The song “Harlem Shuffle” overlays the opening credits of Baby Driver (dir. Edgar Wright, 2017) as Baby (Ansel Elgort) makes a coffee run in the streets of Atlanta. Baby can hear the music too; it’s coming from his headphones. As he casually struts and dances his way down the sidewalk, lyrics from the song begin to pop up all around him. Carved in trees he passes, etched on the walls with graffiti, hanging from signs outside of shops. Baby even works some aloud into his conversation with the coffee shop barista. All the diegetic sounds around him sync up with the rhythm he hears as well, from car horns all the way to the buzzing of construction work. For a seemingly trivial subject, this entire sequence (captured in one long tracking shot) explodes off the screen. It sets the visual tone for the rest of the film, and suddenly you are acutely aware you are watching an Edgar Wright film.
Wright is an English filmmaker who has achieved international fame through his crowd-pleasing, often satirical comedies. Given their conventional success, it may sound unusual to describe Wright’s films as formalist, as this is a style often associated with more niche genres and the avant-garde.
But I think that Edgar Wright engages with formalism more often than not. It can be seen in his directorial debut A Fistful of Fingers (1995), but most prominently in his “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” which includes Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013), as well as in his comic adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).
Wright utilizes formalism by developing a specific on-screen aesthetic using lighting, colors, editing and score. These are especially prominent in Baby Driver, Wright’s most formalist venture to date. Once an aesthetic is developed, Wright works it into the narrative of his films, and it becomes a crux in a way; the entire story is told through the lens of the aesthetic. This is constructed in such a way that while it is crucial to his films, it is not overt or distracting. (The one exception could be Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, although the more extreme stylistic choices of that film were done to stay true to the source material.)
By blending this style and cinematic aesthetic with well-known actors, songs, and pop-culture references, Wright is able to bring formalism to the mainstream without audiences even realizing. By doing so, he has opened the door to new and exciting creative visions in Hollywood.