Over the past few years, Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz, and Linus Sandgren have been one of the most influential figures for my love of cinema, film scores, and cinematography. While their work on ‘Whiplash‘ (excluding Sangren) and ‘First Man’ was fantastic, their work on ‘La La Land’ fueled my love for cinema for years on end, it is essentially an integral part of my identity at this point. In the case of their new movie ‘Babylon‘, it looks like it’s about to happen all over again. I saw it on a Monday and then again on Sunday, both in cinemas and at this point, I have certain shots imprinted in my brain and I just might know the score by heart at this point. It’s big, bold and loud, a vibrant vision of 1920s Hollywood ending in a technicolour tragedy, the corruption of an artist’s passion as it gets thrown out by studios in favour of progress and yet it all ends in a magical epilogue celebrating cinema. It’s the ultimate case between Hollywood and Cinema, the movie stars and the audience, that is ‘Babylon‘.
spoilers for ‘Babylon‘ are featured in this review.
‘Babylon‘ is a movie that refuses to be restrained or be reduced to the norm, it is ambitious as movies get. It is a manic, cocaine-fueled, mercurial epic that uses those three hours to their full potential. Opening with a twenty-seven-minute party sequence with breathtakingly long shots absorbing the genuine energy of the unhinged and wild and free. Ending with a moving portrayal of the reason why cinema exists in the first place with a bold montage and a final shot that encapsulates the entire three hours perfectly. With an ensemble cast like this and a runtime that long, Chazelle confidently tells the stories of his cast pretty equally for the most part. The leading trio consisting of Diego Calva, Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt get a satisfying character arc each, all three interwoven to tell the story of Hollywood and Cinema and how it’s affected them differently. There is the case of Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo where even if they are side-characters, their screen time was lacking. I found their characters to be some of the most compelling ones and they did not get the focus their characters so richly deserved. The story and plot of ‘Babylon‘ are quite simple to follow despite what some people tell you. It may be rambunctious in tone, visuals and music but when it comes to plot, Chazelle crafts a story that is not only compelling but consistently engaging and for him to find something to capture our attention for three hours, it’s no small feat.
With a runtime of three full hours before the credits even start rolling, Chazelle gifts an arc to each hour. It is almost three movies in one and yet by the end it all falls perfectly into place. The first hour and act showcase the vivaciousness of 1920s stars and parties, the exhilarating art of filmmaking and it ends with the looming hand of the talkies posing a threat to everything Hollywood has made so far. The second act is where everything starts going south for our characters. Creative passion and artistic integrity are sacrificed for progress and business. It’s no longer about making movies, it’s about keeping up. The act ends with one of my favourite scenes of the entire film, it is between Jean Smart and Pitt discussing the eternity of an actor’s legacy and how they belong to a bigger picture. It’s quite a beautiful sentiment but in reality, Hollywood couldn’t care less and Chazelle agrees as the relentless third act brings hellish sights, true horror and devastation for our characters. Hollywood is chasing them out. It ends quite tragically in fact as Pitt’s Jack Conrad commits suicide and Robbie’s Nellie Laroy ends up dying in her mid thirty’s as a result of overdosing.
No matter how celebratory the ending montage is, ‘Babylon‘ is still very much a tragedy about the horrors of Hollywood, stardom and fading out of pop culture relevancy. The movie places us in Manny’s shoes as cinema lovers, we share the same level of excitement he does when they spend an entire day filming. It is just as suspenseful to us as it is to him when they capture the perfect shot. What Chazelle does is that he pulls the rug out from under us and starts distancing us from Manny, he becomes one of them. As the movie progresses, the more we lose that excitement and intrigue for film, it becomes a business more than anything, we as well as Manny, Nellie and Jack start to forget why we are even here in the first place. This is where that ending montage comes in. After exposing us to the horrors of Hollywood, Chazelle puts us back in the seat with Manny. He sees Nellie and Jack living on in these characters up on the screen, for a moment, they’re alive again. He succumbs to his overwhelming emotion and cries discreetly when all of a sudden, Gene Kelly starts singing in the rain. Captivated by what’s happening he looks up at the screen in total awe and by the time the scene ends, he gets this massive smile across his face, Manny is now one of us again. He escapes. It is through this fantastic ending that we understand the crucial difference there is between Hollywood and Cinema.
Other than its well-written script, ‘Babylon‘ is a feast for the eyes and ears with a score by Justin Hurwitz that demands your attention and energy and cinematography by Linus Sandgren that captures the unhinged vision Chazelle so meticulously planned. The entire half-hour opening sequence is a masterclass of tone, atmosphere, visual language and film score. Gorgeous long takes that absorb the genuine energy in the room, meticulous detail planted everywhere, shots holding on to the perfect amount of time, it’s truly a masterpiece in that regard. The use of colour is so perfectly Chazelle, ‘Babylon‘ truly is ‘La La Land’s companion. Chazelle also doesn’t waste a single frame, there is something constantly happening in every shot. It is never caught as dull or boring. The framing and shot composition is executed in a way that consistently presents something new to us, if it holds on to a character for a bit, it’s showcasing the character’s inner thoughts, if the shot is simply telling us a new piece of information, they inject as much life into it as possible. Whether it’s the gorgeous set design and detail, the wonderful use of colour or even if it’s carried by Hurwitz’s score, there is always something happening and it’s not mentioned as much as it should be. To maintain that energy for a three-hour movie is simply commendable.
The stellar cast finds the perfect tone in their performance to match the extravagant nature of the movie. There is something about ‘Babylon‘ at its core which is very unique. It comes across as animated in many ways. The acting in particular is different from that of a regular drama. Chazelle’s previous movies were grounded in reality, even when it comes to ‘La La Land’, the acting and story were always grounded, it’s the heightened presentation and the elements of a musical that gave it that flair. With ‘Babylon‘, there is a layer of self-awareness that enables the actors to let their characters act animatedly. Brad Pitt’s voice throughout this movie is musical at times with his approach. He has that 1920s inflexion but it’s subtle, it makes his character more memorable. Tobey Maguire is just the cherry on top really with a performance so unhinged that it’s difficult to take your eyes away from him. Diego Calva is magnetic as Manuel, the film’s true star and Margot Robbie exudes energy and charisma like her life depended on it. There is a problem to be said regarding the script. It is rated 18 plus and you can tell they stuffed in as many cuss words in as much of an outlandish delivery as possible to get a cheap laugh. The second act in particular features a lot of this and while it doesn’t take away from the film’s quality because it is so animated, it does get a bit old after a while. There are times when it works like an insanely hilarious breakdown scene when Nellie works on a motion picture with sound for the first time but then there are scenes like the rattlesnake sequence where the dialogue comes off a bit overplayed. Then again, with a film of this grandeur, it’s pretty easy to look past it especially when it’s part of the film’s nature so you get used to it very quickly.
Overall, I’d say Damien Chazelle has done it again with ‘Babylon‘. This has been my obsession for the past few weeks. I have seen it three times at this point and I’m getting everyone I know to watch it. My entire friend group has seen the movie because of me at this point. I love everything about it, I love its exploration of how the horrors of Hollywood can be redeemed by the beauty of Cinema even if it’s not justified. While the critical reception hasn’t been that fair, I honestly genuinely believe that ‘Babylon‘ is ahead of its time and will gain a cult following. It already has its fans but I can tell this is going to age like wine in the future. The film-addicted legion watching this right now is going to cite it as a huge inspiration, Chazelle really is creating a new generation of directors and filmmakers with his movies and I am glad to be one of them.
‘Babylon‘ is still playing in select theatres. It is also available for purchase.