REVIEW: Babylon (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Certificate: 18 (strong sex, nudity, drug misuse). Running Time: 189 mins. UK Distributor: Paramount Pictures

WHO’S IN IT?

Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Lukas Haas, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Olivia Hamilton, P.J. Byrne, Rory Scovel, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Damon Gupton, Phoebe Tonkin, Chloe Fineman, Karina Fontes, Troy Metcalf, Danny Jolles, Lewis Tan, Telvin Griffin, Shane Powers

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Damien Chazelle (director, writer), Olivia Hamilton, Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe (producers), Justin Hurwitz (composer), Linus Sandgren (cinematographer), Tom Cross (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1920s Hollywood, a group of artists come to grips with the changing environment around them…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON BABYLON?

Allow me to give you an idea of the unhinged madness you’re in store for with Damien Chazelle’s highly ambitious, extraordinarily energetic, and ever so slightly deranged Old Hollywood epic Babylon. It is a film where one of the very first shots is of an elephant’s butthole spewing out gallons of faecal matter onto someone, which is then followed mere moments later by a little person giddily playing with a penis statue that’s about as big as he is, in front of a crowd at a party where drugs are as easy to come by as the drinks, half-to-full nude dancers are having sex right on the dance floor, and somewhere in the back is a guy getting peed on by an actress who later overdoses. All of that, incidentally, happens well before the main title even pops up – and none of it even compares to what follows afterwards.

Babylon is, as you might have already guessed, the personification of pure unchecked chaos – and I’m not going to lie, I was utterly fascinated with every moment of this wild, if flawed, ride through this very unpredictable and refreshingly unglamorous depiction of early Hollywood.

Chazelle’s film begins in 1926 at said party in the Hollywood hills, where we are introduced to a wide plethora of characters with varying degrees of success in the world of silent film. To start with, there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a hard-partying starlet from New Jersey who wants to make it as a star; then, we have Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a matinee idol with as many credits to his name as he has ex-wives; meanwhile, Black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) seeks to strike it out on his own as a respected musician; in the background, Chinese-American cabaret starlet Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) flirts around with several women; and jotting down everything is aging journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). Connecting all these larger-than-life personalities in an even more outlandish landscape is Manny (Diego Calva), a fresh-faced Mexican migrant who slowly but surely rises to power in his own right within the film industry, which itself gets an upheaval when sound very literally comes into the picture, changing everything not necessarily for the better in everyone’s case.

If there’s one thing that you must commend Chazelle for, it’s the balls to completely go for broke and make a movie about making movies that does not often feel as self-congratulatory or glamorous as common detractors believe the director’s La La Land to be (which, for the record, I still believe was a more deserving Best Picture winner than Moonlight). Here, you really get to see how grungy and out-of-control a lot of this era of Hollywood could be, such as a visit to a movie set where multiple films are being made all at once, which is an absolute pressure cooker to behold with drunken actors – some in blackface – on your left, imminent set fires on your right, and even the occasional nonchalant death of an extra straight ahead of you. Chazelle captures the chaos with a powerful sense of energy that is at once exhausting but also deeply engaging, along with a dazzling musical score by Justin Hurwitz, rapid-fire cuts from regular editor Tom Cross which add an almost ADHD-like quality to the madness, and shots by cinematographer Linus Sandgren that cleverly highlights the grimy behind-the-scenes sleaze through beautiful sunsets that somehow also make you feel the sweat and filth of every single person you can see.

Later, though, when reality begins to settle in and characters’ livelihoods are on the line, you do still care because Chazelle writes them to not just be one-dimensional caricatures but deeply flawed and even tragic people who are humanised enough to where you do see where most of them are coming from. The committed performances by this ensemble cast are a huge part of making you side with these characters even as they lie, cheat, abuse, and manipulate their way to the top, many of whom you wish you could spend a lot more time with (especially a scene-stealing Tobey Maguire as a seriously creepy crime boss who looks like if Howdy Doody became Tony Montana). They’re fun to be around, particularly whenever they live it up at all these extravagant parties that could well have been planned by the Roman emperor Caligula, but at the same time you wouldn’t want to be close friends with any of them, and Chazelle balances that tricky feat rather nicely.

As admirably wild and hugely entertaining as it is – keep in mind, this is almost as long as Avatar: The Way of Water, and unlike that movie I never once had the urge to check my watch – Babylon doesn’t entirely work. Certain characters often get shifted to the side in favour of the bigger stars like Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, which makes you wonder if there was much point in them even being featured so heavily to begin with (unless there’s an extended cut out there which features plenty more scenes with them). It’s also the kind of movie where, at times, you will be wondering to yourself what exactly is driving some of the more prominent characters, since they often tend to do a bunch of self-destructive things all of a sudden without much build-up or even context. The rather surreal and abstract ending, too, is bound to split audiences down the middle, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t understand why.

However, if you go into it with enough of an open mind, then you may also find yourself able to easily get lost within the chaos of Babylon. I certainly did, and I have no regrets about how much I enjoyed just being a part of this crazy and uniquely ambitious vision by a filmmaker with seemingly no fear.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Babylon is a ferociously entertaining take on the silent era of Hollywood that sees filmmaker Damien Chazelle admirably go for broke in presenting a chaotic and unhinged vision, which often works thanks to the energetic filmmaking and committed ensemble performances, but occasionally falls victim to its own ambition.

Babylon will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 20th January 2023 – click here to find a screening near you!

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