After George Michael died, I found myself listening to his song “Jesus to a Child” on repeat. Its debut at MTV’s inaugural Europe Music Awards in 1994 came a year after his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa died of AIDS and it was the first song Michael had been able to write since his first love’s death. The elegiac ballad helped Michael through the grief of losing the most important person in his life, and when the singer publicly confirmed his homosexuality in 1998, he continued to dedicate the song to Feleppa during performances. In my own state of grief, losing one of my music idols who taught me so much about being an out gay man, the song that comforted Michael also became my own grief therapy.
Music has the uncanny ability to quell your demons—even if only for a moment. It’s one of the most powerful cures for grief, heartache, and despair. Writer and director Edgar Wright demonstrates his innate understanding of this in his latest film Baby Driver, a send-up of heist and car-racing genre films with a rocking, funky soundtrack that shoots a hole right through your aching heart.
In the film, baby-faced Ansel Elgort plays getaway driver to a team of bank robbers. He comes armed with the suitable sobriquet “Baby” along with a variety of vintage iPods, which he listens to while speeding away from various heists. Baby’s Cliff Notes answer to why he listens to music constantly is because he’s afflicted with tinnitus—a condition that leaves you hearing a clicking or ringing noise when there is none. But the real reason is that it’s connected to a horrific event from his past. His mother, a singer, died before his eyes in a car accident and since then music has been his emotional crutch.
There is a sadness that hangs over Wright’s characters, even though his films are bursting at the seams with rock ‘n’ roll pizzazz. Shaun is an aimless electronics salesman. Nicholas Angel is despairing and alone in his sleepy new British town. Scott Pilgrim is a hapless musician with a shitty love life. Baby is cut from the same cloth. He’s practically a mute, with visible facial scars from his childhood car crash. His only joys in life are taking care of his foster father and perusing the local record store for vintage LPs.
It’s appropriate that Baby Driver is a quasi-jukebox musical—one whose marriage of jukebox and diner has been ingrained in the consciousness of American moviegoers since the similarly romance-driven American Graffiti. The very act of selecting a song by running your fingers along the jukebox, rapidly switching from vinyl to vinyl is, in Baby’s insular world, a simulation of romantic foreplay. It is, after all, a shared love of music that draws Baby to a Debora (Lily James), a waitress at his favorite diner.
They recognize one another’s sadness—because most musicals are sad affairs full of characters overcome with longing. This brooding gloom hangs over more than just Baby and Debora. Jamie Foxx’s Bats is a comical madman consumed by paranoia. Kevin Spacey’s Doc is drawn to Baby as a father figure because he too has experienced loss. Jon Hamm’s Buddy voices how he and Baby share the compulsion to cure their blues with rock music turned up to 11.
Which is not to say Baby Driver is a depressing film. It’s upbeat, energetic, and goes full-throttle at every single moment. But then again, aren’t most of our greatest pop songs vibrant yet sad affairs? The music of Carly Rae Jepsen, Tegan and Sara, Pat Benatar, and Queen (whose “Brighton Rock” features heavily during the film’s frenetic climax) are all songs that you can belt out at karaoke or in a dance club surrounded by friends, but the lyrics are drenched in unrequited longing.
There’s a point in the film when Baby is without his iPod, leading to a frantic search for a getaway vehicle that can also fuel his addiction to music. It’s an amusing bit, but it’s also a meditation on how grief can paralyze us. Baby’s tragic accident allows him to be manipulated by Doc—a man who possesses similar traits to his abusive father. The only beauty he remembers about his mother is her voice, which he keeps on a cassette tape to listen to whenever he craves consolation. It’s a reminder that the most beautiful things in this world usually come from a deep place of pain, like a debilitating drug. But damn, what a high it is to crank up the soundtrack and just drive.