"Babylon" and the Rage Against Turning Tides
Extravagant parties full of dancing, lines of cocaine, lots of jazz, too many drinks to count, and… an elephant taking a giant shit all over our main protagonist. Oh, and lots of sex and orgies at that. This is just the wild beginning of director Damien Chazelle’s extravagant, loud (and not before long, nightmarish) vision of Hollywood during the pivotal transition from silent films to sound. Appropriately labeled as “a tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess,” Chazelle isn’t afraid to take narrative risks here, taking us on an unforgettable ride through all 189 minutes of its runtime. Babylon is an epic clearly born from the same kind of fascination and intrigue that La La Land held for stardom and the art of filmmaking (why do we love movies so much after all?), but takes these ideas to an entirely new (and disturbing) degree. While the film’s stars are largely fictional, the inspiration drawn from real-life figures along with Chazelle’s clear understanding of the historical time period he is exploring allows for an honest and truthful portrayal to surface. In the case of Babylon, what happens when the biggest stars of the silent era fail to make the transition to sound film?
We have our three main players in this outrageous, and ultimately deeply sad, tale. First off, there’s Manny Torres (Diego Clava), initially our more level-headed eyes into this world as he tries to break into the industry, running errands for the big stars before moving up as a studio executive with real power. Then there’s the classic “it” girl of the times, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the kind of eccentric and unpredictable star who can crash a party she wasn’t even invited to and end the night with everyone carrying and championing her. And then there’s Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the well respected, charismatic veteran actor who desperately hates costume pictures, and isn’t afraid to let everyone around him know it.
All three of our principal characters find much success in the silent era. They overcome many of their respective obstacles to make it into the industry, something that the thrilling, fast-paced editing of the first act makes so fun to witness. The energy and passion that Chazelle clearly has for filmmaking shows in every scene. Thankfully, Chazelle is also a skilled enough filmmaker to know when to slow the pacing down and allow for crucial breathing moments.
The film has undeniably been a box office flop, and is certainly not the critical darling that Whiplash, La La Land or First Man were, but the technical components that went into Babylon are some of the most impressive of any Chazelle film thus far. Yes, of course we have another amazing Justin Hurwitz score on our hands, adding so much energy with Hurwitz’s pulsing, eccentric jazz music that makes use of just about every instrument imaginable. But there’s also the costume design, the art direction and the cinematography (done once again by La La Land Oscar-winner Linus Sandgren) that are worth mentioning for bringing Chazelle’s vision of 1920s life beautifully.
What makes these elements stand out even more is that Chazelle wanted to go against the typical 1920s stereotypes, with the typical women’s bob haircuts and “flapper” look that you might see in a typical period piece from this time. Chazelle and his team here instead decided to go for something more authentic and timeless, conveying the desperation many of our titular characters (especially Manny and Nellie) feel in trying to make it as stars and trying to look “the part.”
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we intercut between Manny, Nellie and Jack on film sets as they tackle the day ahead of them. The way that editor Tom Cross decides to frantically weave each of their separate stories together along with a constantly ticking time clock is nothing short of exhilarating, as we anxiously await to see if the characters can get what they need before the sun has set.
The end result is even more rewarding when we watch movie magic happen right in front of our eyes. It’s hard to find many other films that depict the joy of filmmaking as viscerally as Chazelle manages to do here. These moments of success that our characters find are brilliantly crafted with so much active movement and energy, making us feel just as excited and energized as our main characters do when it’s a wrap at the end of shooting, and all has gone well (if not necessarily according to plan). It’s just as Conrad himself says before Manny steps foot onto his first film set: “It’s the most magical place in the world.”
Until it wasn’t.
The turmoil and never-ending action that Chazelle is able to depict in the silent film era (and man will those classic whip pans never get old) makes it all the more effective when the latter half of the film hits.
And man does it hit hard.
It’s easy to see how Babylon takes rich inspiration from films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), depicting the rise and fall of a group of characters riding out the end of their livelihoods until the wheels fall out from under them. Chazelle even has his own version of the Alfred Molina character with Tobey McGuire’s memorable cameo towards the end of the film, a scene that successfully leans more into horror than Chazelle has ever gone before. But while Babylon wears its influences on its sleeves, the film more than stands on its own.
The unrelenting depiction of the characters' excessive partying, drinking and getting high leads to many hilarious moments — but this isn’t done merely for the sake of shock value. Especially in the vein of the film’s harrowing third act, recontextualizing what may have initially seem indulgent and simply fun to watch without much meaning, Chazelle’s choices depict the trying to hold onto the spotlight until the very last second. They will do anything to hold onto star power and feel the rush that they once did. We watch the once famous icons desperately try to find their place again, even as the industry that they helped build leaves them behind for good. Their quest for purpose, for the “why” of it all, is what torments them, keeping them wide awake at night, and that resonates with us on a deep level. We wouldn’t feel with the characters nearly as much if Chazelle had chosen to hold back earlier on during the explicit party scenes, allowing us to experience the joy of the characters.
Outside of the film’s main characters, we also watch the struggles that Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) face as actors of color during the 1920s and 1930s. In an unsettling and difficult scene to watch, Manny is forced to pressure Sidney into applying blackface in order to match the darker skin tone of his fellow musicians. Chazelle’s Babylon script tackles many of the issues that people of color faced during this time period in Hollywood directly. This effectively paints an even fuller and more accurate picture of the historical context during this time period, and the negative impacts that this transition period had on diversity in Hollywood.
The most powerful scene in the entire film comes in the third act when Jack goes and talks to Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) after she publishes an article that questions whether his career is over. In a powerful reminder of the lasting power of our cinematic icons, Elinor gives an emotionally rich monologue about how somebody can watch Jack’s films in 50 years and feel as if they have a new friend. There will always be audiences who stumble upon their works for the first time and in that way, their happiest memories have a way of living on. There is a true bittersweetness and melancholy that comes through the characters accepting that their time in the spotlight is done. At the end, though, despite all of the pain, it all comes back full circle to their love of the movies, and the fond memories they will always be lucky to carry with them — something that the film’s ending sequence captures so poignantly.
In recent years, many renowned filmmakers have taken an interest in exploring older periods of Hollywood history, whether it be David Fincher’s exploration of 1930s Hollywood politics and culture in Mank or Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist tale of the Manson Murders in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And for Chazelle himself, who largely made a name for himself with an inspirational tale of Hollywood dreams with La La Land, it’s quite impressive to see him take Babylon in so many new directions that we never could’ve dreamed possible.
I suppose that’s the magic of the movies, and of directors like Chazelle who never let up in sharing what they have to say on the big screen.