A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
The past couple of years has seen a lot of filmmakers make movies about their childhoods and their love of cinema, but no one has gone quite as far as Damien Chazelle has in ‘Babylon’, his epic love letter to the early days of Hollywood. This is a bombastic piece of filmmaking that takes you on a journey through the innovation, the decadence and the debauchery, whether you want to be taken on it or not. Chazelle has started out with a clear vision to make a movie about old Hollywood, and he certainly does that, but the stories he concocts to take place in this movie aren’t as compelling as the setting itself. It seems clear this will be a polarising film, and at 3 hours long you’d best be sitting comfortably to go along for the ride.
‘Babylon’ centres on the careers of three main individuals who all attempt to make a name for themselves in 1920s Hollywood during the silent era’s heyday, before struggling with the transition to sound as we head into the 1930s. They are Manny (Diego Calvo), a Mexican film assistant with aspirations to be so much more; Jack (Brad Pitt), an alcoholic silent movie star; and Nellie (Margot Robbie), a starlet with the confidence and belief to rise to the top. Their stories intertwine over the course of the decade covered by ‘Babylon’, as they rise, fall and rise again, attend parties in fabulous mansions, get on the wrong side of the mafia, fall in and out of love, and get chewed up and spit out by a Hollywood machine that hasn’t changed all that much to this day. It is a lot to take in and it can be quite overwhelming, but Chazelle always has this great setting to fall back on and he mines it for all that it’s worth.
In many respects this reminded me of a Baz Luhrmann movie, so frenetic and full of things happening – as if ‘Moulin Rouge’ was sped up even more, with Chazelle packing so much stuff in that it’s inevitable that not all of it will work. It also means we have plot points and characters introduced and almost casually discarded, with Jovan Adepo’s jazz player turned actor Sidney Palmer a particular victim in this regard. Chazelle’s love for the setting means he is unable to view it impartially and we get a rose-tinted view of Hollywood history that goes behind the scenes to show some of what went on without willing to confront the harsher realities of the time.
When it sings, it really does, such as a thrilling sequence outside L.A. where multiple movies are being chaotically filmed at once, with Hurwitz’s recurring musical motif and Chazelle’s giddy direction combining for an exhilarating insight into the magic and the chaos of 1920s moviemaking. Those highlights do mask that Chazelle doesn’t really know where his narrative is going and the conclusion is somewhat unsatisfying, settling for a movie montage that is neat and unnecessary, and an extended sequence of characters reacting to other movies which seems to be fast becoming a pre-requisite of any modern movie (see also ‘The Fabelmans’ and ‘Empire of Light’ just this month!), but for movie fans of any age (*may need to be 18+!), this is a wild ride I’d recommend you take.
Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Olivia Hamilton, P. J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Tobey Maguire, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde and Spike Jonze