This article contains some Baby Driver spoilers…but in any case, the tunes within should be played at maximum volume.
There are maybe a dozen film directors who put the time and care into creating soundtracks as perfect for their movies as Edgar Wright. Names like Scorsese and Tarantino spring to mind. But you really can’t fathom the full genius of Wright’s musical selections until you have a chance to sit down and talk to him about music.
After all, Wright has repeatedly used music to win over audiences, whether it’s the famous use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” during a comedic zombie fight in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, or all the new music that was created for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s various bands with a supergroup including Beck and members of Broken Social Scene and Metric.
Wright’s latest movie, Baby Driver, is an amalgam of action-thriller, crime-comedy, and young romance with one of the most amazing jukebox soundtracks possible, mixing classic rock and soul with some seriously esoteric instrumental tracks. It’s not only one of the best movie soundtracks of the year but also, one of the best soundtrack albums, since it provides full versions of all the songs.
Ansel Elgort plays “Baby,” a getaway driver used for a series of elaborate heists and bank robberies masterminded by his handler Doc (Kevin Spacey), with a varied and motley team of criminals, played by Jon Benthal, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and others. When Baby meets waitress Debora (Lily James) in a diner, he’s immediately smitten and decides he wants to run away with her after completing “one last job.” (Of course, that’s not what happens.)
Reportedly, Wright has 34,367 tracks in his iTunes library, from which he picked all the music to use in the movie himself. He works with “music consultant” Kirsten Lane (whom he’s been working with since Shaun of the Dead) to clear the rights to use those tunes in the movie, rather than the traditional way of having a Music Supervisor who recommends and finds songs to use.
“You end up looking within your own library,” he told Den of Geek, during a sit-down earlier this week. “I buy a lot of music, and I usually go looking for things tangentially of stuff I’ve already gotten. I’m always looking for other things in the same vein. I buy a lot of music and a lot of compilations, and I’m always interested in hearing random things I wouldn’t normally, but all of the things in the movie existed in my iTunes before the movie.”
Many of the harder to find tracks, even on CD, came from those compilations, because “you get things you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
We decided to single out a few of the tracks from the movie and soundtrack to delve deeper into the musical mind of Edgar Wright, learning how some of the songs and ideas were gestating in his head for many years.
So let’s get to it…
Simon & Garfunkel (from the album Bridge Over Troubled Water)
When Baby Driver’s end credits roll, a song plays, clearly by Simon & Garfunkel, who are no strangers to motion picture soundtracks. It’s a more esoteric non-single appropriately called “Baby Driver,” with a few lyrics that sound to have been written specifically for the movie you’ve just watched.
“I think ‘Baby Driver’ is the B-Side of ‘The Boxer.’ I knew it because probably my first experiences with music was my parents’ record collection. My parents had a box of 20 records, and that was it. They had one Stones album–the first one–and then they had a bunch of Beatles albums, but they did not have Revolver, which was kind of funny to me. They had a Motown ‘Chartbusters’ album, some Genesis albums, some Peter Gabriel albums, classical music and Bridge Over Troubled Water. So I knew that album VERY well, and I used to really like that track.”
“It’s one of those tracks where I was always curious about the lyrics of it. The movie is not based on the lyrics of that song, but there is that element of the character being sort of folklore-y in terms of this is somebody that tales are told of the ‘Baby Driver.’ It’s something that gave me that kind of vibe of being a character of some renown, like kind of infamous, this fast drier that’s known to the police but known by name.”
“There’s lots of things in this movie that were not suppressed things, but things that were bubbling away, but it wasn’t like I heard the song and came up with the movie. I had the idea that I wanted to do a diegetic action-musical in that all the music in the film is happening in the scene. ‘Baby Driver,’ maybe I heard again and said, ‘Oh, that’s the perfect title for my movie—it’s about a young getaway driver!’ I always thought it should end on that.”
(What Wright wasn’t aware of was a Kiss song, also called “Baby Driver,” which he kept being asked about when people heard the title of his movie. “Maybe if there’s a sequel, I’ll put the Kiss song in there,” he jokes.)
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (from the album Orange)
New York City rock legend Jon Spencer famously wrote the song “Here Comes the Fuzz” for Wright’s earlier film Hot Fuzz, but an earlier hit with his namesake band was also hugely inspirational on Baby Driver, not just because Wright considers it “pretty much the greatest opening track of any rock album ever.”
“The reality is that the song sort of inspired the entire thing, because when I first heard that song, it was 1995, I was 21, I was living in London for the first time. Even though I’d made my first movie (A Fistful of Fingers) and I was editing it, I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘film director.’ I’d say it’s the closest thing to synesthesia in a way that it wasn’t like I listened to ‘Bellbottoms’ and imagined a car chase. But when I did, it was something where it was like, ‘This is happening and I’m dreaming this up, whether I like it or not.’”
“It wasn’t like I thought, ‘I have an idea for a heist movie in Hollywood’ but I thought, ‘This is a perfect car chase song,’ and then it’s like, ‘What to do with this vision?’ and then, ‘Well, what if the getaway driver is listening to the track and what if it’s a young getaway driver who listens to music the whole time?’ That was the start of the idea that far back, and over the years, I had the idea sort of stewing away, never really knowing… “
“Back in 1995, I’d never even been to the United States, so by the time I physically started writing Baby Driver, I had been over here lots and lots of times. I’d even driven from New York to L.A. listening to music the entire time. It’s true to say that without ‘Bellbottoms’ I might not have had the idea in the first place, because I literally thought, ‘This is the perfect car chase song,’ and then I had to come up with the perfect car chase film to go with it.”
(Jon Spencer actually has a cameo in Baby Driver, as does director Walter Hill, whose early film The Driver also helped inspire Wright’s film.)
Bob & Earl
After the opening chase scene, we watch Ansel Elgort stroll through downtown Atlanta to buy coffee, a single-shot take synced to this classic soul song, later covered by the Rolling Stones. Had Wright ever thought about setting the movie in New York?
“It’s funny, but the first two songs mention New York, but it never came up to me. The sad thing is that L.A. and New York–French Connection aside–to shoot this kind of movie is very difficult. Things you could have done in the seventies and eighties are really tough to mount in this day and age… and not easy to do in Atlanta either. Shooting car chases on the I-85 freeway is like a major big deal and one of the most complicated things about the movie. I never thought about it being in New York.”
“Why ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is a great walking song, just the groove of it—it’s not based on the actual lyrics, but it’s such a slinky amazing rhythm to walk along to. That is the soundtrack for a single-take shot, so when we were trying to find the right location for that single take, we literally would have ‘Harlem Shuffle’ playing on my iPhone and be walking around trying to find… ‘Okay, we love this revolving door. Let’s walk around downtown Atlanta and find a place that we can get to by the first chorus that can be the coffee shop.’ If you’re doing it one take, there’s no way of faking that.”
“What’s crazy is that as far back as 2008, when I first started trying to write this movie, one of the first things I did with this British DJ Osymyso (Mark Nicholson), I had the songs, and I said I wanted to do a sounds FX mix of this where I mixed the sound FX into the track so we can map out the sense of the immersive experience. We did that with about ten of the tracks so when actors and the studio read it, they would hear these tracks. Ansel Elgort read the script and his version of ‘Harlem Shuffle’ had all the sound FX mixed in, so I think for a lot of people, their response to the material was like, ‘Oh, I totally get it,’ because everything is in time with the music including the sound FX.”
by Beck (from the album Midnight Vultures)
by Tyrannosaurus Rex (aka T. Rex)
A fun exchange between Baby Driver’s young lovers on their second meeting is when he tries to find out her name, and when she says, “Debora,” he asks, “Like the song?” This leads to an exchange about songs using that name, including the first single by Marc Bolan’s very first band, and a song by another Wright collaborator, Beck, who wrote the name song “Ramona” for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
“It was the T. Rex song first. I liked that T. Rex song, and I thought it would be interesting to have a whole thread about names in songs, and there’s not that many ‘Debora’ songs–there’s the T. Rex one, the Beck one, and there’s one by Dave Edmunds, and I think that’s it, in terms of the title being ‘Debora.’ I came up with the T. Rex thing first and then when I mentioned the song ‘Debora’ to someone, they said, ‘Oh, the Beck one?’ Then I thought the Beck one would be funny to talk about, because the famous first line of it is, ‘I met you in JC Penney, I think your name tag said Jenny.’ I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s about Jenny, the sister. The singer of that song wants to get with Jenny of JC Penney but also wants to get with her sister Debra.’ So it just became something that would be a fun discussion, and also the idea of making people in the audience think, ‘Hmmm.. I wonder if I have a song named after me.’ I don’t think there’s any ‘Edgar’ songs…”
“Let’s Go Away for Awhile”
The Beach Boys (from the album Pet Sounds)
One of the film’s more esoteric tracks is a song playing in the diner where Baby and Debora meet, a lesser-known instrumental by one of the most famous vocal groups of all time, which contributes to the tempo of that scene.
“When I did my first audition with Ansel Elgort—he read for it twice—he was reading the diner scene, and I asked, ‘Do you want me to play the Beach Boys while you read the scene? Because that’s what we’ll be hearing.’ He said, ‘Sure!’ If you listen to ‘Let’s Go Away for a While’ by the Beach Boys while you’re doing the scene, you just start drifting towards that tempo, so when Lily James and Ansel Elgort are playing that scene and it’s kind of dreamy, it’s because they’re listening to that track.”
Blur (from the album Modern Life is Rubbish)
Another odd instrumental choice is one by the British band Blur that would only be known by fans of their second album, used almost as its title implies as Baby waits for one of the film’s heists to happen.
“Sometimes with instrumentals, particularly with this movie, they’re more open to interpretation with the visuals, because you can kind of do anything with an instrumental. ‘Intermission’ was always something to me that starts comedic and then becomes very menacing, so it’s something I’ve always had earmarked as a track I thought would be amazing to use in a movie. That’s why a lot of the instrumentals are in there.”
And with that, we’ll take our own intermission with Wright’s thoughts on…
Connecting Characters (And Viewers) Through The Music
“That’s something I liked about writing the script and it was a fun thing to do. There’s not that many references to films in the movie at all, other then the things Baby watches on TV. What I did want to do is have the characters talking about music throughout, because it is something everybody has a response to. There’s not a single person on this planet, who doesn’t have some kind of connection to this music. Okay, maybe some Buddhist monks or people in Tibet, but most people have some connection to music, and their connections are so random and disparate of people you wouldn’t think would like a particular thing or know a particular thing. I think it’s kind of fascinating that it’s something we all have a relationship with.”
“It happens quite a few times in the movie. When Lily James and Ansel Elgort share headphones, it’s a romantic thing, sharing music while they’re both listening to the same T. Rex song, but when Jon Hamm takes out the ear buds, it’s an invasive thing. I really like that. It’s a fun thing of somebody listening to something you’re listening to in a sort of sinister way is kind of interesting.”
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (from the album Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers)
“I like when Jon Bernthal says ‘Egyptian Reggae,’ because he says it with bemusement, because it’s like, ‘Is that the name of the song or is that the genre?’ He goes, ‘I want to know what’s going on between this kid’s ears, aside from… Egyptian Reggae…”
Focus (from the album Focus II)
The Netherlands is represented on the Baby Driver soundtrack by two bands, and both those classic rock tracks are used during the last act chase sequences.
“Sometimes it’s a mix of things and the lyrics are saying exactly what we’re seeing like ‘Nowhere to Run To’ being an obvious example, or ‘When Something’s Wrong with my Baby’ or the Barry White song where the lyrics start to really sync up to what’s happening, but there are other great instrumentals that are crying out for some visual accompaniment like ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus or ‘Intermission’ by Blur.”
“When I was younger, I assumed—like most people did—that Golden Earring was an American FM rock band, because it’s the most American sound by a Dutch band ever. Whereas ‘Focus’ sounds very Dutch. I didn’t really think of that in terms of the nationality of the song, that didn’t really factor into it.”
“Neat Neat Neat”
The Damned (from the album Damned Damned Damned)
Another one of the great high-energy tunes Baby plays during a getaway is the second single from Britain’s seminal punk band, The Damned, a seriously underrated and under-appreciated band you rarely hear in movie soundtracks. Wright told us about how he first discovered the band.
“The first time I was aware of them was in the mid-eighties, they had a surprise hit with ‘Eloise,’ that cover. Also, before that actually, Captain Sensible, bizarrely, had a very successful but brief solo career in the UK and a #1 single with a cover of ‘Happy Talk’ by Rogers and Hammerstein, so I knew Captain Sensible and then The Damned had ‘Eloise’ and then later, as I was getting into music and listening to punk albums, songs like ‘New Rose’ and ‘Neat Neat Neat’ from that first album were fantastic.”
“What’s funny is that I saw this documentary about The Damned that came out last year called Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, and in that documentary, David Vanian is in his dressing room at one point, having a slightly embittered rant, says, ‘Nobody remembers the Damned. If you have a documentary about the seventies, you have the Pistols and the Clash and the Buzzcocks but never The Damned.’ And he says, ‘Why isn’t the Damned in more movies? How do we, the Damned, get on a soundtrack? Why can’t we get some of that sweet soundtrack money?’ I was watching this documentary after I had shot Baby Driver, thinking ‘Oh my God! I’m going to really turn it around for The Damned.’ So I hope they see the movie and enjoy it.”
Wright also told us that the look for Simon Pegg’s Gary King in The World’s End was half-based on Vanian, as he gave pictures of the Damned frontman to the costume and make-up departments.
Queen (from the album Sheer Heart Attack)
Baby’s “killer track” in a conversation he has with Jon Hamm’s character is the second Queen song Wright has used in one of his movies. Is it possible that “Brighton Rock” is the most esoteric and little-known Queen song that could be someone’s “killer track”?
“I think it’s from their best album, actually. Sheer Heart Attack is my favorite Queen album. It’s like their third album and the one right before A Night at the Opera, and it’s the first proper hit album they had, because they had ‘Killer Queen’ on it and ‘Brighton Rock’ opened the album. Sometimes you pick tracks where there’s no video for it or nobody’s done anything with it. It’s not been in any other movie. I like the idea that people who do know that album, the thing that’s most famous about ‘Brighton Rock’ is ‘What an amazing fucking guitar solo by Brian May!’ An incredible, incredible guitar solo*.”
“That was really the thing and there’s a line that Jon Hamm says that always made me feel… he goes, ‘I know that album. My brother used to play it through the wall,’ because I remember when I was a kid, there were some albums by AC/DC that my brother used to play that I knew them by heart, because I listened to them through the wall ‘cause my brother was playing them so loud.”
“At one point I thought, ‘Is Sheer Heart Attack too esoteric for an American audience?’ and then, when we were shooting in Atlanta, there’s a scene in a record store called Criminal Records, and when we walked in to do a technical scout, proudly placed in this ‘new reissued vinyl’ was Sheer Heart Attack and I was like, ‘Well, there you go!”
(*Interesting note: Queen rarely played this song live, especially going into the eighties, although Brian May would frequently play the song’s solo section live, as he did at the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony in London.)
“Easy” – The Commodores (from the album “Commodores”)
Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to talk more extensively about one of probably the bigger hit songs on the Baby Driver soundtrack, a song that provides the film’s emotional core in Baby’s memories of his mother. In the film, she’s played by Sky Ferreira, whose 2013 album Night Time, My Time Wright was a fan of, and she also provides an amazing cover of the song for the soundtrack. She also appears on the latest record from the Jesus and Mary Chain, which makes her that much cooler.
Baby Driver opens nationwide (as well as in Canada and the UK) on Wednesday, June 28. The soundtrack is available on Amazon and elsewhere.