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Baby Driver and beyond: how headphones changed music on screen

From American Psycho to Garden State.

We’ve all been there. It’s an average day, you’re walking down the road, and you play a new favourite song at an irresponsibly loud volume. It comes buzzing through your headphones and, suddenly, your life is basically that scene from 500 Days of Summer after Joseph Gordon-Levitt had some nice missionary sex. The sun is shining! Fountains squirt water in time to the beat! You wiggle your butt (almost imperceptibly, you’re not a freak) as you walk! A cartoon bird warbles along with the vocals! Life, it is good.

Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver builds on that experience and takes it to its ridiculous conclusion. An early scene sees Baby (Ansel Elgort) go to get coffee while Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” blasts through his earbuds. Immediately, the whole world moves with its rhythms. Footsteps, dog barks and ATM bleeps sync up with the song as its lyrics seamlessly appear in street signs and graffiti on walls in the background. Baby himself subtly choreographs his own interactions with the world, not-quite-dancing but swaying, turning in the street, flipping sunglasses on and off, even saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah” along with the track.

It’s not the only current work that uses the isolating, cinematic experience of listening to music with headphones as a jumping-off point. Last week, Haim’s video for “Want You Back” was released. It sees the Haim sisters walking together down an empty street, lip-syncing and moving along with the song – subtly at first, getting more enthusiastic as the video progresses. The video’s top comment on YouTube reads, “Accurate representation of me when I walk with music in my ears.” It’s had more than 3,000 likes.

The world mysteriously turning in time to music obviously goes back to the musical tradition, where everyone can suddenly hear the same song at the same time. But action films with this kind of choreography are nothing new either – think of “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now. In Blade: Trinity, Abigail, like Baby in Baby Driver, insists on wearing Apple brand headphones so she can personally soundtrack all her action scenes. Wright is a particular fan of this trope (see also Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But in the decades since Walkmen became a thing, our headphone habits have changed the way music functions in film, television and music videos.

In the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the first dream sequence explores how falling asleep with headphones on can make the music seep into your subconscious, while A Serious Man opens by demonstrating the isolating effects of even just one earbud. When I think of headphones on screen, I think of “What came first, the music or the misery” in High Fidelity, “Lady in Red” fading and cutting out in American Psycho, Rae feeling sorry for herself listening to “Beetlebum” in My Mad Fat Diary, or About A Boy’s “Shake Ya Ass” scene. The list is endless – headphones on screen can even be divided into a variety of different tropes.

Take, for example, the headphone meet-cute. In Baby Driver, Baby and Deborah bond over their love of music – Deborah first catches Baby’s eye when he sees her shamelessly singing and dancing along to the music in her headphones, just like he does. In Garden State, Sam (Natalie Portman) and Andrew (Zach Braff) first meet in a hospital waiting room. “What are you listening to?” Andrew asks. “The Shins,” Sam replies. “You know em?” When Andrew admits he doesn’t, she says, “You have to hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear.” Andrew does. Romance ensues. Life: changed.

In 500 Days of Summer, the fantasy is taken even further – a beautiful woman (Zooey Deschanel) leans towards an average guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when she hears the sounds of The Smiths echoing from his leaky headphones. “I said, ‘I love The Smiths,’” she repeats, when he lifts a headphone from his ear. He balks, frowning. “You like The Smiths?!” She leaves the lift, but he stands rooted to the spot, physically shaken by the revelation that a human woman could enjoy this intellectually stimulating music.

Then there’s the Oblivious Headphone Wearer. What’s that? High-octane action-packed drama happening on screen? Bet your bottom dollar there’s someone lurking round the corner. In Kick Ass, Hit Girl murders several people to the cheery sounds of the Banana Splits theme – which seems to be coming from a guy in the hallway’s headphones – he misses the whole fight as a result, and the music stops when he finally removes them. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, a magical shoot-out is happening just out of sight of a waitress, who happily washes up in the kitchen with her earbuds in. In The Amazing Spider-Man, creator Stan Lee’s cameo is in the role of Oblivious Headphone-Wearing Librarian. Breen misses dramatic violence in Super 8 thanks to his Walkman. Ghost Rider, Devil, and The Day After Tomorrow all have Oblivious Headphone-Wearing Janitors.

But headphones on screen are not just used to explore boyish fantasies of synchronised car chases and bumping into beautiful women. Alongside Haim’s “Want You Back”, Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen have also both released music videos this year that celebrate that feeling of walking down an empty street with your favourite song ringing in your ears. In the lyric video for Jepsen's “Cut to the Feeling”, we follow a girl putting up posters around town from behind, and her vague wiggles eventually turn into full-on dancing.

In “Green Light”, Lorde dances increasingly frantically on the street, with no embarrassment of her trademark “bad dance moves”. As her head flicks from side to side, her headphone cord ends up wrapped around her face. This is the kind of overly intense but perfectly relatable solo-music listening that I live for. In the immortal words of the internet: it me.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.