Baby Driver: Why Sound Design Matters

When I was about ten years old I was given a Walkman CD Player. Well, sort of. It was a knockoff version with a plastic grey appearance and one widening crack on the side that eventually scratched all my CDs and would skip on songs if you held it the wrong way. I received it at the beginning of a school year, at a point in my life where my brother and I were constantly being cycled through different babysitters in a desperate hope that one of them would end up being reliable. They weren’t.

I don’t remember a lot about the babysitter that I was with at the time, other than she let me watch The Addams Family while I ate breakfast and that one of her family members had recently been infected with rabies. What I can recall from the house is mostly the front yard, which dipped below the rest of the land and created a pocket filled with emptied truck frames, a chained-up dog that I was never allowed to pet, and a hill that led directly from the house to a ‘bus stop’. I say bus stop with quotation marks because it was just a small patch of concrete with one broken signpost in the middle.

About a week into owning both a Walkman and a solid ten minutes before I would have to confront the Hell that is “other people”, I developed a routine. I would take a couple custom CDs filled with bootleg songs of my choice (a little bit of Green Day, some of The Outfield, etc.), pop one into the player, and start walking in circles on the slab of concrete.

This started a pairing of events that would follow me for the rest of my life: music and movement. No matter what environment I was in or what technology I was given, every time I heard a song I enjoyed I would get the urge to stand up and walk around. When I got my first MP3 player, I took every opportunity to take walks just because it felt right to move with the music. When buses would stop to pick up other students I paused my song because the melody didn’t sound as good if I wasn’t in motion. If I wasn’t allowed to go far because it was night, I would take my music and walk circles around my house until my legs hurt and even then I refused to go inside and chose to listen to my music under the stars, like the constant movement of my solar system was picking up the slack. MP3 players broke, and to this day I go through a new pair of earbuds on a monthly basis. You can definitely bet that I paced, raced, exercised and explored all with a set of headphones and a Spotify premium membership.

While I nervous that this type of behavior might not be normal for a child, I grew to be okay with it. I wanted to see myself as a modern Ueland or Thoreau, a wandering soul, a great philosopher in the making who only needed the thoughts in her head to survive. In truth, I felt like nothing more than an outcast by choice.

Imagine my surprise when I watched Baby Driver and saw a main character who wasn’t me, but also definitely was me. I don’t have tinnitus, I was never in a car crash, and at the time of writing this, I still don’t know how to drive. Broken homes aside, Baby and I lived vastly different lives. And yet I see so much of myself not just in Baby’s character, but in the movie itself, because make no mistake, Baby Driver is from Baby’s ‘perspective’ in nearly every sense of the word. It took a second listening for me to understand that we’re not just seeing the events of the movie through Baby’s eyes. Notice I said “listening” and not “watching”, because we’re also hearing everything through Baby’s ears.

At the very beginning of the film, we hear a kind of uncomfortable ringing sound that can only be described as the auditory version of a nosebleed. This sound continues right up until the first song of the soundtrack plays and we are introduced to our main character, Baby. From that point on, we are in Baby’s head, looking at the world as he dances along in a getaway car to a song that he knows so well that you have to wonder how many times he’s listened to it. This song, along with every other song in the film, plays into the narrative of the movie in a way that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen, or at least not to this extent.

The reason of why I liked this character so much hadn’t sunk in until (spoilers) Baby junks a car from his last job as a getaway driver, and he plays “Easy” by The Commodores as he throws away (metaphorically and literally) his ties to a life of crime that he never wanted. Again, I’ve never been a getaway driver for a crime boss so I can’t relate myself in that aspect. But my God, do you know how many times I’ve timed a song to pair up with important moments of my life? Why do you think people unironically listen to the Rocky Theme when they exercise? Everyone in some way or another sees their life as a movie, and I am no different. I wouldn’t play the most emotional music I could find while I was having a meltdown if I didn’t think that the music would give my sadness a purpose.

Baby never stops moving with the music. From the very first song with the highest of high speed car chases, to an easy going coffee run through a bustling town to the tunes of “Harlem Shuffle”, to a gun fight where the shots are paired up with the beat from “Tequila”, there’s an obvious sense of rhythm in the world of Baby Driver. There’s even more gushing that I can add to this since Sound is an ever-present element in the movie. Attention is often brought to details like the stroke of the rim of a wine glass, or how when a character talks while they stand too far from Baby, the sound becomes muted and distorted, as if underwater or as if we are listening through the ears of someone with impaired hearing. This may not be that significant, but I’ve always considered sound design to be a well of unfulfilled potential, so when a movie comes along and goes the extra mile like this, it takes me for a loop.

Take the ringing sound, for example. With just a little bit of consideration of the part of the film’s creators, we are able to get into Baby’s head each time we are reminded of his tinnitus. The moments that that jarring sound appears to collide with the moments where Baby has to face his own reality. When Baby is pulled from the orchestra in his mind, when he loses both the music and the movement he’s so carefully crafted his life around, we hear that high-pitched whining sound just as he does. Try as he might, Baby can’t always escape the reality of his situation, and that nagging feeling won’t leave no matter how much you try to cover it up.

What all of this adds up to is that this is one of the most fun and engaging movies I’ve been to in years, and it’s made me realize that I might not be so strange in my habits after all. Plus, if I do a lot of little good deeds for strangers eventually those small acts of kindness will prevent me from getting a life sentence in jail. So there’s that.

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