Peter Bart: Did Edgar Wright Rewrite The Movie Soundtrack Rules With ‘Baby Driver’?

Baby Driver
Sony Pictures

Baby Driver is either the hippest new action movie around or, as one critic calls it, “an overlong music video,” but in either case it redefines how movies and music dynamically inter-connect. “It’s an exercise in syncopating an entire movie to music,” in the words of Modi Wiczyk, whose company, MRC, co-funded the summer sleeper that’s already challenging road-weary franchise movies this summer.

Some filmgoers who are not music buffs may wonder how director Edgar Wright’s fertile imagination connected the 1995 “Bellbottoms” to car chases or “Blue Song” to bank heists, but these synergies may become clearer if they see a new documentary titled Score, which opened in a few theaters this week. The film examines the chemistry between filmmakers and composers in innovating themes and random sounds to enhance the storytelling process. “The terrifying reality about a film score is simply that you absolutely have to get it right,” observes Jim Cameron in the doc (he got it right in Titanic and Avatar).

In Score, writer-director Matt Schrader transports us from the early days of the Wurlitzer through Max Steiner’s introduction of the “big orchestra sound” in the first King Kong to Ennio Morriconi’s bold use of the guitar in his spaghetti Westerns to Trent Reznor’s electronic innovations in The Social Network and Danny Elfman’s in Tim Burton’s Batman.

The doc reminds us of those moments when composers delivered magical themes that became signatures to films: John Barry’s exhilarating blasts in the Bond movies, John Williams’ ominous subterranean throbbing in Jaws, or the violin-driven shrieks in Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho. What would The Godfather have been like without Nino Rota’s brooding theme, and could E.T. have ended on such a high without Williams’ orchestral orgasm?

Schrader is so eager to praise Hollywood’s celebrated and very well paid musical practitioners that he overlooks the excesses of the moment. Where Wurlitzers once injected gentle melodies into silent films, orchestras and synthesizers today relentlessly hammer audiences in a desperate effort to impose tension and suspense where none exists — the pounding wall-to-wall scores of The Mummy or the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies are classic examples.

But the doc also affords composers a chance to explain the frustrations on their side of their craft: how to read the minds of directors who have no idea what they want musically, or how to keep them from changing their minds at the eleventh hour by throwing out entire scores (as in Chinatown).

Film composers have their own idiosyncratic habits: some like to conduct their studio orchestras, others prefer to hide in the mixing room; some rely heavily on the work of assistants (even farming out work from time to time), while others seem focused on enhancing their own brands (like Hans Zimmer). I understand why composers, too, want to be famous, but I, for one, had never heard of A.R. Rahman before I saw (and heard) Slumdog Millionaire and hadn’t appreciated the talents of Giorgio Moroder until Midnight Express.

Arguably the contributions of the music mavens in “selling” their action scenes have become all the more important given Hollywood’s dependence on overseas markets.


Would franchise movies be having the same impact in the Chinese market, for example, if not for their reliance on special effects and booming scores rather than stilted dialogue? The combined grosses of The Mummy and the latest iterations of the Fast And The Furious and Pirates franchises have grossed a disappointing $454 million the U.S. compared with $654 million in China, so perhaps franchise fatigue needs noisy scores as part of their “sell.”

Baby Driver, which tucks action into its high-energy score, on the other hand, has sparked exuberance among domestic audiences – something not generated by the fatigued franchises. Somewhere between 30-71 numbers (depending on how you count them) are pulsing through the earbuds of Baby (played by Ansel Elgort) and exploding into the auditoriums of the plexes. We learn that Baby suffers from a ringing in his ears as a result of a childhood accident – a condition that he is inadvertently conveying to members of his audience, who may not share his choice in music or in cameos from Sky Ferreira, Killer Mike, Big Boi or Danger Mouse (he contributes an original song appropriately titled “Chase Me”). The score by Steve Price consists as a sort of cross-fader connecting the songs.

The job of integrating action to song belongs to Ryan Heffington, a music video veteran. In one scene, for example, Baby actually instructs his comrades to hold back on jumping out of the car to start a heist until the next number kicks in.

Does all this work? It is clearly working big time for the younger demos.

But veteran critic Anthony Lane of the New Yorker calls Baby Driver more of a video than a movie – in fact it’s “a club sandwich for the senses.” I think he might occasionally be longing for the old Wurlitzers.

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