It’s rude to wear headphones when interacting with other people, and it’s ruder to leave your music on when doing so. So say the etiquette books, and so would say common sense for most people—especially those over a certain age. Yet anyone who’s recently shared a car with a high schooler, or stood in a checkout line in a college town, might report that this particular norm is eroding. Last year, a Premiere League soccer coach mandated weekly “communication sessions” for his players because they were plugged into their listening devices when they should have been bantering between matches. Cue the op-eds about dangling white wires as a sign of civilizational crisis.
Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s deliriously clever car-chase yarn in theaters now, is firmly on the side of the rude. Ansel Elgort’s character Baby spends most of the film with earbuds in, whether he’s walking down the street (acceptable), driving (illegal in Georgia, the film’s setting), or participating in a team meeting with his criminal colleagues (someone call Miss Manners). The laconic Baby, we come to understand, has a de facto superpower born of childhood accident: Songs can make him more attuned to the outside world. With, say, Dave Brubeck in his ears, he catches every word of conversation. And with, say, The Damned blaring, this getaway driver doesn’t miss a single convenient gap in traffic.
His music taste—which tends, Tarantino-like, toward vampy, brash classic rock and R&B—fuels the movie’s kinetic thrills, with every scene choreographed to crash and vroom on-beat. Yet his code name, as well as a childhood flashback showing him unwrapping a classic iPod on Christmas morning, suggests Baby can also be taken as a generational symbol. One way to think about Baby Driver is as a riff on the pros and cons of listening with the privacy of earbuds and the power to call up most any song at most any time.
A plot-extraneous scene early on hints at this theme. Walking down an Atlanta street to grab coffee, Baby saunters and skips to Bob & Earl’s 1963 soul song “Harlem Shuffle” as street signs and graffiti, trippily, seem to reflect the lyrics. He’s having a killer time doing a mundane task—a modern miracle available to all since the Walkman’s invention. Other folks in the scene are also puttering to their own scores, which we don’t get to hear. Baby nods at a girl in big chunky headphones, as if to say, “Music makes life better, why ever shut it off?”
But Baby is also, in this scene, somewhat oblivious. His music tunes out annoyances of urban life—an unpleasant street preacher, the alarms of emergency vehicles, inane conversations on the sidewalk. It also drowns out street musicians, whose contributions, any city-dweller will report, can range from irritating to life-affirming. And when Baby nearly bumps into passersby as he executes his self-satisfying Fred Astaire routine, they don’t look charmed. Maybe they’re tsk-tsking about the dangers of distracted walking, or maybe they see this kid as a perfectly modern narcissist.
The tension between the notion of personal playlists as magical and as malevolent is made explicit by Baby’s comrades in robbery, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx). Buddy commiserates with Baby both about the “escape” of driving to a great song and about the excellence of Brian May’s guitar solo in Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” Bats, though, is intensely suspicious of Baby’s closed mouth and full ears. Having a private soundtrack doesn’t foster trust, and to Bats, it also suggests a dangerous lack of focus. He’s worked before with drivers who took getaway music too seriously, switching the radio to avoid “hex songs”—ones they believe to be bad omens—and ending up dead anyway.
It’s only a mild spoiler to say that both Buddy and Bats turn out to be terrible human beings who cause problems for Baby. Buddy’s personal version of “escape” isn’t so much in music as it is in drugs, violence, and his frighteningly intense romance with another robber, Darling (Eiza González). He’s a reminder of how orienting one’s life around hits of pure feeling, whether from a song or bump of cocaine, can warp someone. Bats meanwhile has too raw and unmediated a relationship to reality: He’s on edge, all the time, and as a consequence acts impulsively, amorally, with brutal force.
But for Baby, music isn’t quite as insular a pleasure as those two think it is. His relationship with the goodly diner waitress Debora (Lily James) centers around music: They chat about lyrics that mention their respective names, and in one of the most intoxicating flirtation scenes in recent memory, they share earbuds while hanging out at the laundromat. Baby also has a warm rapport with his foster dad Joseph (CJ Jones), who is deaf but sometimes feels the vibration of whatever song Baby is playing. Joseph must understand that Baby is such a soundhound because he is trying to connect with his mother, a singer who died in the car accident that gave him tinnitus. All of this is a sign that Wright gets how music can be as much a social bond as it is an escape.
The music just gets more bracing as Baby Driver’s second half escalates into an orgy of burning rubber, gratuitous death, and gunfire. This action excess sometimes nears numbing for the viewer, but Wright knows how to grab attention back by suddenly subverting Baby’s playlist. At one point during a chase, Baby is rendered iPodless and suddenly plunged back into reality’s soundtrack: police sirens and gunfire. It’s a scary moment, and during that sequence, he’s forced to break with his moral code; only when he’s got the right song playing again does he begin to make amends. Later, in the climactic face-off, a villain tries to make an even more horrifying intervention between Baby and his music. It’s possible our hero’s relationship with sound will never be quite the same again.
The way Baby’s listening habits get messed with as the movie advances might be a comment on the way that life can wrest someone away from their singular passions—after all, there’s no music fan like a young music fan. (Not coincidentally it’s always the next generation that, ultimately, flouts and rewrites the social rules around any new technology.) Does growing up necessarily mean leaving one’s own cocoon of sound to, as one character cheekily puts it, “face the music”? Maybe. But then again, Edgar Wright is 43 years old, and he’s just made one of the more perceptive, multi-faceted, and bighearted tributes to music-listening in movie history.