In the large-and-loud new heist film Baby Driver, Jamie Foxx's quip-happy bank robber spells it out early. "You don't need a score for a score," he says, asserting that stealing doesn't require a soundtrack. Lordy, Foxx hasn't been this wrong since Booty Call.
Baby Driver was inspired by a song – no, not the Simon & Garfunkel track – and is fuelled by music. Hell, it's half a jukebox musical (except for the almost complete lack of singing). With a ton of tunes, testosterone and tire squealing, let's call it the anti-La La Land.
"Let's not," says the film's director, Edgar Wright. "I mean, I've got nothing against La La Land, so I'm not going to say that."
Wright then lets out a healthy, high-pitched laugh. "Let's call it a car-chase movie, driven by music."
Fair enough. The man is entitled to his descriptions.
A boyish 43-year-old, the native of Somerset, England, is bright of eyes, patchy of beard and chipper in demeanour. He was in Toronto recently for an advance screening of Baby Driver, set to open on June 28. Starring Ansel Elgort as a sweet-souled, baby-faced and iPod-loving getaway driver, the film marks a gear-shift in genre for the director of a comedic trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End) and the inventive, graphic novel-based Scott Pilgrim vs. the World from 2010. While the nutty Scott Pilgrim was music-heavy and full of fighting, Baby Driver, which made its world premiere at South by Southwest this spring, is darker and intense – the violence impulsive and video-game ruthless, not cartoonish.
Despite its psychopathic interludes, for its first 70 minutes Baby Driver is a pleasurable (almost zippy) action comedy co-starring Foxx, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey as bad guys of varying type, with an adorable romance bubbling between Elgort's "Baby" character and Downton Abbey's Lily James, at her young Jessica Lange dewiest. Then things get heavy.
"Intentionally so," Wright says. "It starts with the dream of being a getaway driver, but it ends up in a nightmare. All great crime films are like that."
All great crime films. With Baby Driver, Wright doesn't so much as avoid tropes of the genre as embrace them. One last job? Check. Lovers on the run? You bet your bippy, Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde.
"Baby is essentially a good-hearted kid, but he's in with a nest of vipers and there's no way the influence isn't corrosive," says Wright, who also wrote the screenplay. "Once you're in it, it's very difficult to extricate yourself."
With these kinds of films, there's the sticky issue of principles. Who's good? Who's evil?
"Crime movies today, I think, play fast and loose with morality of the heroes," Wright says. "I always like that in the old Warner Bros. gangster films there was a moral kicker."
What Edward G. Robinson didn't have were ear buds and a savvy playlist: "We're going to play Gershwin, see, and we're going to play it now, and you're going to like it or it's the last thing you're ever gonna hear. Got that, doll face?"
When he was 21, Wright heard Bellbottoms, a hustling, pummelling freak-blues number by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Listening to the song, he envisioned car chases. "I had the germ of the idea for the film, long before I knew what it was called or what it was about," Wright says.
The music-obsessed Baby, always moving to a beat, is highly particular when it comes to his getaway music: Bellbottoms, the film's first tune, is his "killer track." (And Jon Spencer has a cameo, by the way.) The rest of the soundtrack is filled with Wright's own killer tracks, including Bob & Earl's Harlem Shuffle, Carla Thomas's B-A-B-Y, Golden Earring's Radar Love, Queen's Brighton Rock, Simon & Garfunkel's Baby Driver – "They call me baby driver, and once upon a pair of wheels I hit the road and I'm gone" – and the Commodores' Easy.
Wait, the Commodores' Easy? A record-player needle scratches across the vinyl and ruins the funky vibe. Easy, as in Lionel Richie and "easy like Sunday morning?"
Let Wright explain: "When I first met Ansel, I sprang something on him. 'What can you lip sync by heart?' I asked the same question to all of the cast. Ansel picked Easy. He's 21 years old. The answer surprised me and it worked so well for the character that I wrote it into the script."
If the music is retro, the tone of the modern-day crime film is often even more vintage than the soundtrack, with many scenes taking place in the type of fifties-styled diner that Wright would come across on a road trip he took from New York to L.A. years ago. Oddly, that era of the United States is the one he's most familiar with. "As a child in England, I watched Grease and Happy Days," Wright explains. "I was four years old. I didn't realize they were set in the fifties. I just thought that's what America looked like, and now when I go to those type of places, the diners, I feel strangely comfortable."
Route 66 Americana and retro jukebox music. Score one for the Brit.
Baby Driver opens June 28.