Vehicular singing continues a great tradition of human/machine interaction.
James Corden can suck it, Edgar Wright is the king of car karaoke. Baby Driver is the culmination of every daydreamer’s music video fantasies, the car radio thrumming in the heartbeat of an action scene and every measure as epic as your imagination promised. The heist movie focuses on the getaway driver played by Ansel Elgort who effectively stars in a series of music videos over the course of the film. Elgort’s character, Baby, suffers from tinnitus and always listens to music so he can exist in the world (and do his job) painlessly.
Baby lip syncs and dances along with all the film’s diegetic soundtrack piped in through his ever-present earbuds, making a modern musical out of everyday activities like picking up coffee or making a sandwich. Its most effective musical character moments are like those with which it opens: a guy singing along in a car. It’s something writer/director Wright mastered over fifteen ago and recreated to great effect here.
While the script for Baby Driver wasn’t written until 2010 according to Indiewire, Wright laid groundwork long before that. Back in 2002, Wright used a music video for the band Mint Royale (“Blue Song,” if you were wondering) to test a theory: cars and music go together, right? The video, whose gimmick is completely lifted for the opening scene of Baby Driver, sees a sunglassed getaway driver waiting on his heistmates and jamming out to a pumpin’ tune. He flails his arms, beats the dashboard, and flicks the wipers. He honks the horn accidentally at first, then more recklessly as he gets into it. It’s bliss. Unironic, unself-conscious bliss. The movie uses an old Wright favorite “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but the concept is the same. A guy is hyping himself up to be as cool as he thinks he is, so he can go do something as cool as the things we all wish we did: drive fast and beat the man.
It’s not just our driving fantasy, it’s fact. Moving a machine makes everything more visually interesting. Think about Freder in Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin screwing around with assembly lines in Modern Times. His sweeping gestures make the film funny, cartoonish, and exaggerated but the context of the factory brings him back down to humanity. He’s a simple guy lost in a metal jungle.
The machinery, the choreography, the practiced motion of a human body – it all serves to equalize the process and blur the line between organic and inorganic. Industrialization isn’t the sole use for this visual toolbox. The same effect happens when a person is in a car. When Elgort (or comedian Noel Fielding, in the music video) flips on the windshield wipers, he’s doing a wave. When he pounds on the side of the door or slaps the steering wheel, it’s an extension of hamboning on his body. When he mouths the words to the song in his rearview mirror, he sees the reflection of a rock star looking back at him. Of course, Baby Driver is set in America because nowhere else do people fetishize their cars so strongly as extensions of their masculinity.
Americans love their cars. They also strap a lot of personal worth to them, especially men. That’s why all our truck commercials sound like energy drink ads promising to make your dick super hard and your blood nice and red. It all stems from geography and historical patriarchy. America’s so big that having a car means freedom and freedom for one’s family. Freedom to leave to find work, freedom to drift. Freedom to be cool and aloof or romantic and escapist. That’s American as hell.
Baby, living in Atlanta, isn’t caught up in the make or model. It’s a different motivation. He chooses to drive classic muscle cars but works with much humbler rides so as to more easily blend into traffic during escapes. These cars may be stolen, gifted, bought, or…well, ok, usually they’re stolen, but they always feel like his as soon as he gets his music going inside them. An old lady’s sedan or a beefy truck both seem like Baby’s when he’s mouthing all the music. It’s smarmy confidence made physical and musical – a kind of Ok Go-ification of the action scene. There’s something at stake that, if one chooses to chip away at it with cold irony, shatters immediately. It simply runs too hot and raw for that.
Baby’s stunts are successes because he taps into a source of modern invincibility, the rock god fantasy striking everyone from soccer moms to delivery guys. Driving gives you speed, power, and everything else that comes with a new two-ton metal exoskeleton. And that’s weird. Singing along – dancing along – makes that exoskeleton feel like you. I guess what I’m saying is that singing in the car is like being your own Transformer. Hey Michael Bay, give me (or more beneficially, Edgar Wright) a call.