Damien Chazelle returns to Los Angeles to deliver an excessive, vile portrait of American cinema in its ungovernable infancy full of chaos and cocaine.
*This review contains minor spoilers.*
Inside a 1920s Hollywood mansion, a crowd of bodies fills a grand, high-arch ballroom. Hot jazz plays as half-naked partygoers sway off-beat due to the narcotics rushing through their bloodstream. An elephant crashes the party stomping its way through the room as the intoxicated guests scramble to get out of its way. Within this 30-minute party sequence, the audience is thrust into the vibrant, grotesque world of Babylon.
Set in early 1920s Hollywood, Babylon follows the early settlers in the movie industry, consisting of visionaries and individualists that are receptive to self-demise while reaching new heights of euphoria and innovation in their industry. Three manic hours follow the lives of three eccentric characters as they attempt to survive in a pivotal time of moviemaking: the introduction of sound. At the center is Diego Calva’s Manny who serves as a point of view for the audience that keeps the film grounded. He spends his first moments of the film tending to elephants and quickly upgrades into working in the movies like he always dreamed, but it comes with consequences.
Margot Robbie uses her signature Brooklyn accent as the wild child Nellie LaRoy who is a crude, drug-induced hurricane coming to disrupt Hollywood. Brad Pitt gives a swan song performance as the aging romantic leading man, Jack Conrad. The main trio is supported by Sidney Palmer, a Black trumpeter, and Lady Fay Zhu, an Asian singer. While Chazelle attempts to use these two characters to explore race and sexuality in the 1920s, they are never given the right amount of screen time to fully flesh out these ideas, but they use what they have to create memorable performances.
Chazelle’s fifth film is the most ambitious of his filmography but draws inspiration from his three most popular films. There are evident influences of the sound of First Man, the jazz of La La Land, and the cruelty of Whiplash. Chazelle chronicles the careers of his protagonists as a way to explore the endurance of film as an art form and its ability to strike masses of people. After painting a magical facade of filmmaking, Chazelle plunges into the reality of the unruly nature of 1920s filmmaking consisting of unethical and unregulated production practices.
Between the vulgar language and violence resulting in an actor being killed amongst the chaos of a battle sequence, it is insane how this is supposed to be a place of work. Everyone is on a grueling mission to rapidly put together a film to serve the magic audiences are looking for. At the end of the shooting day, an image of perfection is captured that possesses beauty proving Manny’s point on how movies are “even more important than life.”
A mainstay of any Damien Chazelle movie is a Justin Hurwitz score. The Harvard alums interweave music with the narrative to maintain steam throughout a three-hour runtime. From the start, a jazz beat drives the tone of the film to represent the surrounding environment of madness. Steadicam shots and jazz music create a sense of an ongoing party that its attendees never want to end. As the film progresses, the music follows directly behind it. With the sound revolution taking full steam, some of the central characters begin to slip from the ranks of stardom and a lighter, airy score accompanies their outings. This switch of beat allows for a chance to breathe for the whiplash of jazz implying that their journeys are finally out of sync with where they once began. They realize they have fallen on the outs of a world they once dominated.
While being a love letter to cinema, this is certainly a hate letter to the entertainment industry. Babylon has a cynical stance on the culture of Hollywood and its obsession with superficiality. Jack Conrad’s storyline embodies the idea of how disposable actors are in their industry. Near the end, Jack ponders whether his talents are not favored by a public that once loved him and what he needs to do in able to win them back. He learns the harsh reality that there is no answer to his question, his time has simply run out in an ever-changing industry. Hollywood is hyperfixated on moving onto the next big thing instead of valuing films and actors for who they are.
Nellie follows the principle that a person either is “a star or not.” Her belief is quickly proven false as the film goes to lengths to show how overnight someone can become a star or lose it all. Society doesn’t value stardom in the way that actors see themselves. It is an industry about evolution and if you don’t fit with what sells, then you are dropped. The interesting aspect of all of this is that in the future, when people look back on someone’s films, they will never question what happened to this person’s stardom, but instead, the film will hold importance over the people actually in it.
The last moments speak volumes about the toxic culture of filmmaking. Utilizing a time jump, Manny returns to Los Angeles in the 1950s where he visits a theater for the first time in years. Throughout his years in filmmaking, Manny endured trauma to fulfill a dream of his. As he watches the screen, he realizes how the films of the 1950s satirize the harmful behavior he was exposed to in the 1920s. Manny is frozen with distraught as the camera pans to the entertained faces of his fellow audience member. Chazelle’s foreshadowing of the future audience’s ignorance comes to fruition as Manny sits, tortured from his damaging career in the movies, amongst a sea of people who will never know what happens behind the scenes of movie magic.
Chazelle makes a bold choice to end his epic with a montage of some of the most famous imagery in movie history as well as a mini-montage of the film audiences just watched for three hours. Jack Conrad speaks early on about the idea that films have value in society and, in Manny’s conclusion, it turns out to be true. On a first watch, the inclusion of Avatar and Jurassic Park is jarring, but they symbolize a point the director has been hammering at the entire runtime. These beautiful images aligned with the magic of the movies are ruined by the malpractice observed in Babylon. No one knows the pain behind the beauty.
Chazelle cracks the fantasy facade of the film by breaking down the moving images into a collection of frames and solid colors that make us question how we actually perceive the screen.
Likely: Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design
Should be Considered: Best Actor (Diego Calva), Best Director
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher