Babylon – Film Review
What does it take to become a star in Hollywood? Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon encapsulates this ideal of the pursuit of stardom during Hollywood’s Golden Age and subverts it as Nellie La Roy, played by Margot Robbie, mentions ‘you either are a star or you are not’. Thus, Babylon embraces this perspective of starry-eyed aspirations, grounded by reality, which underpins its densely packed history of Hollywood’s beginnings and transformation. Babylon is an epic, exceptional, dynamic, in your face, chaotically wild and ultimately tragic journey through decades of filmmaking from 1920s Hollywood, with its silent film era, through to the talkies transition before re-inventing to become the well-oiled machine of today. Babylon is that majestic film demonstrating, once more, Chazelle’s excellent craftsmanship after La La Land’s success and Whiplash. It is every bit as sprawling as its extreme depiction of Los Angeles, but Babylon’s lack of cohesion and lack of clear narration, it is essentially a fictionalised commentary on Hollywood history, will prove to be divisive. Still, Babylon is that cinematic event evidencing Chazelle’s pervading love for cinema as a film d’auteur to satisfy many a film enthusiast. Babylon will certainly be a talking point for awards season as it’s a dazzling spectacle and a marked departure from Chazelle’s earlier offerings. But Babylon’s ability to both delight and frustrate, with its exploration of Hollywood’s decadent periods, will equally provoke criticism.
Babylon pays homage to many films, including Singing in the Rain, and will invite inevitable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as it re-unites Robbie and Brad Pitt, and joins the canon of films about Hollywood and fading stars. Babylon distinguishes itself by referencing films highlighting the uncertainty in the industry with the introduction of the talkies and adopting key signature Chazelle elements such as dancing and jazz from his repertoire. These elements accentuate the on-screen indulgence and seediness alongside the negative connotations derived from the name Babylon. In biblical times, Babylon was a sin city and deemed morally and religiously corrupt. Chazelle’s Babylon reflects this concept with a rare, liberal onscreen perspective of the early stages of cinema’s Golden Age prior to the introduction of the Production Code in the 1930s.
Babylon creates that full immersion into the unbridled 1920s attitudes with wild parties, chaotic camera panning and jump cuts involve audiences in the frenzy and showcase Chazelle’s directorial flair. The film successfully evokes that sentiment of having to be seen within ‘the party of the year’ attended by the who’s who of Hollywood, seemingly a precursor to modern day influencer events. Graphic scenes of drug taking and depravity set Babylon up as that antithesis to the wholesome La La Land. Chazelle’s creativity has certainly been fully unleashed in Babylon, a fact that he appears to have relished with his years of extensive research into Hollywood’s underbelly. The result is a visual feast for the eyes as Babylon is a very ambitious spectacle.
With parallels to the biblical city of Babylon, the film charts the rise and fall of many careers within Hollywood’s early days when it resembled the Wild Wild West. The early Kinescope film sets were essentially located in the desert and in Chazelle’s Babylon occupational hazards and drunkenness are de riguer to darkly humorous effect. Yet, Chazelle is keen to show that amongst this grittiness is the birth of a new industry and a star is born in Robbie’s Nellie La Roy. Nellie is a fictional character believed to be based on Clara Bow and other early screen starlets quickly acquiring the handle ‘wild child’. She could cry at will, the camera loved her and Chazelle carefully baths her in the luminosity of close up shots perfectly replicating the preferred filming style of that era. However, the truly fascinating facet to Nellie’s character is her refusal to conform as she is consistently unapologetic for her ambition and gritty upbringing. It is a tantalising performance from Robbie who sparkles onscreen, but her role remains superficial.
Nellie is part of the quartet of characters, at Babylon’s core, whose lives interact and weave throughout the film like musical notes and an ongoing dance. Babylon may portray the aspirations of dreamers wishing to achieve stardom in pursuit of the American Dream but this experience remains realistic as it unfolds through the eyes of Mexican immigrant, Manny Torres and his self-sacrifice to succeed in Hollywood. Unlike La La Land, such perspective allows Chazelle to explore the darker, corrupt side to the corporate Hollywood machine, within this mise-en-abyme, and its negative impact for dreamers like Nellie and Manny. Diego Calva is truly a star in the making with his impressively expressive portrayal of Manny the dreamer influenced by the power of the Hollywood corporate giant. Babylon thus illustrates Hollywood’s continued star power.
Babylon is therefore that brash, bolder, bigger story compared to La La Land, not least with a bigger ensemble, as it stars Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, a silent cinema star in his hey day, who hides his humble beginnings. Chazelle is unafraid to explore that duality of the characters and their surroundings within Babylon, such as the visible and the hidden, sight and sound, which was implicitly embedded within his earlier films. Thus, Babylon magnificently portrays the full extent of the ascent and burn-out for the stars within the quartet. Chazelle couldn’t resist glossing over class divisions as well in his bid to portray that struggle of convincing others that film is on a par with other art forms such as the theatre. In these moments, Chazelle is potentially projecting his beliefs, vicariously through Jack, that the medium of film is just as rich as other art forms, capable of transcending socially constructed hierarchies and has the power to transform lives. Chazelle therefore continues to emphasise the negative sides to the Hollywood dream. By contrast, the trumpet player Sidney Palmer, brilliantly played by Jovan Adepo, showcases music, another art form, but remains on the periphery without a full trajectory and is never truly fleshed out as a character.
In Sidney’s role, Chazelle appears to address some of the criticisms levelled at La La Land. Sidney is a black trumpeter who provides musical suggestions thus preserving his craft unlike La La Land’s penchant for having a white jazz enthusiast as the saviour of the jazz music scene. Unfortunately, Sidney’s role is underused. It is a missed opportunity for Chazelle to delve further into the African American experience during such era and the damaging impact of the negativity directed towards black musicians and actors, including the issues of stage lighting. The casual references to Al Jolson’s films and the film posters in Babylon may allude to the controversial blackface in such films and it is intriguing to watch Chazelle’s attempts to tackle such controversy. Chazelle, in this no holds barred odyssey of the history of filmmaking does subvert expectations in that sense, but a common criticism of Babylon is its lack of character development which renders hollow such historically problematic events.
Babylon certainly swings high and low with its rhythmic pacing reflecting many of the sublime musical numbers from Justin Hurwitz’s infectious score. As such, Babylon may be criticised for its unevenness in tone fluctuating between the up-tempo and the melancholy. However, this is a signature tenet of Chazelle’s duality concept as an auteur. As such, Babylon’s score conveys the emotions that the script fails to enunciate. Hurwitz’s score does not miss a beat with tribal, big band, toe tapping jazz numbers, such as Voodoo Mama, highlighting Sidney’s trumpet playing, depicting that wildness and darkness embodying Babylon and interwoven with melancholic numbers such as Gold Coast Rhythm. The overall effect is a more mature sound, evocative of Babylon’s overarching tone, which will inspire audiences to dance in their seats. As diverse as the sounds may be, unfortunately, the ethnically diverse dancers are demoted to the background to provide that spotlight for Nellie, the blonde woman.
Babylon may not be plot driven, but Chazelle clearly has a lot to express about filmmaking techniques, with key scenes about the importance of catching that golden hour of lighting, the importance of sound within films and that American Dream. Chazelle’s technical excellence is undeniable in directing a film of this scale and it is a marvel to witness such a truly original, sweeping cinematic event with hypnotic cinematography. Babylon may not appeal to all audiences, its length and pacing will be challenging, but it will fully entertain with its wild, engrossing, visually spectacular ride traversing Hollywood’s history and thus, as a cinematic work of art, re-ignites the magical power of cinema in the process.