Watching a movie on a laptop — or worse, a phone — with headphones is not an optimal way to experience a movie. But one person doing just that stumbled upon a fairly remarkable editor’s detail within the sounds of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, the summer hit about a teenaged getaway driver named Baby, played by Ansel Elgort. To appreciate the sounds of Baby Driver, you must listen closely. Literally.
“I watched Baby Driver with headphones, and when Jon Bernthal pulls the earbud out of Baby’s left ear, the music Baby is listening to stopped playing in my left earbud, but continued in my right ear,” the anonymous Redditor explained in a post that received 25.4k upvotes. “Then, right when Baby puts the earbud back in, the music returns to the left earbud. This happens throughout the movie when he takes an earbud out.”
It’s more than a gimmick made up in the editing bay. The sound editor, Julian Slater, describes the movie as a sonic “playground for adventure.”
Last summer’s action movie mixtape Baby Driver made music of its protagonist’s medical condition — tinnitus, a form of hearing loss commonly known as a constant “ringing” in the ears — to create an experience that just should reinvent how sound is designed in film. Individuals with tinnitus and professionals who study it have praised Baby Driver for its accuracy to the condition and its respect to disabled representation. The car chases are cool, too.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, approximately 15 percent of the world’s population, including 50 million Americans, suffer from tinnitus. It’s caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises, which means construction workers, soldiers, and rock stars are all susceptible. It can also result from head injuries. That’s how Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, got it in the car accident that made him an orphan. To drown out his tinnitus, he relies on an arsenal of stolen iPods loaded with hits from Queen (“Brighton Rock,” which has a minor plot point in the film), Bob & Earl, The Commodores (“Easy”), Simon & Garfunkel (“Baby Driver,” of course), and more. But when audiences don’t hear Freddie Mercury’s arena rock, Baby Driver has them hearing Baby’s disability.
“The tinnitus happens when Baby is not listening to music,” Slater explains. The ringing also increases in volume “the more stressed Baby gets,” which Slater learned from people living with tinnitus. “It’s what happens. It changes depending on how you are feeling.”
That is scientifically accurate, according to two experts: Dr. Fatima Husain, a neuroscience professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne with 17 articles on tinnitus on Pub Med, and Lindsey Banks, Au.D, a private practice audiologist who operates the educational portal Everyday Hearing. Banks loved Baby Driver and was “impressed” how it portrayed tinnitus. Dr. Husain hasn’t seen it yet, but a student has promised to lend her a DVD. But both agree on Slater’s approach to designing the sounds of Baby Driver.
The goal for implementing a sound for tinnitus “was to hear the environment like Baby does.” “When he’s not listening to music, you hear tinnitus. When he listens to music, it envelops you.”
Slater and his team mixed the film’s acclaimed playlist of music — often heard through Baby’s headphones — in Dolby Atmos, which mixes sound across 128 discrete tracks. “We had speakers in the ceiling. It’s like a sound design orchestral tour de force. There’s a lot happening.”
The tinnitus ringing is just one part of an array of sounds in Baby Driver. Even sounds like car horns, alarms, bells, and footsteps, were given rhythm. It’s most apparent in two distinct set-pieces: Baby’s “Coffee Run” in the opening credits, and the “Tequila” shootout midway through the film. Slater says this is because Baby is always listening to music to drown out his tinnitus. So they made his world musical.
Tinnitus experts are hoping more Hollywood movies can portray the disability with the same care as Baby Driver. Though Wright made it a superpower, Banks thinks representation can help erase the stigma that plagues hearing loss. It may even finally encourage young people to seek help, as tinnitus is mistakenly perceived as exclusively an elderly condition.
“People that have severe tinnitus, they feel lonely,” Banks says. “The feel they’re the only ones that understand it. Making tinnitus out and to the forefront might give people a little more empathy towards what they’re going through.”