Jun 28, 2017

How Edgar Wright Perfected the Movie Soundtrack

Scene from Shaun of the Dead
There's a lot that Baby Driver promises to be. For starters, it is labeled as a satire of heist movies and features an excellent cast. However, there's something by the very appearance of Baby (Ansel Elgort) that should be more indicative of the type of movie it will be: it will have a lot, and I mean A LOT, of music. The current available soundtrack is barely shorter than the movie (103 minutes to be exact). Does that mean that one should be worried sight unseen about hearing a barrage of mediocre song choices? Not in the slightest. For today's entry, I have decided to explore the side of Wright that doesn't get enough credit. As many will see in Baby Driver, his entire filmography has also been about reinventing the soundtrack. 
Anyone who questions how tied into music Wright's movies are need not watch more than the first 10 minutes of his breakthrough film Shaun of the Dead. As the production logos end, The Specials' "Ghost Town" enters the viewer into the world of Shaun (Simon Pegg) as he's being broken up with. The scene leads into the opening credits that display zombies walking aimlessly in between montages of droll suburban life, all set to I Monster's "The Blue Wrath." What begins with a ska song transitions into electronica so perfectly without destroying the universe's fabric. Considering that the soundtrack goes on to feature rock music in Queen and hip-hop in Grandmaster Flash, the diversity to this one film is enough to make Quentin Tarantino blush. 
What Wright's movies have better than any filmmaker of the 21st century is soundtracks that compliment the scenes. There's a recurring gag in Shaun of the Dead where a jukebox plays odd songs. Why? It's on random. This leads to the film's standout moment when Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" plays and, almost like dance choreography, the characters beat up zombies in rhythm. It's absurd, but juxtaposes familiar pop culture to something that probably couldn't even hum the melody. While his films love exploring genre tropes, they're also in love with exploring the vast potential of music, even to the point of discussing which vinyls they are willing to destroy while cherishing those tied to either great music or personal memories. As much as Wright's movies have been praised for their action, they all seem to have key music sequences.
This is what makes Baby Driver so interesting by comparison. It doesn't just follow the familiar road of his previous four films. He expands upon the idea by showing Baby flip through his iPod to find an appropriate song. As a heist chase goes wrong, he constantly stops to adjust the time of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" so that it plays in time with his envisioned getaway. His dream girl (Lily James) even centers their relationship around the idea of listening to every song with "Baby" in the title, and how few have the name Deborah in them. Speaking as other central characters like Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx) have simple names, it's peculiar that Wright didn't give them a moment to explore their own namesake soundtracks. 
Still, Wright expands on the ideas of what Tarantino did in the 90's, notably with Pulp Fiction. For the soundtrack, he mixed classic R&B and surf tunes with dialogue clips from the movie. It was to help create a scene for the listener. As he grew as a director, he borrowed from more obscure places, notably Ennio Morricone scores. It not only helped to enhance his movies by having unique soundtracks, but it also showed how a soundtrack that can be purchased can be its own art form. For Wright, he took it a few steps further by remixing familiar songs to include audio from his movie. While this sounds hacky, it did produce interesting results, such as Baby Driver's "Was He Slow," where Kid Koala remixes Kevin Spacey's dialogue and turns it into a hypnotic loop of music. It's silly, but has a kick to it. Suddenly the movie is literally part of the music. This is in theory nothing new, as Robert Altman famously did on the MASH soundtrack. Still, nobody did it while balancing multiple genres with old and obscure hits as well as original score quite like Wright.
While not quite reaching the level of musical, Wright began to turn into a far more compelling soundtrack coordinator with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While he played with the structure before, he was now mixing in original content, largely based off of the source material's garage bands. There was a lot of fuzz rock mixed with ballads that creator Bryan Lee O'Malley based some of his characters on. There was Plumtree's "Scott Pilgrim" as well as Frank Black's "I Heard Ramona Scream." There was even original tunes by Beck that took the music sung by the actors in the film and made them into higher produced ballads. Even if one could argue that this isn't constitutionally a musical, it is a motif. The changing of tone makes the music more somber, and reflects progression in the emotional arc of the story. 

Scene from Baby Driver
The value of Wright's soundtracks is that they are a journey unto themselves. Much like his hybrid style of genres and techniques, he mixes original versions of songs with covers, such as the alternate version of The Buzzcocks' "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" by Ash and Coldplay's Chris Martin. It creates the sense of something old and new clashing together in a harmonious fashion. While there are a few artists that Wright continually returns to, such as Queen and Beck, he is someone who isn't chained to Top 40 jukebox hits. The Hot Fuzz soundtrack features a tune that borrows promotional music from the original Lethal Weapon. Wright is too passionate to borrow from just one place, and instead makes a thesis almost about the type of music these genre films use. The only difference is that he does it the coolest.
It's what makes Baby Driver more impressive in theory. It combines a little bit of everything that came before over the course of the 30 tracks chosen for the soundtrack. It is even book-ended by two very different songs that use the same central melody: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," and Run the Jewels' "Chase Me." One is gritty rock while the other is quicker rap song bragging about stealing money. Both center around the same melody. Much like the title's song being a folk rock tune, it is a subversion of genres that show how to alter something familiar into something new and inspired. Nobody would look at a Simon & Garfunkel song and think of heist movies, yet Wright did. It's the nuanced brilliance of what he did at various points throughout the soundtrack.
Baby Driver reinvents the soundtrack by showing a certain progression in how a song is used. Early in the film, The Commodores' "Easy" is used almost as a throwaway track of freedom. However, it becomes more central to Baby's character, giving him a deeper emotional core. This time, it is sung by Sky Ferreira and is a little bit more rugged in its tenderness. Much like how Queen's "Brighton Rock" returns throughout the film, the choice to use different covers allows for the film to have different meanings with the same text. Baby Driver is a mash-up of music, and it is only fitting that it recontextualizes every genre it uses constantly.
While history will determine if Baby Driver is Wright's magnum opus, it at least stands a good chance of showing why he's the master of soundtracks. Much like his films, there is a sense of discovery and life even in familiar moments. His passion for music shines through in ways that few directors have really achieved, and rarely has it constantly fit so well into the plot quite like it does here. Much like the idea of having a good time, the one thing that's expected from a Wright movie is his ability to make a memorable scene set to music. Whether it's "Don't Stop Me Now" or "Bellbottoms," he will make you want to buy the soundtrack just so that you can reenact those scenes by yourself. You may not make a great movie out of it, but at least you'll feel inspired. 

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