Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Eric Roberts, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Tobey Maguire

When you see the name “Damien Chazelle”, your first thought might be of La La Land, or Whiplash, something that is quite musically theatrical. You may not however realise that Chazelle isn’t always all about the musically inclined; he also directed First Man and has had a hand in a few other recognisable dramatic screenplays. Babylon looks to sit somewhere closer to the dramatic end of Chazelle’s genre spectrum, and yet he appears to have had free reign with much of the production that edges more toward his musical/theatrical side. Has he created something unique to his filmmaking, or is it a mishmash of misguided moviemaking?

Beginning in 1926 Los Angeles, just as “talkies” are about to make silent motion pictures a thing of the past, we are thrown into the ultimate glitz and glam that the roaring 20s had to offer in the bubbling cauldron that was 1920s Hollywood. We follow multiple characters as they navigate their lives in the City of Angels: Manuel “Manny” Torres (Calva) as he makes his way up the ladder from dogsbody to filmmaker; Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), a young misfit wannabe actress who will do just about anything to get into movies; Jack Conrad (Pitt), a womanising older actor who is hitting the sunset years of his career; and an African-American jazz trumpeter, Sidney Palmer (Adepo), who wants to make it big with his music but has a lot to learn about the treatment of African-Americans in showbiz. Many of the stories interweave and the characters’ stories all coincide at one time or another, involving many other personalities that come to make or break their careers and their very lives, all while we witness the highs of the time and the lows that came with new technology and the wants and needs of audiences.

The title Babylon alone suggests opulence, indulgence and hedonism, all of which are plentiful in Chazelle’s latest big screen gem. But it also represents the fall of something once considered great and glorious. A fitting title for a film that is at once an ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a cautionary tale detailing its downfall. It’s the perfect setting for a filmmaker of Chazelle’s ilk: there’s room for the drama and near-unbelievable events that occur while a backdrop of loud music and alluring dancing and drug-fuelled parties/orgies sends our heads spinning. We go from the heavenly heights (e.g. a movie executive’s mansion high in the Hollywood hills) to the hellish depths (e.g. the literal sewers and underground tunnels of LA that play host to the even more depraved and dehumanised). Although there is certainly a lot going on, Chazelle uses his characters and plotlines to seamlessly guide us through the lives of the characters and the greater story that’s, sadly, based on a lot of truth. Much of it might have you wanting to join the party, while the rest will have you glad to steer clear.

Babylon is a heavy production, with a huge cast, big sets and an interesting score. The cinematography spins between modern and period, with some shots made to feel classic, and much of the outdoor scenes are spectacular, giving a strong sense of how it felt at the time to see such things on film that had never been seen before. Likewise, the costuming and set design is familiar and yet reflects 1920s America (LA specifically). It’s extravagant and lavish yet dizzying. Frequent Chazelle collaborator and composer Justin Hurwitz returns to score Babylon with more jazz than any La La Land fan could dream of and lots of dramatic flair. It’s little surprise that Babylon is nominated for Academy Awards in music, costuming and production design. It brings much of the story together and uplifts it to a new level of visual awe.

The movie certainly boasts a golden cast, and although everyone is perfectly cast, it’s not the most unique of casting. In particular, both Robbie and Pitt, while excellent and committed in their roles, both had roles in a similar film just four years ago, that being Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Although their respective roles are quite different, the themes they are a part of aren’t all that different. In fact, pre-pandemic I believe they were already reading Chazelle’s script (the story of which Chazelle has been working on since long before La La Land was even an apple in his eye). The real standout is Calva, who is fantastic as Manny despite his limited experience in film. He has a great range and makes his character very likable. We also have great supporting performances from Adepo, Li and Smart who tend to surround the main cast with their own individual stories that are superbly portrayed with a decent amount of depth and character.

Damien Chazelle is a lover of movies, there’s no doubt about that, but not only is his fascination and devotion clear in Babylon, his ability to see through the veil and understand the tragic stories behind the camera is also abundantly clear. Babylon‘s overall setting isn’t the most original of ideas, especially when it comes to the overarching themes, but the way it’s executed means it is visually and audibly entertaining and keeps a great pace that prevents boredom in a movie that is near to the three-hour mark. It’s funny, sad, thrilling, dramatic, even horrific at times, but that is the truth of the 20s in Hollywood.

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