"Baby Driver" and the Relationship Between Sound and Image

Baby Driver was one of the most anticipated film projects of 2017. Not only did it have an incredible cast, it was Edgar Wright returning to the silver screen after his debacle over Ant Man. By the time we heard about Baby Driver, it had been years since his last film -- The World's End, a solid comedy, though it didn't quite achieve the quality of Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead -- and we were excited to see what he had in store for us.

Baby Driver did not disappoint, either. Holding a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 86/100 on Metascore, and an 8.2/10 on IMDB, Baby Driver was one of the most lauded, and successful, films of the year, garnering about $100 million at the box office.

What made Baby Driver so interesting, for me, was how it melded music and image seamlessly. The music was not subservient to the image (which is what usually happens), nor was the image subservient to the music. Wright cuts methodically to his music choices, but said choices are an integral part of the tone, atmosphere, and pacing of the narrative. If you took away the music, the film would not be the same.

Just check out the first six minutes of the film, and you'll see what I mean. 

The song in this scene is not just a backing track -- that is to say, it's not just a director overlaying music to enhance the image. The music itself sets the tone. It starts off playful, as does our main character -- Baby -- and his attitude. He's dancing around, drumming on the door of his Subaru WRX, completely enveloped in the music. And then something changes -- the music quiets down, and we see the chaos that is taking place in the bank. Things get a little more serious. And then it's time for the chase. The music is calling for the audience to get ready for what is about to happen next. The song swells, the singer screaming "bellbottoms" louder and louder, until we see the crew return to the car, and Baby peels out completely in sync with the music. The ensuing chase, and its tone, is set entirely by the music, and the cutting that is done is often done in sync with the beats of the song.

This is very different than what someone like Tarantino does. Take a look at this scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1, and you'll see what I mean.

The music is definitely setting a mood -- swelling at the appropriate time to create this feeling of power on the part of the characters we see walking, but it's not the same as what Edgar Wright has done. Here, the music is clearly being used just to supplement the image. It is not a natural part of the film's environment, nor is it complementing the images on screen in the way "Bellbottoms" did in that opening scene of Baby Driver.

Plenty of directors are known for using music in their films, but not many of them can achieve the effect that Wright achieved in Baby Driver. Scorsese is perhaps one of the most well-known directors that does this, but even he uses music as a supplementary aspect, not a complementary aspect.

Here, the music is hidden in the background during Frank's monologue, surging forward at the appropriate time in a wonderful bit of editing as we enter the store, only to return to the background once we settle inside of said store. It sets the mood of the scene well, and even works with the monologue, but it's not an integral part of the scene. In other words, if we took out the music from this scene, and the scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1 the scene itself wouldn't be harmed, it would just lose a bit of its potency. In Baby Driver, divorcing the music from the scene ruins the scene.

In fact, the filmmaker I was reminded of most when I was watching Baby Driver was Stanley Kubrick -- in particular, the opening title sequence to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I mention this moment specifically because it was the first film I saw that truly showed me the power image and sound can have when they are united. Nothing happens in this scene beyond the opening credits being shown, but the way they are shown, and the power the images are given because of this music (and vice versa) blows me away every time.

Baby Driver doesn't quite have the power of this opening scene anywhere in its run time, at least in my humble opinion, but it does strive to achieve the same affect (and often times it succeeds).

The most interesting thing about Wright's film, and his usage of music, is how it still feels like a film. It would be too easy to classify Baby Driver as a two-hour long music video featuring different artists. But it's not -- as I said before, the music is integral to the plot, and to Baby as a character.

If you want something that is a little more watchable than Kubrick (though I really implore you see 2001, even if you've never experienced a Kubrick film before), you can look to James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy. Starlord's Walkman is also an integral part to understanding his character, and the music is used throughout the film to set up various moods, and motifs. 

In the opening scene, without any character work or dialogue, we immediately get a sense of who Starlord is, his outlook on life, and his personality -- all through one song. The editing cuts easily with the beat of the music, as does Starlord's actions, and therefore the music feels real, and in the environment, in a way some of these other examples don't.

And while I wouldn't put Guardians at Baby Driver's level (mainly because the latter uses that as an integral aspect to its entire story, while the former uses it only in specific scenes), this is definitely something filmmakers should understand. Music is a powerful aspect to filmmaking, and film viewing. Even in silent films, where the compositions you hear were not written for the film at the time of its creation, music sets tone, mood, and pacing.

We understand music in a way that's truly incredible. It's a universal language of sorts. Harnessing the power of that language, and intertwining it with film language, can yield unlimited possibilities, all of which are incredibly powerful.

There is nothing wrong with utilizing music as an underlying force -- like Tarantino and Scorsese do -- and doing so can be just as powerful when done correctly. Nevertheless, it is vital to understand this relationship between image and sound, especially for filmmakers, because when it is done correctly, and done well, like it is in Baby Driver and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is an ethereal, and unforgettable experience.