To make a great film soundtrack requires more than good taste. Anyone can make a killer playlist. What you need to do is use the songs right. And Edgar Wright — like Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola, among others — is someone who makes great soundtracks.
When we spoke to Wright, he told us the art of the soundtrack is about “picking songs that don’t necessarily have visuals you associate with them.” In other words, when he plays “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned or “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion” — as he does in his latest film, the action sorta-comedy “Baby Driver” — he’s chosen a song that hasn’t been used in many movies or even TV shows or even commercials. If he’d played, let’s say, “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, we’d almost certainly flash back to the slow dolly into Robert De Niro smoking at the bar in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”
There are 30 songs packed into “Baby Driver.” Some of them are used as part of the film’s neato gimmick: Its young getaway driver, played by Ansel Elgort, likes to speed away from heists with his ear buds in, listening to a carefully selected song, timing everything down to the beat. Perhaps you came away from “Baby Driver” with a favorite song moment. Here’s our personal top five, ranked not by which song is our favorite (“Neat Neat Neat,” obvs) but by how Wright uses them:
1. “Tequila,” The Button Down Brass
The American band The Champs turned this Latin-themed instrumental (with titular shouts during the chorus) into a hit back in 1958. Wright doesn’t use that version. (For one thing, The Champs cut was already iconically used in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”) He goes with one by The Button Down Brass, a cover so obscure it’s not even on YouTube. It does sound a lot like the one that became an oldies radio staple yet it doesn’t carry quite the same baggage. It feels both familiar and slightly fresh.
But that’s not what makes this such a great use of a famous song. Wright drops it during a warehouse meeting that turns into a shoot-out. When Baby plays a song during a getaway run, he tries to time everything to the music. Here, Wright takes over. Everything happens on the beat, from the cuts to the gunshots themselves, which have a rat-a-tat rhythm that goes exactly with the song. It’s here that “Baby Driver” feels like a musical — a musical where no one sings or dances, but where the filmmaking and the action is king. It’s a reminder that the best action scenes (say, by John Woo) have as much to do with musicals and dance as they do with ultraviolence.
2. “Neat Neat Neat,” The Damned
How has no one used this song in a movie before? The first track off the punk band’s first album is one of the great storm-the-gates record openers: loud and fast and furious, each “Neat” in the chorus repeated rapid-fire like bullets out of a Gatling gun. Wright doesn’t kick off “Baby Driver” with it; he saves the wildest song on his soundtrack for later, during what should be the fastest getaway. Instead, our hero, driver Baby, is forced to take a detour, and once he’s back on track he takes a moment to rewind the song back to where it was before the interruption, ensuring that the song plays over the rest of the mission. That means we get to hear one of punk’s finest achievements about 1 1/3 times.
3. “Intermission,” Blur
Perhaps the most obscure song in “Baby Driver” is a pure deep cut. It’s from Blur’s second album, “Modern Life is Rubbish, the one that took them from Manchester scene-chasers to Britpop royalty, heirs to the throne of Ray Davies. As the title promises, it comes at the halfway mark, right after “Chemical World.” (Dorky trivia: On the British version of the album, the song is a hidden track. On the American release, it’s listed as its own song.)
It’s an instrumental, and a corker of one: A gentle piano melody kicks it off, but as it gradually speeds up, guitars and drums and feedback pile on as well. It all culminates in a whiplash frenzy of noise — it’s the sound of peace turning into chaos. In other words, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a robbery sequence that starts off like clockwork but soon goes awry. Kudos, Edgar Wright, for finally giving a very cinematic song its due.
4. “Debra,” Beck
One of the best musical moments in “Baby Driver” is the opposite of a car chase. It’s a romantic moment, in which the shy Baby finds himself falling for a chatty diner waitress (Lily James) who takes a liking to him. Baby is a music nut, and when he finds out her name is Debora, he dips into whatever iPod he has on him — he has dozens, maybe hundreds, we soon find out — and plays her the closest thing to a song with her name in the title: the closing ballad on Beck’s Prince-inflected “Midnite Vultures.”
It’s not your standard love song; in a sky-high falsetto, Beck croons about getting with not only the girl he’s singing too but also her sister — “I think her name’s Debra,” he adds. It’s a joke but it’s also sincere; Beck is sending up sex-you-up R&B slow jams, but also genuinely in love with their bombast and horndogness. That mix of send-up and adoration better describes Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” than it does “Baby Driver,” which mostly plays the action straight, yet is still an inventive comedy. But you can see why he wanted to use it anyway.
5. “Bellbottoms,” Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
To kick off “Baby Driver,” Wright doesn’t go with a deathless classic. He goes with a song that’s more on the Pitchfork side of things. He goes with the opening song on “Orange,” the most beloved album by renegade blues punk outfit Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a band that never really played the blues or punk but something funkier in between. It’s fitting, and not just because those razor sharp guitars and Spencer’s doodling vocals go gangbusters with speeding cars and hairpin turns. “Baby Driver,” too, exists somewhere between action and comedy, finding its own deeply eccentric space that still manages to please fans of both genres.
Honorable mentions: “Brighton Rock” by Queen, “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas, “The Edge” by David McCallum, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, “Ready Lets Go” by Boards of Canada
Anyway, enough of our gabbin’. What’s your favorite “Baby Driver” song cue?
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge