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Ansel Elgort and Lily James: Baby Driver is a musical delight

English director Edgar Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, has been described as exciting Hollywood fare, an action heist film, and a ‘car movie’. According to Ansel Elgort, who plays Baby, it is also a musical. Perhaps just not in the legacy of Singin’ in the Rain.

“I loved [doing Baby Driver]. It reminded me of doing musicals, which are based around choreography. So, the music gave the film pace and structure. If there was a beat to the song, you know the pace of the scene and you really feel it.”

Lily James, who plays Baby’s refreshingly kind girlfriend Debora, concurs with Elgort’s appraisal: “You might have thought [the choreography] would get in the way… But it felt really organic because we were able to harness the momentum it afforded us.”

James’ Debora jokes around with Elgort’s Baby.

Unlike the bulk of Hollywood films churned out each year, Baby Driver is almost solely driven by music. This is immediately apparent, when we first hear the strains of 90’s alt-rock hit ‘Bellbottoms’ thundering from Baby’s headphones. Wright continues the trend with songs from Queen, The Beach Boys, Blur, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Whole scenes of Baby Driver were shaped by music, a novel and inspired decision made by Wright. “The whole cast always had music in their ears; I did through headphones, and the others through the airwaves. Everyone is moving to music, whether it is noticeable or not,” Elgort said.

“In the camera tests, Edgar put on the songs that would be in the film, and we just danced to it. We were basically jiving to it. He made the music feel ingrained in everything we did,” recalled James fondly.

That music pervades Baby Driver is attributable to Elgort’s Baby, who constantly plays music on his iPod to drown out the tinnitus he acquired in a childhood car accident. Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Griff (Jon Bernthal), Baby’s criminal colleagues, berate Baby for this unique dependence. His employer, and ruthless crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), accepts it. After all, Baby is the best getaway driver in the business. When Baby wants to get out to make a life with Debora, Doc pulls him back in threateningly with “one final job”. Needless to say, things become more complicated than Baby anticipates.

Foxx’s Bats and Elgort’s Baby on their way to a job.

Thankfully, for Elgort, Foxx is vastly different to his character. “I’m a big Jamie Foxx fan, and I wanted to share my music with him.” On the first day of rehearsal, Elgort received a surprise when Foxx invited him to his home music studio. Elgort even ended up doing a studio session with Foxx and Flea from the Chilli Peppers, “which was friggen awesome.”

Talking about Baby Driver, it was clear James and Elgort had an exceptionally positive experience – betrayed by their leaning forward and quickening speech patterns when recalling on-set antics. “You’re all sharing the music and the moment, which is great,” said James.

It is easy to forget that James, 28, and Elgort, 23, are relative newcomers to the screen; such is their professionalism and mature approach to their work. Nonetheless, they have made the most of their burgeoning careers, with James starring in Downton Abbey, War and Peace and as Cinderella in Cinderella. Elgort has, similarly, starred in a host of successful young-teen films such as the Divergent film series and The Fault in Our Stars.

It is hardly surprising, then, that their chemistry as Baby and Debora adds a vital emotional component to an otherwise car-chase heavy, adrenaline-fueled film. “We didn’t do a chemistry test, as you sometimes do,” James said, “but we had rehearsals where Edgar would get really excited. Everything felt really natural, and I think the music helped that happen.”

As was becoming a common theme, James praised Wright for his “well-written scenes that show how the characters open up and develop. Baby’s opening up to Debbie is a really important and powerful part of the film.” Elgort certainly felt the same appreciation for Wright, with whom he “hit it off. Because he just knows everything about music.”

The same can be said about Wright’s knowledge of cinema, for his films are stacked with nods, gestures and references to other works. When I quizzed James and Elgort about a reference to Taxi Driver, both of them instantly started nodding in affirmation: “We weren’t told. But I’m sure it is [a reference].” Elgort elaborated, “Edgar is always referencing things, but it’s not overly obvious. He doesn’t even tell us as cast members. And it doesn’t feel like he’s taking us out of the movie, like ‘oh my god, that’s Taxi Driver’.”

Wright’s use of cinema history is not purely referential. “When we would do rehearsals with Edgar, he would show us YouTube clips of the best scenes in films. ‘When you tell Doc and the whole group what the plan is, I want you to spit it back like this guy does in this film’,” Elgort told me. Because of that, I think people will watch clips of Baby Driver and say, ‘that scene from Baby Driver is so sick’. You leave it to Edgar Wright to do that.”

Elgort, Wright and James at the Australian premiere of Baby Driver (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Elgort didn’t just do Baby Driver because he admired Wright. He was also motivated by a personal connection to the character of Baby. “When I first read the script, I thought ‘this is so right for me. I could totally play this role’. Like Baby, I have had plenty of sleepless nights while staying up making music.” James interjected, jokingly saying, “I like the music so much that I’m going to do a one-woman cabaret of all of the songs in Baby Driver.”

Upon wrapping up the interview, I discovered that Melbourne was a special place for James and Elgort. James’s brother, a sports reporter, lives here. “He took me to a game at the MCG between Melbourne and Carlton.” Elgort’s connection to Melbourne is a bit more unexpected: “I told Edgar yesterday we were going to Melbourne, and there’s great dance music there – Melbourne Bounce in 2014 was this big thing… like Will Sparks.”

Baby Driver is now in cinemas.

 

 

 

 

Nick Bugeja

The author Nick Bugeja

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