On February 3rd, The Fault in Our Stars’ romantic lead Ansel Elgort released his debut music video. It was for a song he wrote and produced, called “Thief.” In the video, he wears a leather duster and no shirt as he sings to his real-life girlfriend, Violetta Komyshan, “Call me a thief / There’s been a robbery / I left with her heart.”
This song and neon-tinged video was a viral hit the day it came out — and that day only. It was the rare example of bad songwriting, illogical performance, and embarrassing artistic failure that’s also seductively enjoyable in the same way that a gas station cinnamon roll seems delicious if you have nowhere to shop besides a gas station. You’d be forgiven, after two to 40 plays, for thinking the song might be okay. It’s easy to decide that the unendingly endearing Elgort should get some credit for trying. In an interview with Teen Vogue, he said his “character” in the video was inspired by Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and also the rest of Queen. Sure, why not?
“Thief,” an ‘80s-inspired pop-rock song about being a thief and a romantic, came out in suspiciously close proximity to the first trailer for Edgar Wright’s romantic-heist movie Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort, various movie stars playing thieves, and the color magenta. But I think the urge to enjoy “Thief” is related to the urge to enjoy Baby Driver.
It’s related, more specifically, to the trend of male pastiche film directors marketing their movies with soundtracks that are essentially personal playlists. Those playlists aren’t necessarily relevant to the story, or organized for emotional effect. They’re simply filled with songs that fit the director’s personal definition of cool. Like any mixtape, they come with a tinge of vulnerability, but they’re bragging a bit, too: “Look at how deep my music knowledge goes!”
You could trace this idea to 2004, when the marketing for Zach Braff’s Garden State was shaped around its indie mixtape soundtrack. Braff made a show of handpicking the then-obscure songs for Garden State’s soundtrack, which won a Grammy, went platinum, and became so popular that it essentially gifted The Shins with their career. It’s even been credited with bringing indie rock into the mainstream for the first time. This is different than a karaoke film like Pitch Perfect or Sing!, which use popular songs to give audiences a jolt of fun and recognition. The promotion and conversation around Garden State included the soundtrack as part of Braff’s highly personal vision, not the contribution of a separate music department. Liking the soundtrack meant you “get” the guy behind a beloved movie.
The shift in thinking around soundtracks as personal playlists turned the vaguely uncool habit of buying and listening to movie soundtracks on its head. Fans of Garden State were buying into a personalized playlist assembled by an artist with a growing cult of personality. It’s intimate and appealing, like watching Elgort awkwardly serenade his high school sweetheart.
Baby Driver’s basic conceit is that a talented getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) doesn’t actually want to be a getaway driver, and he loves music. He loves it so much that he owns about a dozen different iPods for different “moods,” and he can only pull off a heist if he has the right song queued up. That’s not a bad idea for a film, but it is a transparent one. It serves as a plot-legitimated excuse for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz writer-director Edgar Wright — who has a cult persona among certain demographics who love big, fun movies about boys in wild scenarios — to make his personal playlist public.
The act of sharing a playlist with the world is unique to the streaming age. Even 10 years ago, playlists were collections of hoarded music, and mixtapes were destined, at most, to circulate among a small circle of friends. Or, alternately, they were curated gifts for specific individuals — a romantic, embarrassing, private pursuit. People have always used evidence of their musical taste to posture, but rarely as quickly and easily as they do when they tweet a Spotify or SoundCloud link to all the stuff they hope defines their personality. With playlist movies, the soundtrack serves the same function, on top of (or arguably, instead of) the function of choreographing a film’s narrative arc, or filling out its world.
I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty for enjoying those playlists, as you can and should take your kicks where they come. But I do want to figure out why audiences have deemed it fun for a movie experience to involve compulsory mental compliments to a quirky male director for being cool enough to like James Brown and Beck, and omnivorous enough to also have a soft spot for Myspace pop star Sky Ferreira and one ‘60s soul classic.
This is the same trick writer and director James Gunn pulled with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and then doubled down on with this spring’s sequel. These films are marketed in a way that implies moviegoers are getting something extra, something they couldn’t get on their own, as if you couldn’t just dig through your dad’s vinyl or search “best of the [insert decade]” on Spotify. As if you don’t have taste.
In reality, it’s the major film studios that are getting a bonus. Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1, released in January 2015, was one of only eight albums from that year to go platinum. When Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 came out, it was, first of all, a movie called “Volume 2,” and second, marketed with a promotional Doritos bag that came with a flimsy tape deck and a headphone jack. Marvel fans waited online for the Doritos to go on sale for hours after Amazon promised they would be available, and spent the intervening time cursing into the abyss of Twitter. One official poster for the film was just Baby Groot holding up a copy of the tracklist. That soundtrack was available on a cassette tape and written up by Pitchfork. The vinyl edition of Baby Driver (Music from the Motion Picture) is currently sold out on Amazon.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 was ripped to shreds by dozens of outlets over Gunn and Disney’s bald-faced choice to center much of the story on the wordless, doe-eyed, “cute enough to slap on thousands of types of merchandise” Baby Groot. But it somehow survived criticism for the distracting integration of its overeager soundtrack, which included an Electric Light Orchestra intro sequence that was many, many minutes too long, and the same section of Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” played half a dozen times. With a bigger budget than he had for the first film, and the freedom to ask for any track he wanted, Gunn even pulled the Sam Cooke all-time classic “Bring it On Home to Me” to back a painfully cheesy scene between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.
It’s a good playlist, sure, but it doesn’t directly serve a movie that slaps genuinely fun action sequences next to half-assed attempts at sincerity. Throwing Sam Cooke into an awkwardly scripted intimate moment is sort of like walking into Saks Fifth Avenue while bleeding from the head: the context only makes your problem more obvious.
In the lead up to Vol. 2’s May release, Edgar Wright says he freaked out, worried that Guardians might steal some of his preferred songs. In an interview with The Frame, he recounted a conversation with James Gunn: “So I texted him and we had this funny text conversation… where I said: ‘Hey, man, I was just panicking that some of my Baby Driver songs are in Guardians 2.’” There have been plenty of summers when a song has appeared in multiple blockbusters that were in theaters at the same time, but here, where the music is supposedly so specific to the dude at the helm, it would feel inauthentic. Suddenly hit music isn’t a salable commodity, it’s the personal property of the men using it to bolster their personal cool.
David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, out next week, has been marketed similarly. Another neon-tinged, ‘80s-inspired, slick confection from a buzzy young male pastiche director (this time starring Charlize Theron as a platinum-haired assassin), it debuted at SXSW — best known as the country’s most influential music festival. (It’s no coincidence that Baby Driver premiered there, too.) It’ll be surprising if the soundtrack takes off in the same way as either of these two films. It features some similar choices: Queen (like Baby Driver), Bowie (like Guardians of the Galaxy), and, uhh, Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” (like DC’s Suicide Squad, which tried and failed to get the same musical attention as Marvel’s Guardians). Those crossovers may tie Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack into the hit playlists that preceded it, but they also make it feel less personal and specific to Leitch’s taste.
In Baby Driver’s case, hyping up a soundtrack of curated cool is a good way to mask the fact that the movie itself is not so novel or carefully thought-out. Every character in the film is barely sketched in — including Elgort as Baby, whose bobbing sidewalk dance routines don’t make him anything more complicated than “charming,” and whose desire to replace his dead mother with iPods is an almost offensive attempt at understanding grief.
Filmed in Atlanta, Baby Driver feels as though it’s set anywhere and nowhere. A movie that purports to be about music in some meaningful way has not even a winking knowledge of its setting’s outsized cultural importance. It dwells mainly in New York rock and California pop. The real Atlanta is the epicenter of trap, which is inarguably the dominant style of rap and probably the single largest influence on Top 40 music in the United States at the moment. Historically, it’s been a center of gospel, R&B, and neo-soul. But Wright’s Atlanta is just a series of parking garages where Beach Boys, The Commodores, and Simon & Garfunkel bounce off the walls. (To be fair, one track featuring Run The Jewels plays during the end credits.) In that sense, the soundtrack has some fidelity to the film’s protagonist, who is still wearing skinny jeans in 2017, and constantly leaves his sunglasses on indoors. He’s supposedly a boy with encyclopedic musical references and a good personality, but he’s actually oblivious to everything around him.
Much like Ansel Elgort’s music video for “Thief,” which is so easy to give some amount of credit to in recognition of its zeal and romanticism, and even more like a gas station cinnamon roll, which is so easy to enjoy in a gas station, Baby Driver is easy to like in the midst of summer blockbuster season. This time of year, between Transformers: The Last Knight and The Emoji Movie, even the slightest indication that a personal creative process happened in one individual’s brain is tempting to interpret as a triumph for art and the human spirit.
I don’t blame Wright for packaging his movie for success — starting the trailer with a spinning record player and welcoming fan art steeped in musical nostalgia. Nor do I really begrudge him getting away with it. At least, however imperfect Baby Driver is, and however uneven Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 was, there were fingerprints on them. Someone made you a mixtape, and that’s still intimate, even when it’s not. But how sustainable is this — men with identical taste, making mediocre movies, begging for love with a playlist from the heart?