Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Babylon marks the long awaited new film from wunderkind Damian Chazelle, who crashed onto the Hollywood scene in 2014 as the brash, young, stylish filmmaker who brought us Whiplash at the ripe young age of 29. He later became the youngest director to ever win the Best Director Oscar for his follow up film, La La Land, another Academy darling. And while his third film, First Man, was not as lauded as his first two, Chazelle remains a powerful name with plenty of Hollywood cache capable of penning and directing an epic tale of Hollywood proportions, as he does with his latest, Babylon. Anyone familiar with his first few films can instantly recognize Chazelle’s thumbprint on the film. Full of beautiful imagery, breakneck almost percussive pacing, and a singular love of greatness and perfection which realizes itself even in the most messy situations. Babylon marks a pretty bold leap forward for Chazelle. It’s bigger, louder, longer, and easily his most ambitious film to date.
The film follows the tumultuous Hollywood careers of three individuals specifically. Opening on a Bacchanalian party at a big time producers home, we meet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a beautiful and ambitious hopeful starlet who claims you don’t become a star, you either are one or not. Along the way she makes a friend in Manuel (Diego Calva), the enterprising hired hand of said big time producer. Together, the pair not only gate crash the party, but gate crash the industry itself, as Nellie’s star rises after a random chance offers her a foot in the door, and Manuel works to climb the corporate ladder with ingenuity and hustle. Meanwhile, certified Hollywood royalty Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is looking to continue his leading man ways into the brave new world of talking pictures. We are also treated to the stories of black band leader Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and his rise while also battling the inherent racism and exploitation of the industry and Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the savvy Hollywood journalist whose career seems more stable and guaranteed than even the biggest stars.
At over three hours of runtime, Babylon tackles A LOT, not just in terms of themes, but also characters. And for that reason there are stretches of the film where one or more characters seems missing in action, but overall, Damien Chazelle does a tremendous job of intertwining the stories and bringing the themes of the film together into a singular vision. Don’t get me wrong, this film is a mess. But what am ambitious and entertaining mess it is! Chazelle is just a master, plain and simple. His control of vision and tempo particularly are nearly unrivaled. He empties the clip of ideas with this film, which may alienate some, but for me, it was an overload of great. He’s touching on the transition from silent to talkies in Hollywood, gender and racial dynamics in Hollywood, and the excess, lavish and oftentimes morally bankrupt lives of the rich and powerful.
Central to the film are its characters and the actors performances. Margot Robbie is a hurricane in the role of Nellie, endlessly charismatic, scheming and ambitious. Nellie lives her life fast and with reckless abandon, affording Robbie the opportunity to play it big and brash. She’s breathtaking. Brad Pitt’s mission is a little different, being given the chance to be a much more quiet, but equally charismatic established star. The more understated performance from Pitt is suited to his strengths, and with one star rising, we see another falling. Perhaps the biggest discovery of the film was Diego Calva in the role of Manuel, perhaps the most stable character in the film, but one who is still opportunistic and ambitious. On top of the performances, the film is pristinely made across the board. Great score, great cinematography and production design, great editing, and of course incredible direction from Damien Chazelle himself.
The film wears it’s influences and references on its sleeves. It’s not hard to see the parallels to the story in Singin’ in the Rain (transition to talkies), and the real life inspirations like Louie Armstrong (Sidney Powell) and Douglas Fairbanks (Jack Conrad). What Chazelle has done with Babylon is deliver a love song on the early days of Hollywood, while simultaneously and quite derisively examining all the horrible things about Tinseltown. The dichotomy of these two themes might seem odd, but I think Chazelle is grappling with both the greatness and darkness of the industry. Being in love with movies, like anyone among us, and completely transported by the actors ability to turn miraculous luck and timing into indelible images that will live on forever. But the journey’s of Nellie, Manuel, Jack and Sidney are ones that happen everyday in the industry. Stars brightness burnt out, racism, sexism, discrimination. I think Babylon does a wonderous job in recognizing that it’s difficult to separate the art from the artists, and the knowledge of what nefarious activities might be happening behind the scenes. But at the end of the day, the movies are still transporting, evoking a certain emotion and feeling that is often undeniable. Babylon is proof of that, managing to be one of my favorite films of the year.