When Damien Chazelle announced his next film was going to be Babylon, the excitement of the young director returning to musicals ignited a flame on Film Twitter. Sadly, the film turned out to not be a musical but Chazelle gifted us with something even better that is far from the sanitized musical La La Land. It almost feels symbolic of the pre-Oscar and post-Oscar career of Chazelle.
A constant staple in every Chazelle film is a Justin Hurwitz score. Hurwitz’s poetic and tragic score is a constant in the unhinged takedown of Hollywood. Not a day goes by where Manny and Nellie’s theme isn’t playing on repeat in my mind. Just hearing the notes of the finale theme sends me back to the moment I sat in the theater to experience that Avatar jump scare.
The beauty of Babylon’s structure is that it is broken up into three parties attended by its ecosystem of characters as they move from the silent era to talkies. Each party sequence gives insight into how the world around them is changing and where they fall on that new hierarchy. In summary, this is a party film and every successful party needs music. The party settings allow for diegetic music that weaves its way into the dialogue on top of the music that underscores. A lot of layering goes into the process of putting together these moments so that even for someone who has seen the film eight times, you get an entirely different soundscape each time.
A major inspiration for the design was Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where music bleeds back and forth from the parties taking place in the film to the accompanying soundtrack. Babylon engages with this technique by blurring its party music and score with a live jazz band playing in the background of the parties and then transforming into an off-screen score in montage sequences.
This isn’t the first time Chazelle and Hurwitz have done this; since Guy and Madeline, they have been introducing main themes in the overture and then having the melody performed by a band onscreen in the scenes. In La La Land, Ryan Gosling first plays Mia and Sebastian’s theme on the piano and then it works its way to becoming the main theme of the movie. It is never clear where the source of these melodies is coming from, if it is inside the film or the actual score.
The hedonistic nature of the world Chazelle created allowed Hurwitz to not be confined to the sound of 1920s music. Chazelle and jazz go hand-in-hand, but a simple jazz score wouldn’t have worked at all in this unruly Hollywood. Inspirations of rock ‘n’ roll and EDM are brought in to capture the reckless energy of the film that is true to the period but adds modernity that isn’t distracting. When jazz is used, it is hot and aggressive and feels overstimulating at times from its screaming and pounding. Chazelle focuses on the underground aspect of the glitzy city of LA allowing the music to be imaginative of what would’ve been played in the deep bowels of the Hollywood Hills where the freaks go to play.
Another way Hurwitz uses his score as a storytelling device is to enhance the rise and fall of the Babylon characters. From the beginning, as they are all on top of the world there is a mess of music that matches the high-octane energy of the entertainment industry. As they begin to realize maybe their time is up, especially Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, the score starts to break up and slow down to match the tragic energy of what that moment feels like to each person. The rhythmic music is a guide for the audience.
Hurwitz achieved a holistic soundtrack that perfectly matches up with the story Chazelle has worked on for 15 years. The music manages to add an immersive layer of energy that blends the multiple story arcs and fuels the overarching narrative of this hate letter to Hollywood.
You can read our review of Babylon here.