It’s the late 1920s at the start of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s shimmering and breathtaking old Hollywood odyssey Babylon, and the desert-like soils on the screen look nothing like today’s pricey L.A. enclave Bel Air. And yet, that’s what the masterful tragicomedy’s title card says about the remote reserve, which is eerily quiet until a truck cuts through the silence. There is a high-profile party somewhere thrown by Tinseltown mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin). And to his shock, the driver needs to transport an elephant there, as insisted by a wide-eyed and ambitious fixer looking for his big break in the business.
Among the most fiercely talented filmmakers working today, Chazelle wastes no time rowdily hinting in this early scene that the Hollywood machine has always, well, crapped on the hardworking people that keep it running. But the aforesaid fixer Manny (Diego Calva, in a soul-stirring and star-making performance), a Mexican immigrant as obsessive in his pursuits as any of Chazelle’s former protagonists, can’t smell its relentless stink yet. In fact, he has no clue that the dreamy engine he worships is about to swallow him whole and spit him out.
Manny is our white rabbit as he leads the way (and the poor elephant) to perhaps one of the craziest and most kaleidoscopic parties ever put on the screen, one that immediately summons countless references from near-term cinema alone: from mazy Boogie Nights bashes (with far more indulgence), to Gaspar Noé’s Climax, to, chiefly, Martin Scorsese’s coke-fueled sequences. With an electric score by Justin Hurwitz (that occasionally resembles the chords in Chazelle’s La La Land too audibly), it’s all pure, eye-gouging debauchery for 30 or so minutes. Before the suggestive title Babylon appears, there will be plenty of orgies, mountains of drugs, sexual fetishes, naughty performance bits, projectile vomiting, and more sweaty bare bodies than one can count.
But even amid such normalized madness where one can barely notice the elephant in the room, you can’t ignore the aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy—loosely inspired by silent-era star Clara Bow—played by a hypnotically vigorous Margot Robbie. Knowing that she is born a star, the hard-drinking and coke-snorting “wild child” from humble beginnings and a dysfunctional family manages to sneak into the fete. And predictably, it doesn’t take long for her to grab the attention of the right sort on her way up the ladder and become the selfless Manny’s passionate object of affection.
All this culminates into a darkly funny and dizzying sequence written and choreographed (like the rest of the picture) through meticulous long takes by Chazelle, a filmmaker with a knack for fluid narrative and visual coherence. And the segment’s breathless aftereffect isn’t just a pointless how-did-they-pull-this-off realization designed to merely wow with empty calories. This extensive intro—one of the year’s most impressive feats of filmmaking—feels as exhausting as Chazelle clearly intended it to be, serving as a denunciation of a town overflowing with unnamed skeletons concealed by the shadow of those who managed to claim the spotlight. Indeed, for every anonymous starlet who tragically ODs in some backroom, there is a bona fide movie star like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who routinely changes life partners and takes his position of power for granted in an industry on the cusp of The Jazz Singer and the talkies that might have no room for him.
Pitt’s Conrad is meant to somewhat resemble silent-era leading men such as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino. But unable to deliver the diction that talkies demand, he equally brings to mind a character from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood; not the stuntman he played, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging Western actor with an immense fear of the new wave that’s leaving him behind. While Conrad claims he’s pro-progress, the talkies sadly take a toll on the career of the aging star. In a merciless monologue, the great Jean Smart’s columnist Elinor St. John—call her an amalgamation of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt—tells him as she sees it: the party is over, in the identical way it will one day be over for every A-lister that would come after him.
That same party also comes to a shattering halt for the jack-of-all-trades talent Lady Fay Zhu (a mesmerizing Li Jun Li), a sexually liberated chanteuse (the hilarious song “My Girl’s Pussy” that she sings is a very much real ballad of the era) who writes title cards for silent pictures and milks the town’s orientalist fetishes to make ends meet. The last of the main characters is trumpet master Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who graduates from playing for parties and creating mood music for silent films to actually performing on the screen once sound becomes the star that changes everything. One of the film’s most heart-shattering scenes is one that pits Sidney and Manny against each other, with the legitimacy-hungry latter using the former in an act that highlights the era’s bone-deep racism.
Babylon mostly operates in a structure of set pieces, thoroughly earning its not-a-minute-too-long runtime—a whopping 189 minutes—and it’s packed to the gills with stunning craftsmanship. From Linus Sandgren’s effortless camera that captures every insane intricacy in long, snaky takes on 35mm, to Mary Zophres’ dazzling Roaring ’20s wardrobe that takes minor yet studious liberties with the period’s clothing, all elements of Babylon ground the era in an accurate world that would aptly feel progressive to those who lived in it. In that regard, Babylon isn’t overwhelmed by cookie-cutter drop-waists and cliched finger waves; but unruly styles with a refreshingly forward-looking attitude.
The set pieces themselves grab your attention immediately and maintain it thanks to Chazelle’s character-focused proficiency on the page and his apparent love of Old Hollywood (as well as, needless to say, Singin’ In The Rain). His deliciously decadent Babylon has disorderly film sets owned by MGM as well the more ramshackle (and fictional) Kinoscope Studios. With these simultaneously unfolding productions (edited snappily in parallel by Tom Cross) there is always a problem. Nighttime snake fights. David Lynch-ian psychedelia that plunges the viewer deep into the bowels of L.A. (featuring an unforgettable Tobey Maguire). And one especially memorable segment when the Kinoscope crew tries to film a single scene with sound. You lose count of the unsuccessful takes, feel the studio’s overwhelming heat (they can’t run air due to sound quality) and wonder how anyone survived this transition. As fictional director Ruth Adler, Olivia Hamilton particularly leaves a strong impression through these repetitive takes, representing the era’s behind-the-camera female talent—a more common occurrence those days than most think—with casual authority.
But the heart and soul of Chazelle’s jazzy and freewheeling opus are Manny and Nelly, who each experience their own rise and fall through hearty plotting that the writer braids compassionately. In the end, this is Manny’s all-consuming love story: he can neither give up on the self-destructive Nelly, even when she chips away at his life and career with one poor decision after the next, nor the Hollywood apparatus that’s a drug to him.
Always a flirter with longing and nostalgia if the melancholic La La Land, the mournful yet proud First Man, and the uncompromising Whiplash are any indication, Chazelle gets something so skin-deep throughout Babylon about movie love. To movie-lovers around the world—audiences and creators alike—the biggest and most important thing in the universe is whatever’s on the silver screen and however far it reaches. And his observation feels especially weighty at a time Hollywood is going through another irreversible transition, with theatrical movies like Babylon sadly taking a backseat to streaming trends that shrink the size of any star.
Still, this is perhaps Chazelle’s most clear-headed and least nostalgic film, being about the ephemeral and destructive side of an overwhelming obsession. Though he can’t help but wink at the fruits of that fixation either. In that, Babylon is often subtly and sneakily self-referential, highlighting how life often imitates art, as cinema is conceived from the truths of life itself with the power of moving one into savage tears. It’s beautiful stuff.
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