‘Babylon’ review: Here’s to the fools who dream; Damien Chazelle’s epitaph for cinema is the evil b-side to ‘La La Land’
When Mia begrudgingly attends a party at the start of Damien Chazelle’s magical, much-discussed film La La Land, she stares at her reflection in the mirror with longing in her voice and sings, “somewhere there’s a place where I’ll find who I’m gonna be/A somewhere that’s just waiting to be found.” As she strolls outside and the fake snow falls, we know there’s something beautiful in her future. She has hope, and she’s going to find her way. Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, is the evil b-side to La La Land, where those sparkling dreams go to die. Los Angeles isn’t “la la land,” but a dark and dirty underbelly built on the backs of similar dreamers nearly 100 years prior.
Our epic tale begins in Bel Air, CA in 1926. Our Dickensian guide, Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), has been tasked with transporting an elephant to movie mogul Don Wallach’s home in the hills for a party that evening. Issues arise when you’re hauling an elephant uphill in a trailer made for horses, but projectile diarrhea splattering on the camera lens isn’t something you’d expect from a young auteur with a reputation as a squeaky-clean technician. It’s a vile, nasty baptism from Chazelle and a fitting introduction to Babylon in the first sequence of its sprawling 189-minute runtime.
Chazelle staple and director of photography, Linus Sandgren and production designer, Florencia Martin make the world of the film depraved, yet unbelievably enticing–the mansion’s gates seem like they’re opening to heaven. We’re thrust into the party via a relentless camera that’s always in motion. Gorgeous gilded cathedral ceilings, cocaine and opium-filled rooms, champagne towers, naked dancers, and images far too deranged to spoil here, fill the screen. While the party is unbelievably wild, it doesn’t feel out of control. There is still a staged quality that makes it all feel somewhat inorganic, as if it’s precisely designed to show us just how extreme 1920s Hollywood actually was. The period was once far less glamorous than what watching code films on TCM might lead us to expect, but the feeling that these characters were actually unsafe in this unbridled era isn’t apparent here.
Chazelle’s previous films, like Whiplash and First Man, tell the stories of a select few characters. With Babylon, he crafts an ensemble film where a bevy of characters interact with each other and the changing Hollywood landscape. Los Angeles is an industry town that rose from the ashes thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of hucksters who wanted to, as Manny says, “make something that lasts.” It’s apt then that the characters in the film are inspired by real people from the period and symbolic of some of Hollywood history’s greatest mistakes and casualties. It’s also incredibly refreshing to not have exposition related to the characters’ backstories. Perhaps it’s due to the lengthy runtime, but viewers have everything they need to understand exactly what these characters bring to the movie business; why they’re desperate to rise and why it will hurt when they fall.
Wild child Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) makes her grand entrance by crashing a car into a statue. If there’s one thing Nellie will do throughout the film, it’s crash head first into anything and everything in her way. Despite her confidence and brashness, she doesn’t know anyone at the party. She’s an outsider, just like Manny. When Manny pretends to know her and says, “they’ve all been waiting for you,” it foreshadows the kind of star Nellie can become and indicates how good it feels to her to be wanted. She thrives in the party’s spotlight, and Chazelle illustrates exactly how alluring that attention is and how the camera is drawn to her. While on the surface Robbie may seem too poised and polished to play a woman trying to fake her way into the room, she is fearless as Nellie. A handful of scenes feel weighed down by the histrionics of the character, but she infuses the role with magnetism and surprise.
Each character’s introduction perfectly depicts the hold they have on others and the aspect that may be their downfall. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is no exception, as he fights in broken Italian with his soon-to-be ex-wife (Olivia Wilde) in an accent resembling Pitt’s Inglourious Basterds character, Lt. Aldo Raine. Immediately after the fight, Jack enters the party and is showered with attention and praise, primarily by young women. Jack is a major silent film star, unaware that he’ll be market-corrected by Clark Gable in a few years. Pitt is perhaps one of the best working actors equipped to play a man who understands what it’s like to be at the peak of his powers in the film industry and a major box office draw, yet on the precipice of being aged-out for a younger model. Chazelle even includes a biting line of dialogue when Jack’s first wife reminds him that he’s a fraud from Shawnee (Pitt himself was born in Shawnee, OK).
One of the revelations of this party sequence is just how much luck is involved in making it in Hollywood. A woman supposed to be on set the next day overdosed, and Nellie suddenly has the opportunity to become a star. Jack is too drunk to drive home, Manny is available, and he suddenly has the chance to work his way up the ladder in the film industry. Editor Tom Cross’ frenetic and dynamic work, as we see Manny and Nellie experience a day’s work on a set, brilliantly shows why a movie set can feel like the greatest place on earth. It’s also in this scene that a star is born in Diego Calva. Chazelle further emphasizes this industry’s pull by showing how intoxicating it can be to save the day amidst the chaos. While luck got Manny and Nellie on set, it isn’t what keeps them there or what pushes them away. As their stars continue to rise, though, our characters must fall. When The Jazz Singer premieres, Manny correctly indicates that “everything is about to change.” The crowd erupts like they’re at an amusement park when they realize they can now watch movies with sound. With this shift, each character faces new challenges, especially Nellie, whose New Jersey accent and crass manners don’t make her an ideal actress for the dawn of sound. In the funniest scene in the film (and Robbie’s best), Chazelle brilliantly demonstrates the contrast between the filmmaking styles of the silents and the talkies. While the films were silent, the sets were bedlam, with multiple productions simultaneously happening on the same lot. With the talkies, silence on set is the only thing that matters, and Chazelle depicts this need with technical precision and comedic panache.
Nellie’s key collaborator and director, Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton, a co-producer on Babylon and Chazelle’s wife), not only works as a guiding force in some of Robbie’s most electric scenes but also illuminates a critical difference in how the industry operated in the silent era. In the 1920s, many women were behind the camera, writing scripts, and running production companies. It wasn’t until the talkies that the wolves on Wall Street realized the potential for money in the film industry and began consolidating production companies. It didn’t help that they were also primarily interested in investing in companies run by men. When Nellie cries out that she needs Ruth back, Chazelle shows how the industry is changing insidiously. It didn’t matter then that Ruth Adler was an accomplished director who discovered a star; it was time to make way for the men in power.
Each character in the film experiences the brunt of this shift in the industry. And while a great deal of the film focuses on Manny, Nellie, and Jack, two of the most compelling characters in the script, entertainer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and jazz band leader Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) sometimes feel sidelined. Li Jun Li is ethereal as Lady Fay, a character partially inspired by the fabulous Anna May Wong. She floats through each scene with an elegance that makes her feel directly pulled from a 1920s film. Lady Fay’s character also illustrates the multiple roles that women were able to have in the 1920s before the transition to the talkies. She writes titles for silent films and works as an actress and entertainer before the industry tightens its grip. Sidney’s rise in stature as a jazz musician is somewhat sudden, as studios needed musicians in the period to fill the frame with sound. As white studio executives overrun the studios, his identity as a Black man is interrogated. These two characters specifically feel representative of the talent that was mistreated and discarded in favor of a whitewashed system. Sidney’s role also works as a vehicle for Justin Hurwitz’s brassy, bold score that feels like the La La Land score’s rebellious older sister. It’s a perfect companion piece with individual tracks working as direct callbacks that feel like he turned that score inside out to reflect the hedonism of the period.
Making comparisons to other films can sometimes feel like an unfair way to discuss a film’s merits and shortcomings, but it’s impossible to avoid them here. Chazelle packs this film with cinematic references and allusions to shots from films including, but not limited to, The Godfather, Nashville, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, and Singin’ in The Rain. The structure, down to specific subplots and narrative beats, makes Babylon feel like a remake of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Instead of chronicling the rise of the golden age of porn and its fall in the 1980s, though, Chazelle directly replaces this structure with the transition from the silent film era to the talkies. He even includes an homage to Alfred Molina’s scene-stealing performance as Rahad Jackson, with an equally unhinged, delightfully comic turn by Tobey Maguire as James McKay, a psychopathic casino owner. Unlike the films Babylon references, though, the characters here feel somewhat lost in this sprawling structure in favor of spectacle.
It’s understandable then to watch Babylon and be frustrated when the filmmaking reminds you of older, sharper films. You might ask yourself, why am I looking at shots that remind me of Singin’ in the Rain when I could actually be watching Singin’ in the Rain? There’s a point to the pastiche, though. In Babylon and Hollywood writ large, cinema is all recycled. Filmmakers tell the same stories over and over, repeat their favorite shots, and spell out their influences. As franchise filmmaking dominates today’s cinematic landscape, audiences don’t seem to have a problem repeatedly seeing the same story and characters. For that reason, Babylon is a welcome, provocative statement on how everything and nothing has changed in the film industry. It’s depressing and cynical, as Babylon honors cinema while also seemingly wishing to issue its death certificate. Nothing will prepare you for the unhinged barrage of images in this film’s final montage. Combined with Hurwitz’s booming score, it’s one of the most audacious and confounding finales I’ve ever seen. It feels like Babylon wants to be the last movie ever made.
One of the most shocking aspects of Babylon is that the response to death is entirely cavalier. A secondary character dies a senseless, avoidable death in nearly every sequence. There is little response, though–executives in power positions make excuses, and distractions are put in place to remove the bodies. There’s a moment late in the film after Jack begins to come to terms with the fact that his star might be falling. Gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) tells him his time has run out, and there is no “why” behind it. But because he was a star, one day, fifty years from now, someone will watch one of his movies and think they know him. He’ll effectively be immortal because he created something that will last. Does death matter if you create something as beautiful and eternal as a film? For Chazelle, the death of cinema might be the only death that matters and he twists the knife.
Paramount Pictures will release Babylon only in theaters on December 23.
Image: Scott Garfield