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.