If nothing else, Baby Driver is about music. The main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, has some habits that will sound familiar to any music fan: he constantly wears his headphones and plays music on his iPod classic – a device which the movie treats with a great deal of nostalgia, and which Baby collects in a rather unconventional way. He can instantly recognize which iPod has which song and uses differently stylized iPods depending on the mood of the day. Hilariously, on more than one occasion he feels the need to start a song from the beginning or to rewind it just a bit so it suits the moment, even it means losing some time and jeopardizing the success of the team’s heist (okay, hopefully that last part is not so relatable). Whether, like driving, music is just another form of running away, of escapism (we are often reminded that he listens to music to block the ringing in his ears caused by tinnitus), is a more complicated question, but perhaps a less important one – one thing that’s obvious is that Baby loves his music.
With a concept like this one, it’s no wonder the part car chase part musical movie that is Baby Driver has a soundtrack that’s nothing short of amazing. The musical references alone are enough to convince any music fan. Flea and Sky Ferreira both have roles in the film, the latter playing Baby’s mother (and if Flea’s appearance rings a bell to any hardcore Wright fans, it may be because Todd plays the opening riff to the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ ‘Around the World’ during a bass battle in Scott Pilgrim), while you may also spot cameos from Jon Spencer, Big Boi and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, who are all featured in the soundtrack (Danger Mouse ft. Big Boi and Run the Jewels sample ‘Bellbottoms’ on the promotional track ‘Chase Me’).
And certainly, anyone who is a fan of Edgar Wright’s work knows how integral music has always been to his films. Tracing every music choice in Edgar Wright’s filmography would be a long and arduous task, but there are some that are still worth mentioning here. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is similarly fuelled by music – Beck wrote the songs played by the band Sex Bob-omb in the film while Broken Social Scene wrote the songs for their rival band Crash and the Boys. Not to mention that the soundtrack also features Metric, Black Lips, and The Rolling Stones while the score was composed by none other than Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. What’s more, the Cornetto trilogy also offered us some clever and fun musical moments. Hot Fuzz, with a score by legendary composer David Arnold, showcased how Wright (here alongside music supervisor Nick Angel) often playfully chooses songs that are appropriate in quite a literal way: it features police-themed songs like Supergrass’ ‘Caught by the Fuzz’, Jon Spencer and the Elegant Trio‘s ‘Here Come the Fuzz’, and ‘Lethal Fuzz’, a remix by frequent Wright collaborator Osymyso sampling music from Lethal Weapon, as well as a collection of classic and indie rock tracks so perfect for your driving playlist you might as say they anticipated Baby Driver. Wright and Pegg also carefully selected the songs for The World’s End, which features Primal Scream, Blur, the Stone Roses, Suede and Kylie Minogue, with the most memorable musical accompaniment to the characters’ adventure going from pub to pub being The Doors‘ ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’. And of course, who can forget the iconic ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ scene from Shaun of the Dead, where Queen’s song – arguably popularized after its use in the film – transformed the zombie-fight sequence into comedy gold? (In an interview with Edith Bowman on her podcast called Soundtracking – which I strongly recommend you listen to – Wright said his plan B if denied permission from Queen was Boney M‘s ‘Rasputin’, which if nothing else shows that his imagination offers more than one idea when it comes to soundtracking a scene.) Suffice it to say, Wright not only knows his music but can also integrate it well into his films with the same excitement that characterizes Baby.
You might say that this snapshot of Wright’s relationship with music is irrelevant when discussing the soundtrack of Baby Driver, but I would argue that it’s important to look at it as a sort of evolution. As a musical, Baby Driver is the culmination of all this, not just a sort of logical continuation but Wright’s most ambitious statement yet. As others have noted, the film redefines how we think about movie soundtracks, itself resembling more of a long music video – which makes sense since the idea was born after he directed the video for Mint Royale‘s ‘Blue Song’. Working on the idea since he was just 21, he told Variety that it was “the closest thing to having action-movie synesthesia, [where] I would listen to that song and imagine this car chase”, while he has also said that he already had decided on some of the songs before actually writing the script, which “came with a little thumb drive with the music attached,” as actor Jon Hamm revealed. In this way, music doesn’t act as just an accompaniment, placed in the background during post-production, but to some extent brings to life and inspires the story. The movie is built around and alongside the music – a risky decision that paid off – creating a seamless and masterful interaction between sound and visuals enhanced by the impressive and noteworthy choreography of Ryan Hefferton (known for Sia‘s ‘Chandelier’ video). Other than being a mixtape of a movie, it’s also different from Wright’s other films because music gives us a glimpse into Baby’s mind, allowing us to see the world through his eyes and building character rather than just mood. It’s a testament to soundtracking your own life, but it also feels real and personal even to the most unapologetic non-music fans.
Naturally, when it comes to the actual songs used – which admittedly I have refrained from talking about – Baby Driver more than delivers. The mix features artists and collaborators that fans will probably recall hearing in previous films as well as a few unfamiliar ones, but the result is always on-point. It makes sense that ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was the first song Wright had in mind, as its extended use in the opening scene leads to one of the most memorable, exciting, and noticeably well-thought out sequences in the film. The song is at its core a blues-inspired rock track suitable for an action scene, but since this is Jon Spencer we’re talking about, it’s distorted into something noisier, more chaotic and appropriately post-modern, which underlines the criminal nature of the situation – and by the time the car chase begins, the song’s ferocious and garage elements are brought to the forefront. Blur‘s unpopular ‘Intermission’ takes a similar direction, as the song’s at first comfortingly jazzy piano melody eventually foreshadows something off-putting. Played immediately after ‘Bellbottoms’ to full effect is Bob & Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’, which comes in direct contrast to the previous track with its soul-infused upbeat but casual feel, once again perfectly integrated into a stretched-out, musical-like sequence, with lyrics magically appearing on walls.
Like ‘Bellbottoms’, there are a number of energetic rock songs soundtracking chase and heist scenes. The Damned‘s ‘Neat Neat Neat’ – its use was what sealed the deal for Flea to take part in the film – is the punkiest of them all, while Queen’s ‘Brighton Rock’, with its “killer guitar solo,” as Hamm’s Buddy puts it, is one of the most intense. There are not one but two non-American songs in this category, both from Dutch bands; the underused ‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring, a recognizably fitting track for anyone who has made a road trip playlist, and the epic ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus, which is used to exhilarating effect in a foot chase scene that turns into one of the most climactic moments through the song’s combination of conventional and unconventional elements.
Characteristically, some tracks cleverly reference characters in the movie quite directly, and the obviousness of it – in most cases the titles are enough in themselves – never takes away from their impact. These are namely Carla Thomas’ ‘B-A-B-Y’, the song Debora sings when she first meets Baby, and numerous other of those “infinite baby songs”, including ‘Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)’ by The Detroit Emeralds, Barbara Lewis‘ ‘Baby, I’m Yours’ and of course ‘Baby Driver’ by Simon & Garfunkel. But the most effectively used of these is Sam & Dave‘s ‘When Something Is Wrong with My Baby’, whose lyrics suit the unsettling scene which it accompanies but whose contrastingly soothing sound makes it even more chilling. Also featured are of course the two songs referencing Lily James’ character, ‘Debora’ by T. Rex – or “Trex”, as Baby calls him – and Beck‘s ‘Debra’ (both artists have been featured in Wright’s previous films, specifically Scott Pilgrim, which notably also used a Beck song named after the main female character, Ramona). These songs are more than just witty inside jokes, as they contribute to the soundtrack’s musical variety and often evoke a disparate romantic mood.
Other songs carry more profound emotional significance, leading to some of the most touching and poignant moments in the film. ‘Nowhere To Run’ by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas is the more subtle choice, as its upbeat sound slightly conceals its more hopeless tone, which is applicable to Baby’s situation and highlights his biggest fear: “Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide,” Reeves sings. Even more moving is the use of ‘Easy’ by The Commodores, a song which was chosen after Elgort picked it when asked to lip-sync to a song by heart during his audition. Acting as a connection to Baby’s mother, the song is the only obvious ballad here – and if, for this reason alone, it stands out when it is first used, then it is even more heart-wrenching when Sky Ferreira’s cover comes up to conclude the film. Then there’s the exact opposite of a sentimental tear-jerker, with tracks like The Button Down Brass‘ ‘Tequila’ and ‘Was He Slow’ used for comedic purposes (the version of the latter used in the soundtrack is accredited to Kid Koala, who has been working with Wright since Shaun of the Dead). The songs flow together nicely when listened to as an album, while in the context of the film Steve Price’s score does a good work of connecting the pieces. To say that music drives the film would not only be a bad pun but also quite an understatement. The Baby Driver soundtrack will surely be remembered as one of the best of its kind.