Babylon Review – An Endearing Mess of a Film About the Birth of Hollywood

A trend for ageing filmmakers of late is to create a film that is their personal ode to cinema. When young writer and director Damien Chazelle announced he was making a film about silent era Hollywood, heads turned. At the time, fresh off the critical success of his first three award winning films – Whiplash, La La Land and First Man – many thought that the director already had his love letter to cinema in the bag with La La Land, a musical that was considered his glorious look at the magical world of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the fools who dream of achieving great things. Nearing the release of Babylon, however, Chazelle stated (to The Playlist) that the film would be a “hate letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to cinema”. So, does Babylon deliver on that statement?

Set in the backdrop of 1920s Hollywood, Babylon is a tale of decadence, depravity, and the insanity that filmmaking endured during the transition from silent films to the talkies. Following a chaos crew of characters; from mega star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and his new assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva) to trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), with a cast of thousands in between, the film is a hectic space with an ambitious runtime.

Following these characters through the debauchery of overindulgent parties and the kinetic energy of chaotic film sets, Damien Chazelle sets himself a big task of balancing character arcs and story beats. Babylon can oftentimes feel jarring in its choices. Whether it be through the juxtaposition of Manny running errands to hire a new camera and Nellie performing perfectly on her first day on a film set after consuming copious amounts of champagne, cocaine, and other drugs. Or between Sidney playing trumpet for a crowd while Jack is found womanising yet another waitress. Though this does feel by design, as Chazelle is hoping to show audiences just how scattershot the industry was at the time.

As Babylon progresses and begins to unfold its various stories further, itserratic energy becomes both exhausting and contagious. At times, it’s clear that Chazelle may have aimed too high with Babylon, even if there is an admiration to be had for the effort and sincerity in which he conducts himself.

While Margot Robbie gives a career high performance as the ambitious Nellie LaRoy; the film’s real stand out star is Diego Calva who gives an earnest and committed performance as the sincere Manny Torres. Robbie and Calva act as the two leads and are the heartbeat and emotional draw into Babylon’s story. Had these two performances failed to capture audiences into this tumultuous world, the film could have easily lost its grasp on viewers. While the chaos may lose some viewers, those who give themselves to the pandemonium will be lifted and hurtled through the havoc that ensues.

Justin Hurwitz’ score stands out as a jazz-fuelled romp, helping keep heads somewhat screwed on. With booming drums, complex trumpet solos and more subdued motifs, the film’s score manages to elevate and ground scenes where necessary. Whether this helps or damages certain moments is up to viewer discretion, but for the most part it serves the story and the immersive nature of the film quite well.

Where Babylon can falter, however, is in its bloated run time, frantic editing and at times chaotic direction. Clocking it at just over three hours, Babylon can become rather exhausting. Where coke-fuelled parties begin as exciting, they quickly become tiresome. Where excitable days on set can feel fresh and new, they too can quickly become frustrating. While these choices do serve the story, they can still annoy at times. Babylon can often lose track and underutilise its tremendous cast as it weaves characters in and out of its mammoth tale, namely sidelining Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer who could have an entire film dedicated to him.

Chazelle’s effort is mostly charming, with many comedic scenes sticking the landing, while the more dramatic moments pull in the audience’s attention. Each choice is a genuine and earnest in nature, lending itself to the film’s final message, which is to say that through all the filth and muck of the industry, comes moving pictures which provides the viewer with a world to disappear into. It’s a continuing theme throughout Babylon that is hammered home in a closing montage that screams a blend of classic and modern cinema; all birthed from the chemical reaction of celluloid film, developing solutions, red, green and blue, to ultimately be projected at 24 frames per second.

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a bold swing. It’s an endearing mess about the filth of silent era Hollywood and how, through all that disgust, the beauty of cinema was born. While not quite as clean cut as his other films, and certainly overstuffed, the work still manages to shine with the risks taken. Not everything lands but there is an admiration to be had to what Chazelle has created with Babylon.

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Blake Ison

My name is Blake Ison and I am a film fan based in Brisbane. I have no professional knowledge of the industry, but love discussing all things to do with the medium. I’m a nerd through and through, so I have a major soft spot for all things genre. Hope you enjoy my ramblings!

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