LIGHTS! CAMERA! DEBAUCHERY!
The magic and the excess of showbiz is explored in Babylon. A comedic drama epic set in the golden age of 1920s Hollywood as it makes the transition from silent film to ‘talkies’.
Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is an idealistic young man working at the behest of a studio executive. At a massive drug fuelled party for the elite he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wild child party girl aspiring to make it big. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s most bankable leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), fuelled by disillusionment, indulges his alcoholism. Trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) jazzes up the crowd, the exotic Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) entertains with her sexy cabaret performance, while gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) reports on all of it.
In the hangover of the party, Nellie and Manny will begin their rise to the top in front and behind the camera, respectively. Meanwhile, Jack begins the downslide of his career aging out. Welcome to Hollywood, where everyone sells their soul for fame and fortune!
If the above feels like a lot to take in – that’s because it is. Following his success with Whiplash and LaLa Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle returns with a truly cynical idea of a love letter to movie history. A film which with a hefty runtime of over 3 hours, has a lot to say about a lot of things.
The performances within Babylon are spectacular, with every actor giving their all. Diego Calva works well as the film’s underdog lead protagonist. While Pitt with his timeless good looks and charisma, is fitting and believable as a movie star from 100 years ago, as he is today. Robbie is full of energy as the firecracker sexpot inspired by real-life silent film celeb, Clara Bow. Adepo is also great as the jazz musician becoming one of Hollywood’s first POC stars.
For such a lengthy film, often it is not up to the same standard as its actors in portraying the characters. As great as Jovan Adepo is to watch, his character is underutilised and feels like an aside. Robbie does not escape the film’s poor story either with her character Nelli LaRoy becoming more one-note as the film goes on.
The story goes in so many different directions with various ideas, and many of which could be excised. This appears to be an excuse to have an ‘epic’ runtime rather than provide a decent and consistent story. Sadly, in the end, many elements and characters suffer from a lack of focus.
This isn’t to say there is nothing to be enjoyed in Babylon‘s writing, however. I found myself laughing out loud more than once with the frantic insanity of Hollywood’s wild days. While I feel the movie needs editing, one of its longest scenes was my favourite part. With an entire crew losing their minds over the frustration of filming their first talkie scene. Hilariously encapsulating the difficulty back then that went into making movies.
Still, anachronisms come flying hard and fast with the film picking and choosing when to feel authentic to the period. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the dialogue, specifically the vulgarity of how people talk and insult one another. This isn’t a stylised decision, rather Chazelle has simply written many of his characters as if they are modern day potty-mouths in period clothing.
To that end, Babylon features over 150 cast members and hundreds of background extras. All of whom look amazing with brilliant hair, make-up, and costume design. Chazelle’s crew have knocked it out of the park in realising the look of 1920s Los Angeles inhabitants, both rich and poor.
I must give special mention to the amazing original music and score by Justin Hurwitz. With many of the same themes throughout, played in different ways and in different styles. The music of Babylon stayed with me long after I left the cinema.
Babylon is a hard film to recommend as it is difficult to say who exactly it was even made for. The obscenity it wallows in is sure to turn many away, not to mention it has an unnecessarily long run time. There have been many better films made about Hollywood, its seedy underbelly, and the transition to talkies. In telling a tale of overindulgence, Chazelle has unfortunately himself made an overly indulgent picture.