Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Driving Mr. Baby: The Paul Simon Connection

Midsummer seems the right time for a good old-fashioned car chase movie, and Edgar Wright’s gorgeously gas-guzzling Baby Driver more than fills the bill. With its driving scenes scored to the tunes throbbing out of the leading man’s iPod, Baby Driver can even be considered a musical, La La Land for the behind-the-wheel set. (It’s fascinating to contemplate what would happen if La La Land’s “Another Day of Sun” opening scene were transported to Baby Driver’s Atlanta. Ansel Elgort as Baby would never let a little thing like freeway gridlock stop him from getting--very quickly--where he needs to go.)

Baby is the getaway driver for an exceedingly rotten egg (Kevin Spacey), who rules with iron fist over a squad of ruthless criminals. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm (as a very different kind of Mad Man) play thugs with varying degrees of smarts but lots of anger issues in common. Needless to say, Baby has a backstory that explains what he’s doing in such loathsome company. Though he loves to drive, loves the thrill of being in motion, he’s by no means a hardened criminal type. He also loves his deaf foster father, and he’s starting to love the pretty little waitress (Lily James) who believes in him, and who wants nothing more than to drive into the sunset with her tunes blasting from the car stereo.

This is a movie that’s much dependent on its soundtrack. I didn’t recognize most of Baby’s music, though it’s fun to hear him crank up a golden oldie, “Tequila.” The use of familiar pop songs to score a film is not the newest of ideas. But it was very new in 1967 when director Mike Nichols decreed that The Graduate should be cut to such existing Simon and Garfunkel tunes as “The Sound of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.” The original idea was for Paul Simon to devise some brand-new musical cuts for the film. Simon tried, but nothing seemed particularly promising, although Nichols thought there was something to be said for a scrap of a Simon ditty about Mrs. Roosevelt. (A simple shift to Mrs. Robinson, and music history was made.)

The financial backer of The Graduate, Joseph E. Levine, was irked in 1967 that Nichols wanted to score his film with songs written all the way back in 1964. Referring to the singing duo as “Simon and Schuster,” he bellowed at Nichols, “Every kid in America knows these old songs. You’ll be laughed off the screen.” Somehow that’s not what happened. The nostalgia built into “The Sound of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage” made them all the more poignant to the young audience. And this new approach to film scoring—using existing tunes to evoke the feeling of an era—would persist. Cut to 1973 when George Lucas chose  classic fifties oldies like Fats Domino’s  “Ain’t That a Shame,” Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” and the Clovers’ “Love Potion Number Nine” to establish the 1962 mood in American Graffiti.

Paul Simon also helped inspire Edgar Wright (a lover of genre films and the late George Romero) to write and direct Baby Driver. The film’s title is a steal from a bouncy Simon and Garfunkel track released back in 1970 on the duo’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters LP. Happily, it’s used over the movie’s end credits, certainly a jaunty way to wrap up the story. There was a time, following The Graduate, when Simon tried writing and starring in his own movie, One-Trick Pony. It didn’t work. Simon may be a musical genius, but a filmmaker he is not.  

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