Edgar Wright Explains How He Crafted the Perfect Soundtrack for Baby Driver
Car chase flicks might seem like a dime a dozen in the Vin Diesel-fication of the genre over the last two decades. But every once in a while comes a film that transcends the genre beyond its present empty calorie, popcorn trash. We're talking about the kind of movie whose combination of substance and excitement harks back to the days of such cinematic classics as Bullitt, Vanishing Point, and The French Connection, where the high-speed action is counterbalanced by masterful storytelling.
And perhaps no other film of its kind moves quite like Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, the tale of a young man (Ansel Elgort) employed as the getaway driver for a dangerous crime syndicate who drowns out the tinnitus he suffers from by soundtracking his adventures with the many iPods he's acquired from his days as a juvenile car thief. The song list compiled by the acclaimed director of such cult faves as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is breathtaking in its scope and knowledge base, on par with such equally indelible double-LP soundtracks as American Graffiti, Casino, and Marie Antoinette, bursting at the seams with key songs from a diverse array of acts including The Modern Lovers, The Beach Boys, The Damned, The Commodores, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, T.Rex, Beck, Focus, Barry White, Run The Jewels and then some. And each song plays as important a role in driving the narrative as the actors involved (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, and a top-notch Kevin Spacey), in many ways speaking on behalf of the quiet, reserved boy nicknamed "Baby"—this conflicted angel of a human being who transforms into an absolute demon behind the wheel once those headphones are on.
Esquire spoke with Wright about the significance of a few standout tracks off the 30-song collection for the movie he's always wanted to make, and how they factored into his own personal history as a ravenous music appreciator.
John Spencer Blues Explosion - "Bellbottoms"
It basically inspired the whole movie in a way. I was 20 or 21 when the album Orange first came out, and I [played] "Bellbottoms" on repeat on this audio cassette I had of it. I don't think I actually even bought it—I dubbed somebody else's copy because I didn't have any money at the time. I would listen to the song, and I could imagine a car chase. And I wasn't even thinking about a particular film, it was more about not being able to listen to the song without seeing a car chase in my head. So at some point, I had to come up with something and I had to write a theme to go along with that idea and this vision I had of this car chase. And that, in turn, spawned the idea of Baby trying to soundtrack the entire movie. You're basically seeing the story through the ears of the main character.
Dave Brubeck Quartet - "Unsquare Dance"
That song was a TV theme in the U.K. Crazy enough, Emma Thompson did this show in the '80s in Britain, and it was sort of this sketch-drama show which I think was called Thompson. And the opening music was "Unsquare Dance," and I remember seeing it for the first time when I was like 13 and thought, "Hmmm, that's a cool song." When my dad saw the movie he was like, "Ahhh! Dave Brubeck!" The first thing I ever heard from him was "Take Five," so he was kinda shocked there was a Dave Brubeck song in the movie. [Laughs]
Sometimes you can arrive at things in completely random ways, and because it had been on that Emma Thompson TV show, I heard "Unsquare Dance" and liked it, and I looked up Brubeck and realized I had heard other stuff of his in the past. Jazz is something I'm getting more into. I mean, Lalo Schifrin is my favorite film composer, and his jazz albums are something I absolutely adore.
Blur - "Intermission"
I love Blur, and I like Modern Life Is Rubbish, and that song always stood out to me. It's funny with songs like that: I tend to earmark them as something I must use in a film at some point. I had that one earmarked for about 20 years now. [Laughs] And it's not the sort of song you can put in just anything. But it fit perfectly into that sequence in Baby Driver. I wrote the scenes to the songs. Before I had written a word of the screenplay, I had about nine songs and figured out what was going to happen around them. "Intermission" was an interesting one, because it starts off in a kind of comedic way, really, but then it becomes increasingly more menacing and intense, so I thought it was something which was perfect for that particular scene, where something terrible happens.
Simon & Garfunkel - "Baby Driver"
I knew that album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, because it was in my parents' record collection. My parents had a very small record collection—it was only about 20 albums. But that was a song that I really liked and found quite intriguing. The lyrics don't bear any weight on the screenplay itself except for the idea of this folkloric character. Even the lyric "once upon a pair of wheels" is a quite fitting tagline for the movie itself.
It's funny: KISS also have a song called "Baby Driver," which is on their Rock and Roll Over album, and it's got an entirely different feel from the Simon & Garfunkel one in every way. [Laughs] I had some people ask me if I named the movie after the KISS track, and I was like, "Um, no." I finally heard the song, and I don't love it but it's funny. KISS weren't that big in the U.K, so it wasn't something I really grew up with. Their biggest hits in England came during the '80s when they had their makeup off, actually.
Queen - "Brighton Rock"
I'm a big Queen fan, full stop, but I think Sheer Heart Attack is my favorite album of theirs. It was after those first two albums and before A Night at the Opera, and it was the first time they were firing on all cylinders and gave us a hint of the band they were going to become. Queen I and II, which I like, are more of a nascent version of them; especially the second one, which feels very concept-y. But on Sheer Heart Attack, you can hear some of the separate personalities of the band members emerge.
They were an odd band in terms of the push and pull of what its members wanted to do, especially in the context of what Freddie Mercury wanted to do and what Brian May wanted to do. And I think when you listen to Sheer Heart Attack, you get songs that are all of them pulling together and then you get songs where the different members are showing what they can do on their own.
Young MC - "Know How"
I was in art college, and it was one of the first times I'd ever been to a nightclub. Again, I was not that hip when I was 20. So I went into this nightclub for the first time and I heard what I thought was Isaac Hayes's "Theme From Shaft" playing. And then Young MC starts rapping, and I was like, "What is this?" Meanwhile, people are on the dance floor going nuts. It's funny, because people are sort of amazed that we used that song instead of "Bust a Move," but I didn't really know that one.
It comes late in the film, and by that point in the movie there had been quite a few songs that had been sampled for famous hip-hop songs. The idea of wrong-footing the audience a little bit: They hear the intro to "Harlem Shuffle" and half the audience are expecting "Jump Around" by House of Pain to start up. Then "The Edge" by David McCallum, which was sampled by Dr. Dre. And then there's the Detroit Emeralds' "Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)," which was used for De La Soul's "Say No Go." But then I wanted to flip it the other way, so when "Know How" kicks in, I wanted people to think it was Shaft.
Kid Koala - "Was He Slow?
Kid Koala is somebody who I have been a fan of for years. I love all his albums. I've been working with him in various ways since Shaun of the Dead. I hadn't met him at this point, but I wanted to use Herbert Chapell's "The Gonk" from Dawn of the Dead in the movie. So I got in touch with him through Ninja Tune, and spoke to him on the phone, and the only thing he requested was if there was vinyl of it. I said, no I think it was just a CD track. So he told me, "If you could put it onto vinyl, I could do something with it." We actually pressed it onto vinyl and then sent that to Kid Koala and he sent us back this remix of "The Gonk." He also did stuff for me on Scott Pilgrim; he was one of the musicians on the score for that. And then on this, it was something I had written into the script about the idea that Baby makes these mashups of dialogue from the movie. Some people like Kid Koala and this British DJ called Osymyso do similar cut-up stuff like that. So I asked Kid Koala if he could come up with something, and I had sent him dialogues from the table reading and he made a song out of it.
When we shot the scene, we did it without listening to it back, so Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm's reactions were actually genuine. And on top of that, when we shot the scene when Baby was making the song, Kid Koala came down to the set; a lot of that equipment is actually his own personal stuff. I called him up and asked him, "What stuff would you have in your room that's totally off the grid and analog?" He said, "Why don't you use my stuff?" The coolest for me was that card reader thing, which is called the Califone Cardmaster 2000, and it basically was used in ESL classes where you could make audio flash cards and you can record what you are saying on this card reader. And Kid Koala figured out a way to scratch with it. He's been doing some live performances in front of the movie as well, which has been fun.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.