded (cf. the failure that was La La Land), I feel like Baby Driver counts. The car rides are framed as utopically out-of-time (or just-in-time?) moments, while the film’s first proper scene after the opening credit sequence is of Baby dancing along to “Harlem Shuffle.” Here, the music exists somewhere between diegesis and non-diegesis because it’s presumably playing on Baby’s headphones, which is also synced up to the film soundtrack: we’re in his world, listening through his ears. After all, aren’t the headphones, for Baby at least (and for this film), all about complete immersion?
Another Dancing Baby, proving once again that time is a flat circle.
Hollingshead: Yes, you’re entirely right about the use of sound in the film. It seems to me that Baby Driver is doing something very different from what media theorists generally suppose iPod use does for the urban subject. One common argument is that layering your private soundtrack overtop the chaotic, disruptive randomness of the city is an attempt to manage experience by aestheticizing it — you deflect the “shocks” of modernity through the affective organizing potential of a personalized audio track. But Baby Driver is different; its driving fantasy (sorry) is that inside and outside, subjective experience of Baby listening to his iPod and the objective reality of his environment might momentarily harmonize in a kind of divine aural synthesis. But God has always been a machine (or what’s the same thing in Baby Driver, a media technology); it’s the filmic apparatus rather than individual consciousness that enacts this suture. Baby will never get his mother back, he will never repair his first smashed iPod, and his damaged eardrum will never heal (three narrative stand-ins for the lost origin), but, as you rightly point out, he is allowed to inhabit the cinematic space where something like pure immediacy becomes palpable.
Jane: Ugh, yes. Shoutout to my man, John Durham Peters, one of the dopest media theorists, who wrote exactly about the connection between spiritual hearing and media objects in Speaking Into The Air. But if the sublime has always come to us through forms of mediation, I don’t see why Baby’s driving and sidewalk shuffling to music isn’t, in its way, transcendent? What’s more interesting to me is, in fact, when these objects break down. And the threat of technological loss runs rampant throughout the film. The obsolescence of the first generation iPod that Baby gets as a Christmas present from his parents is part of its singular value. Baby knows that everything he does is already a little off, a little out of time. It’s the fragility of that single analog tape as the last link to the sound of his mother’s voice that makes it precious.
Hollingshead: Excellent points. I would go even further and say that media objects provide a kind of blueprint for understanding human subjectivity in the film. How does Wright characterize Baby if not as a living tape recorder or gramophone? The world traces its sonic vibrations upon him and he reproduces those sounds mechanistically like a stylus moving along a phonographic groove. Baby constantly repeats questions posed to him—“Are you in?” “Am I in?”—a tic that Kevin Spacey’s character, Doc, interprets as sass or irony. But Baby is less a person with interiority than a machine with two discrete functions: storing and scanning, recording and replaying. Once a sound has reverberated off his tympanic membrane it’s there for good. But what gets inscribed is the sound alone. Meanings and intentions only emerge retroactively.
In the process of asking Debora on a date, a collection of phonemes that sound like “Becky and Aaliyah” tumble out of Baby’s mouth because he has just heard Buddy promise Darling a “bacchanalia” to celebrate their score. (The unheard differences between homonyms are a recurring trope in Baby Driver). Baby’s ubiquitous tape recorder quite literally functions as his brain: in order to contemplate a problem or a question, Baby replays the recording of a voice asking the question or articulating the problem: “Do we do this thing or not?” “Do we do this thing or not?” The film plays around with mnemotechnics in really cool ways. It asks, what’s a technological prosthesis and what’s constitutive of the human as such?
Hu: Totally, the repetition that you point out is totally what structures his mixtapes too! But they are mixtapes. Baby doesn’t simply mechanistically repeat form and then layer on meaning. What I actually love about his mixtapes is that they do the opposite of what the OG nostalgic mixtape does. Instead of playing back something and letting it accrue nostalgic value, it deforms sounds. Baby takes hooks and plays them on loop, infiltrating them with scratches that do the opposite of sentimentalizing work. I mean those are some ugly-sounding mixtapes; they’re almost funny! Only the “MOM” tape retains its “original” recording, producing all the analog scratchiness of Sky Ferreira’s voice.
Hollingshead: What’s jarring, though, is the way the film aligns the retrieval of that unmediated presence with 1950s nostalgia. One of Baby Driver’s recurring visual motifs is a black-and-white daydream sequence in which Baby, decked out in a preppy polo, his hair coiffed in a slick pompadour, approaches Debora, who’s made up like a girl-next-door pinup and leaning against a Cadillac.
Hu: That’s a really good aesthetic observation. It’s cleaned-up pin-up. Wright has a weird thing with oversexualizing women in his films (see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), even while he does.
Hollingshead: The clip is also Wright’s unironic shorthand for the good life, as Baby imagines it, which is…bad?
Hu: I think this is one of the key problems of Baby Driver, and am actually surprised that no one has discussed race much vis-a-vis the film? (Especially since so many have chimed in on its fairly racialized soundtrack!) The omission feels significant and my hunch is that critics have overlooked talking about race because 1) the film, both sonically and visually, presents us with a kind of colorblind community and 2) ideology critique is boring. But I do think, upon closer inspection, Wright’s film also poses a problem that many of us experience in academia, which is: How Do We Avidly Love A Problematic Thing?
Hollingshead: Absolutely, although I’m constantly struck by how my appreciation of a cultural artifact develops as a function of the modes of thinking it encourages or denies. I tend to “love” things that solicit rigorous engagement and resist interpretive closure. Sometimes the problematic nature of a thing—or the ability of the thing to produce a particular problematic for us—acts less as an impediment to pleasure than the condition for it. This is exactly how I feel about a literary genre like American naturalism: on the one hand, it can be silly, so overwrought, so clumsy, but then you finish the final chapter of McTeague and think to yourself, “what the fuck did I just read?” And Baby Driver evokes a similar response in me: not I hate this or I love this, but what did I just watch? What is this film actually trying to do? That response is usually a good sign for me.
Hu: That’s beautiful, David, and I completely sympathize. In the case of this film, Baby Driver makes you fall hard for it at first, only slowly to force you to confront the troubling logic at the heart of its narrative. The ending is deeply problematic, for about 99 different reasons. Baby goes to jail?? He is a good person? I’m pretty sure Wright also wrote about it as like: “The criminal needs to face the consequences for once,” which lol.
Speaking of genre, the ending of Baby Driver has comedic resolution interfere with the heist getaway. Would it have been less egregious if Baby had just gotten away? What does the film do for you if it makes you face 1) Baby’s apprehension by the police and 2) the kind of trial that, very plausibly, Baby might have gotten? What about the overwhelming whiteness of the prison? Or Baby’s final exit into the soft-focus arms of Debra? Is this just a bald extension of the film’s own adherence to the racial hierarchies that have been in place throughout?
Hollingshead: Yes, hard agree! The ending is a disaster. I would say “spoiler alert” except that Baby’s redemption in the plot is entirely a function of white supremacy, which is literally the spoiler alert of American life. So here’s what happens: Baby Driver’s coda features an insanely misguided courtroom montage in which a succession of eyewitnesses to the felonies Baby has committed over the course of the film individually assert his innocence to a jury of their peers. Baby, they testify, just seemed good. He looked like he didn’t truly belong in the heists. They could see in his eyes that he had good intentions, etc. The fantasy that the fundamental goodness of a suspect might be confirmed on sight is a fantasy about whiteness. Its correlative is the ubiquitous presumption of guilt so often invoked as the justification for the extrajudicial murder of black Americans. This detail, coupled with the film’s weird fifties nostalgia means that Baby Driver fails the “could-this-protagonist-have-been-anyone-other-than-a-white-man?” test miserably—a crude but telling measure of a film’s politics.
The film loves it some retro diners because white nostalgia.
Hu: But throughout so much of the rest of Baby Driver, there seems to be an undercurrent of racial awareness, so the ending really does feel like it comes from a totally different film. For starters, there’s the casting: Jamie Foxx as Baby’s primary antagonist, CJ Jones as Baby’s deaf foster parent, Eiza González (who is known as “Darling” throughout the film, but whose real name “Monica” functions almost like a reveal near the end of the film). JON HAMM AS BUDDY, THE FINAL VILLAIN??
I am sorry to announce: it is Hamm.
Hollingshead: JON HAMM AS FINAL VILLAIN! I love Hamm, but his performance here is pretty mediocre. The Baby and Buddy final showdown, though, is actually super interesting because it’s one instance in the film when the soundtrack purposely fails to synchronize with the action. The song in question is Queen’s “Brighton Rock,” which Baby confides to Buddy is his “killer track,” the tune that gets him pumped up before a big job. Yet Buddy is the one who plays it during the climax; he tries to appropriate Baby’s killer track, and the film is all about how you can’t do that! Playing the “wrong” song at the wrong time turns it into what Jamie Foxx’s character, Bats, calls a “hex song!”
Hu: Yeah, he’s really hamming it up (sorry x2), but there is a lot of acting going into that sneer. And that’s fascinating about “Brighton Rock”! Appropriating someone’s killer track…gets you killed? Also, Baby can’t really seem to drive without anticipating how the drive maps onto the track either. “Brighton Rock” here (not my Queen of choice, but maybe that’s the entire point?) catches him completely off guard. There’s that scene (that actually foreshadows the start of it all going wrong) where there’s a slight glitch in their plans and Baby has to stop the whole heist for a few seconds so he can rewind his get-away track.
Hollingshead: I think it’s worth unpacking the film’s logic on this point. Baby Driver’s reliance on a white innocence narrative conceals what I think is an equally sinister argument about the ethics of cultural appropriation. The film’s central conceit—presented as a tongue-in-cheek form of magical thinking between Baby and his waitress girlfriend, Debora—is that names have a motivated (rather than arbitrary) connection to their referents. The film expresses this connection as a proprietary relation between persons and pop songs. Depending on your name, different songs are “about you.” Debora is an uncommon name in pop music; she and Baby can cite only two tracks that invoke it. The name “Baby,” on the other hand, is ubiquitous. “Every damn song is about you,” Debora sighs. And the film takes this claim very seriously: Baby clearly maintains a privileged relationship to cultural artifacts, specifically musical ones.
Hu: Carrying on the colorblind culture argument (a criticism often launched at Mad Men, aka Hamm headquarters), “Baby” literalized and embodied this way in a baby-faced tall white man is also a funny reappropriation of basically every damn song. To say that every song with “Baby” is, in a way, about Baby, is also, in a way, to anonymize pop music even while trying, in this case, to personalize it.
Hollingshead: Cher has a song called “David’s Song,” in which the name David is uttered zero times. Wanna know how many times she says “baby”? Five. Jane, you’ve got an insanely good song written about you.
Hu: There are more Jane songs than Debora songs for sure.
Hollingshead: Anyway, at one point in the film, Baby hijacks a Mustang from two vape-wielding wannabe gangsters while the opening bars of Young MC’s “Know How” pulse in the background. It’s only when Baby literally occupies the vehicle and clicks the stolen iPod that Young MC’s verse kicks in. Formally, the argument is clear: Baby’s unique power, nominally imbued, is his ability to draw the music out of its background obscurity and into the dynamic field of the film’s plot; he vitalizes cultural objects by appropriating them. The larger point, I think, is that the film wants to understand this proprietary relationship as colorblind even as Baby’s cultural voraciousness undeniably depends on an understanding of whiteness as being unmarked or culturally innocent, a blank slate upon which anything and everything can stick.
I’m ashamed not to have known about Carla Thomas’s song until this film, but I am o-b-s-e-s-s-e-d. (I’m also following Lily James on Instagram, and there was this recently:
What does Carla Thomas think about Baby Driver???)
For those in my boat, our introduction to “B-A-B-Y” is through Debora’s acapella hums. We just get a wisp of it. But besides Thomas’s singular phrasing, that funky piano/guitar backing is, like, half of the song for me. Baby Driver: Lyrics vs. Soundtracks.
Hollingshead: And don’t forget that Baby’s mom’s voice is itself a cover–it’s Sky Ferreira doing The Commodores’ “Easy.” The primal sound is, in fact, already derivative, underwritten by an act of appropriation.
Hu: Yes, “beg, stole, and borrowed.” I listened to The Commodores’ version of this so many times after this film. And I kind of appreciate that Sky Ferreira’s version isn’t made available (at least not on the soundtrack, or as far as I know).
Hu: Place is so interesting in this film, both generically and economically. The American car film is most often associated with , so the fact that Baby Driver is filmed in Atlanta both defamiliarizes the genre’s relationship to landscape while also bringing landscape to the fore. It’ll be interesting to see how Atlanta increasingly becomes a kind of second Hollywood. Nonetheless, I think the palimpsest of L.A. is still there? Highways, to an extent, all sort of look the same. Plus so much of the film’s confrontation actually takes place underground, in the anonymous spaces of garages too.
Hollingshead: Garages are super important in this film and speak directly to the L.A./Atlanta intertext you’ve brilliantly noted. The multi-storey car park indexes a particular mode of postwar urban development that both cities (though more famously L.A.) were subject to: suburbanization as white flight. In the fifties Atlanta identified itself as “the city too busy to hate”; it had mitigated the kinds of outright racial antagonism so prevalent throughout the rest of the South by emphasizing narratives of economic development across the color line. By the seventies, though, it had become “the city too busy moving to hate.” Atlanta’s historically progressive attitude toward desegregation obscured a more insidious and long durational instantiation of it. In this sense, it’s interesting that Baby Driver’s nostalgic desire is also a desire for a world without traffic. Debora’s dream, remember, is to “head West on 20 with a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have.” Baby Driver is very much a film about white flight.
Hu: Does the relationship between Atlanta and LA play out the racial tensions in the film? As others have noted, Atlanta is often used in Hollywood films not actually to stand in for Atlanta, but for somewhere else.
Hollingshead: It’s so interesting. On the one hand, Atlanta is like the film’s political unconscious, encoding all of this submerged history that the plot avoids addressing head-on; and on the other hand, the city serves as an explicit site of intertextual marketing and promotion for the film. One of the bangingest tracks on the soundtrack is Danger Mouse’s “Chase Me” featuring Run the Jewels, wh verses from two members of Atlantan hip-hop royalty: Killer Mike and Big Boi. In the music video accompanying the film’s release, virtuosic editing lends the impression that Mike, LP, Danger Mouse, and Big Boi are riding around robbing banks with Baby himself. It’s: the best.
Hu: I love Big Boi, I have nothing further to contribute to this.
Hollingshead: *extremely LP voice* “THAT’S WHY I’M OUTTA HERE, BABY.”
Hollingshead: “BEFORE THESE COPS PUT ME IN THE GROUND, BABY.”
David Hollingshead & Jane Hu