When Edgar Wright premiered his new film, Baby Driver, earlier this year at SXSW, critics and viewers were quick to compare it to La La Land. Both films centered around the budding romance between a soulful, brooding would-be musician and a peppy, dreamy coffee shop waitress; both were set to music from start to finish; and both were shot in an eye-popping color palette that recalled the films of bygone eras (albeit different one: Baby Driver is to the work of Walter Hill and early Michael Mann as La La Land is to that of Vicente Minnelli and Jacques Demy).
Of course, Baby Driver, unlike La La Land, is also a high-octane car-chase movie, replete with life-and-death stakes and bursts of violence, and the marketing for the film has focused on these aspects (as well as its humor). This isn’t a case of misrepresentation: Baby Driver is as much a crime caper and thriller as it is anything else. Still, viewers going in to it with little or no prior knowledge of Wright’s filmography, and who may be expecting something more traditionally fast and/or furious, might find themselves surprised at exactly what type of film they’re getting. For while Baby Driver is far too much of a crowd-pleaser to anticipate any real audience backlash, it is not simply an action-comedy: it is also very much a musical.
Some might take umbrage at such a designation, since the film doesn’t have people busting out spontaneously into song and dance (except for when it does, as in the long tracking shot that accompanies the film’s opening credits, wherein we watch the titular Baby bop through the streets of Atlanta, singing along to the sounds of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” on his iPod). And yet, though the music is diegetic, the film still fits into the framework of the traditional musical on both a formal and visceral level.
Whether the crooks, cons, and hapless innocents that make up the universe of Baby Driver are aware of it or not, said universe is as alive with the sounds of music as, well, The Sound of Music. The landscape is literally strewn with signifiers of the songs that drive the story: lyrics appear on walls and window shops at the same time they travel through Baby’s earbuds; people move to the beat of his music library; the cacophony of the action — screeching wheels, busts of gunfire, punches, slaps, and kicks — synchs up to the rhythm and the beats perfectly. Functionally speaking, there is hardly a moment in the entire film that is not operating on the same level as Busby Berkeley set piece.
If none of this is sufficient to qualify Baby Driver as a musical, we have to ask: What makes a musical a musical in the first place?
This question can be applied to other genres: What makes a horror film a horror film? What makes a Western a Western? When it comes to these examples, such considerations are generally a question of intent vs. effect (is this movie trying to be a horror film?) or iconography vs. thematic concerns (does a story need to take place in the “Old West” for it be a Western?). For the musical, however, which itself is not so much a genre as it is a framework, the questions are harder to define, to say nothing of the answers.
Most of the time, we know a musical when we spot one: everything from Footlight Parade to Singing in the Rain, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, from Umbrellas of Cherbourg to La La Land, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017). However, in our current cinematic landscape, where musicals have made a comeback but are still nowhere near as prevalent as they were prior to the collapse of the studio system in the late ‘60s, we are not always so good at spotting them.
Take, for example, Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001), which no one can tell me isn’t a musical. The music in the film is central to the plot and is mostly diegetic (i.e., it comes from in-movie sources and is heard by the characters), while still having an overall feeling of magical realism that places it firmly to the left of we would call “reality.” Yet, despite this — and despite the fact that the movie’s soundtrack is arguably more popular than the film itself — most people probably wouldn’t consider it a musical.
And what then of the mid-budget biopics of musicians that come out every year? Your Walk the Lines and Get On Ups and Straight Out of Comptons and All Eyez on Mez? Do they count as musicals? After all, their musical set pieces are central to their function. The same can be said for many fictional films that center around musicians and music scenes, be they of the character study variety such as Inside Llewyn Davis, We Are The Best, and every movie John Carney has ever made; or of the competition-drama variety as with School of Rock, Pitch Perfect, and Sing. These latter examples operate on the same functional level as dance films (which, more generally speaking, operate on the same level as most sports films), but since they also feature singing, is not that enough to make them musicals?
Whatever the answer, it doesn’t much matter when it comes to Baby Driver, which lies outside all of these categorical brackets. Baby Driver is a thing unto itself, a deeply personal vision that could only have come from Edgar Wright.
Wright is what we might call a “needle-drop” director, one of several prominent filmmakers of his generation. The godfather of this group, if I can mix up my mob movie auteurs, is, of course, Martin Scorsese, who has employed a wide variety of carefully chosen rock, pop, and punk songs to score the montages and set pieces for most of his contemporary films. He has inspired the generations of filmmakers that followed him to do the same, foremost among them Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe, Sofia Coppola and James Gunn.
However, unlike Scorsese, who in 1977 made the widely panned New York, New York, none of these filmmakers has committed to making a full-on musical, at least not in the traditional sense.
Tarantino has described his films as “mixtapes,” but while he may pump the brakes every now and then in order to let his characters dance their hearts out, he has never let them sing. Cameron Crowe has made several films about people in or tangentially related to the music business, and Coppola has made a couple that operate on the same visceral level as music videos, but one would be hard-pressed to consider any of them musicals.
The Andersons have come closer: Wes’s Life Aquatic is scored to the music of David Bowie as interpreted by Brazilian musician Serge Jorge, who serves as the balladeer for the characters in the story as well as us in the audience; while PT’s Magnolia uses the songs of Aimee Mann as a sort of emotional Greek chorus, going so far as to stop the story in its tracks to have a fourth-wall-breaking musical number in which all of the characters sing along to her “Wise Up.” Yet even in these examples, the music doesn’t play a central enough part for them to be dubbed “musicals.”
Of all the above-mentioned filmmakers (not counting Wright), it is Gunn who has come the closest to making a full-fledged musical. While the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie relies on its soundtrack (perhaps overmuch) to establish its specific tone, the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, actually uses its music in a similar way to Baby Driver, making it key to the action and themes of its story. And while its action is nowhere near as intricately choreographed, it is centered around the song choices in much the same way. While we should never say never, GotG: Vol 2 is likely the closest we are going to get to an A-list superhero musical (unless some brave fool wants to tempt fate by adapting the cursed Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for the screen).
As far as Gunn takes things, Wright has managed to take them further in Baby Driver. He began down this path in earnest with Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film that has several musical sequences throughout, but which never centered its action around them enough to make itself a proper musical. Still, you can see the groundwork being laid there, so much so that the film now feels like something of a test run for Baby Driver. Then again, it is also now quite clear that Wright has been gearing up for this from the get-go, as the use of a song from a certain British arena rock band during the climax of Baby Driver brings to mind his use of them in his first feature, Shaun of the Dead, thus bringing everything full circle.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter much whether Baby Driver — or any film — is considered a full-fledged musical (nor is there any central authority to make such a concrete determination). But in this current climate, where audiences express a sense of ownership of the content they consume, so often demanding that films meet their predetermined expectations (no matter how petty and/or outright baffling), and where there is no shortage of critics willing to enable this kind of attitude by attempting to set ill-defined guidelines on genre, it is important to celebrate movies that don’t conform to easy classifications and to do so by enlarging our conceptions of genre, rather than limiting them.
As such, it is not sufficient to recognize Baby Driver a great film. We should also recognize it, specifically, as a great musical.
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, city of singing angels.