The song that begat ‘Baby Driver,’ a quasi-musical on wheels


NEW YORK — In the jagged grooves and quivering violins of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song “Bellbottoms,” a young Edgar Wright heard a movie.

When Wright first started fanatically listening to the lead track off the band’s “Orange” album in 1995, the British writer-director had a vision that has culminated, more than two decades later, with his new film, “Baby Driver.”

“The idea for this movie is as old as ‘Orange’” Wright said in an interview. “I was either 20 or 21 and I had just moved to London. I was working on my first movie I ever made. I was completely broke. I think I had a cassette of ‘Orange’ that I had copied off of someone else, maybe my brother. I listened to ‘Bellbottoms’ all the time. I just started to visualize this car chase. I’d think, ‘This would be the perfect car chase song in a movie, but what’s the movie?’”

“Baby Driver,” it turned out, was the movie, but it took years for Wright (”Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) to find the story that matched his initial inspiration. Eventually he hit on his protagonist: an uncommonly young, fresh-faced getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who obsessively syncs his life and his car chases to the music of his iPod. The movie wouldn’t just tie together song and cinema; it would be about the fusion of music and action.

While not exactly a musical, “Baby Driver” (which opens Wednesday) was built on top of its soundtrack, starting with “Bellbottoms.” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” plays during a tight squeeze. A hair-raising escape is set to the Damned’s “Neat, Neat, Neat.” Things happen on the beat.

Wright had to secure his soundtrack’s rights before shooting; many of the songs, like the Blues Explosion one, were cleared years ago. Actors received their scripts with a thumb drive of music attached.

“It’s something about trying to assign order to life by soundtracking your every move,” said Wright. “It’s that thing when everything breaks right and it’s the right song and the right moment. It’s something that a lot of people do on a sort of everyday level, but what if you put it together with an extremely high pressured job, like being a getaway driver for a very dangerous gang?”

So it’s fitting that the movie was essentially born from a single song. It’s the start of the film, too: “Bellbottoms” kicks off the high-octane opera that is “Baby Driver.”

“I definitely get a kick out of it,” said Jon Spencer. “Edgar is sort of a very Blues Explosion kind of director — sort of post-modern, post-genre, everything is kind of amped up. Who better to use a Blues Explosion song and that particular Blues Explosion song?”

It’s an especially high-profile role in one of the summer’s best-reviewed releases — not to mention one of the season’s few refreshingly original tales — for a band that has for decades proudly lived in the underground. Spencer, who also wrote a song for “Hot Fuzz,” even makes a cameo late in the film.

The New York blues- and irony-infused post-punk trio of Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins were a garage-rock forerunner to the White Stripes and others, whose most popular days were in the ‘90s. They’ve long drawn the interest of other artists; Beck, Moby and GZA have all remixed them. Mike Mills, the “20th Century Women” director, designed some of their cover art and directed a music video. David Michod’s recent satire, “War Machine,” used one of their songs. For “Baby Driver,” Danger Mouse, Big Boi and Run the Jewels made their version of “Bellbottoms.”

“We didn’t have any hits, but if we were to have had a hit, this was our hit,” said Spencer. “It’s our most Blues Explosion song and it’s from our most popular album. We were a working band. We weren’t on a late-night show until like two or three years ago.”

Wright’s idea underwent many iterations. He tested a version of it in a 2002 music video for the Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.” “I thought: What a waste. I just burned off a great idea on this music video,” said Wright. “Ironically, years later, it became a way of post-dating the idea.”

But Wright decided to keep at it. He estimates he wrote the script around 2010, when he started talking to ex-convicts for research, peppering them with questions about what, if anything, they listened to during heists.

One mentioned that he was superstitious enough that if a truly awful song came on the radio, the gig was off. The offensive song to him was Guns ‘N Roses’ “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” cover, but the “hex song” in “Baby Driver” comes from a tune Jamie Foxx actually detests: the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

At a 2010 event at the Los Angeles Film Festival, moderator J.J. Abrams showed the Mint Royale video. While it played, he leaned over to Wright and said, “This would make a great movie.” Wright replied: “I’m way ahead of you.”

“The World’s End,” Wright’s 2013 apocalyptic reunion movie, got pushed ahead of “Baby Driver.” Then came years writing and developing Marvel’s “Ant-Man.” Shortly before production was to begin, he and the studio parted ways over creative differences, a painful end to a big-budget passion project of Wright’s.

Wright acknowledges it was “a heartbreaking experience” but there was a quick U-turn. “Maybe the day after I left the other movie, literally one of the first emails I got from (production company) Working Title just said ‘Baby Driver next?’” recalled Wright. “That’s all it said.”

So “Baby Driver” was in that way a homecoming for Wright: a return to a movie he could control and to a song that’s been in his head most of his adult life.

“The lightbulb moment was listening to that song,” said Wright. “The fact that 22 years later it exists in the film and ‘Bellbottoms’ is the first track, it’s dream stuff for me.”


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