Breaking the fourth sonic wall
When you think of a fast paced action film involving cars, what imagery springs to mind? Well, you certainly wouldn’t be wrong in thinking of car chases, testosterone, and an underlying romance running in tandem with the plot for extra measure. In fact, British director Edgar Wright’s most recent blockbuster Baby Driver is all of those things – and more. The plot follows a music-obsessed getaway driver from Georgia who is coerced into working for a kingpin for a final heist mission which is doomed for failure. The result is a potent killer cocktail of exhilarating fun, strong performances and stunning originality.
But it’s the soundtrack which is the main talking point of the film, and this blog piece. Baby, the main protagonist and getaway driver in question, is an undeniable music addict. His relationship with music, listened to on his iPod, forms the basis of the film’s directional narrative accompanied with an expertly curated soundtrack that puts most of Spotify’s own curated playlists to shame. For the soundtrack is the film, dictated from Baby’s iPod, which directly breaks a sonic fourth wall between picture and sound. In doing so, Wright has successfully taken the traditional role of a film score, one which usually exists in the background; summoned to add further colour to climactic moments, and brought it to the forefront of the action, transforming it into something which was clearly integral in influencing the direction, sound design, screenplay and dialogue.
Let’s take a couple of specific examples. Baby is sat in a meeting listening to the action plan for the next heist. Jazz composer Dave Brubeck’s ‘Unsquare Dance’ is playing through his earphones and it wonderfully sets the scene, with the cool, plucked double bass accompanied by hand claps creating a sense of urgent mischief and energy. And it’s when the piano melody playfully strolls in – effortlessly juxtaposed over the bass line – where this fourth wall is broken, with Baby convincingly playing the desk as if it were a piano. It’s this slick and seamless marriage between direction, soundtrack and choreography which uplifts the whole dynamic of the scene, and will have you tapping along to the beat.
In the following scene, Baby is waiting by a gas station, poised for a getaway, while his associates loot a cash machine. He queues up ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by The Damned, an aggressive lo-fi punk number beginning with a stimmed-up-on-speed bassline. As is always the case in these films, things don’t go to plan, and as the scene unfolds into a high octane, all-guns-blazing car chase, the song erupts into a highly appropriate raucous noise of punk guitars and vocals – arguably quite predictable. But this is where the originality of the soundtrack and sound design comes into its own, as the gunshots, car wheel screeches and just about any sound you hear are rhythmically and seamlessly integrated into the music, providing unparalleled amounts of impact. As the track draws to an end, the car chase shows no signs of halting, so Baby takes out his iPod and hits rewind to prolong the duration of the track. The soundtrack effortlessly transforms into the sound of the rewinding iPod before continuing for the anarchic finale – pretty neat, wouldn’t you say?
Aside from the killer soundtrack and stunning sound design, much of the dialogue is centred around music which consequently shines light on modern music consumption. The soundtrack is dictated by Baby’s iPods (he has many which he selects depending on his mood), which highlights the revolutionary influence the device had in shaping how people listened to music. A big leap forward from the Walkman, the iPod allowed people to instantly carry 1000s of songs in their pocket. And combined with the rise of digital file formats, it made it very easy to obtain and enjoy a wide variety of music. Through the digital revolution, music’s role as a ‘universal language’ has never been more appropriate, as seen throughout the film where different characters from different generations and backgrounds bond over Dolly Parton, Queen, Beck and T Rex, to name a few.
The iPod Classic model was discontinued in 2015, which spelled the end for devices with large storage capabilities, giving rise to the streaming giants of Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal. From this, music as a commodity has adapted accordingly, and in 2017 how you listen to music, whether it be through your own personal collection, a streaming service, or curated playlists, proves to be just as important as what you’re listening to. Baby Driver is not only an enjoyable piece of cinema worth any music lovers’ attention, but it also documents the transformation of modern music consumption as we know it today, while bringing something incredibly fresh to the world of movie soundtracks – which by the way, isn’t bad either.
– Alex Weston