Wednesday 5 July 2017

Running on empty: "Baby Driver"

We've had The Angry Birds Movie and - heaven help us - we have The Emoji Movie still to come; Baby Driver screeches to a halt before us as Spotify: the Movie, a film that could only have sprung from a moment when the first thing a great many multiplex-goers do in the morning is pop in the earbuds that might drown out the world's less mellifluous sounds. Here is a film that doesn't have a plot, but a playlist; that doesn't trade in scenes or lines per se, rather songs, riffs and beats. It has a conduit for a protagonist - the eponymous Baby, a getaway driver with tinnitus who wields his MP3 player in much the same way his variably reliable passengers wield handguns - whose primary function, within the action, is to cue up one cool-sounding track after another; as Dixie Peach was otherwise engaged, the writer-director Edgar Wright has cast in the role one Ansel Elgort, the cherubic male lead of The Fault in Our Stars, who has come to ply an apparently roaring secondary trade as a mobile EDM DJ. (My instincts tell me he probably doesn't take requests.)

Inevitably, in centralising music so, Baby Driver raises the thorny question of individual taste. Wright's film opens with a heist that has been very precisely staged to line up with the staccato rhythms of the song "Bellbottoms" by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the first thought it provoked is that any mix CD sent my way that opened with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - or, indeed, any other variety of blues explosion - would be sent spinning at high speed into the nearest privet hedge. Yet there are serious crimes against music being committed here, which the film's strenuously superficial flash and dash shouldn't be allowed to cover up. As our protagonist remains from intro to outro a blank, we're never allowed the faintest sense of where he's sourced these songs from, what they might mean to him, or what they might tell us about the character; in Baby Driver, as in so many other walks of modern life, music gets reduced to wallpaper, fodder, content.

When, ahead of one heist, one robber misses his cue to burst out of the car, our hero obligingly shuffles back to replay the opening of the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat", reducing the track to the basis of a gag, and removing it of its thrashy immediacy; later, when Baby is forced to swap getaway vehicles mid-chase, he pauses for a full thirty seconds to retune the new car's stereo to the FM station previously heard pumping out "Radar Love", and words cannot express how annoying this winking framebreak will seem to you if you don't happen to find the moment impossibly cool. (In both instances, for all the emotion Elgort displays upon chancing across these oldies-but-goodies, he may as well be listening to chamber music.) The feeling is that Wright, consolidating his US studio career having parted ways with Marvel over Ant-Man, has fallen back on one incidental strength of his earlier, funnier films - the playful deployment of pop music - and striven to make that the whole picture. 

At its worst, this gives Baby Driver the sound of a talented singles act suddenly electing to turn out a concept album: twice we're treated to Queen plodding through "Brighton Rock", and on neither occasion does it summon the rowdy taproom energy "Don't Stop Me Now" lent to Shaun of the Dead. Even at its best, though, it seems such an unremittingly minor and dorky pursuit (how to make one of Blur's filler tracks the basis of an entire scene?) that it leaves an awful lot of blank space and dead air for the performers to fill. Handed characters who seem like afterthoughts (Wright betrays as much with his lame naming gag), they give karaoke turns, throwing the shapes the songs demand of them without ever threatening to address the project's essential hollowness. Gone is the geographic specificity - those welcome, wry notes on Englishness - that bolstered Wright's first films; in its place come archetypes, stock settings, quotes, quotes of quotes, and quotes of quotes of quotes, enough to make this director's small-screen breakthrough Spaced seem newly austere and classical.

Boy, does it feel like a dead end: more of that enervating Xerox cinema initiated by the bloviating copyist Tarantino, which has stuck us with Guy Ritchie and two Kingsman movies and Nicolas Winding Refn, and which needed to be stifled at birth (in the year 2017, would any of us really miss Pulp Fiction?); the cinema that insists the cinema is, at heart, a big nothing, one that needs rescuing from the old tyrannies of plot, character and social and emotional engagement by some straggly white dude in Spider-Man pants maintaining a sweaty grip on his overstuffed iPod. In as much as there is anything to see here, any fool can see that Baby Driver moves, propelled to some degree by Wright's trademark whipcrack edits. Yet all he succeeds in whipping up this time is a pretty terminal kind of velocity, a razzaround choreographed to speed into one ear and slide right out the other, leaving nothing more edifying behind it than a faint ringing sound. You may as well waste fifteen quid on the new Kenny G album. 

Baby Driver is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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