Gemma Creagh ventures into the depths of Hollywood for Damien Chazelle’s Babylon.
Glamorous, grotesque and violently gripping, Babylon revisits the so-called golden age of Hollywood, giving a warts-and-all view of the industry during the transition from silent film to “talkies”. The first in a large ensemble of outsiders is Manny Torres (Diego Calva). This ambitious, earnest Mexican-American assistant demonstrates his ingenuity as he manages to transport a massive and very flatulent elephant to a big Hollywood party, earning him an invite in the process. There, an openly gay cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) sings to the frenzied, decant attendees of the shindig, hosted by popular silent film star, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). His cool, affable charm and casual alcoholism masks something darker.
When Manny meets working class Manic Pixie Dream Girl Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), he falls for her instantly. Over the years, as their careers develop, the fates of these characters all remain intertwined. When Manny’s promoted, he gives black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) a shot at stardom and Nellie’s talent and wild persona lands her roles on the big screen. However, as the industry shifts to sound, everything changes. Jack struggles to keep his career on track, while Manny, Sydney and Nellie are all forced to compromise in a manner of humiliating ways – each struggling to stay afloat as the formalities of this new, upmarket Hollywood take hold.
Focusing his cutting authorial voice to the industry’s systemic failings, Damien Chazelle still manages to capture the humanity of those caught up in it. All while presenting a glorious homage to the classic cinematic epic. Chazelle, no stranger to spectacle, and is well known for his musical feature La La Land. A keen talent, he shot the acclaimed Whiplash when he was only in his late twenties. While each offering varies in tone, there’s a recognisable and unique sharpness to his writing.
His casting is superb – Chazelle mixes heavyweights with newer, hungry actors, and everyone delivers throughout the rabid, messy world he created on screen. Pitt’s Conrad carries a world weary gravitas. Sydney yields a quiet power that’s crushed over time, presented by Adepo who was so dedicated to the part that he learned to play the trumpet. Robbie captures the fury and damage of Nellie – a character based on Clara Bow, a real life hard-partying Jazz girl who even uttered the lines “There was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat,” which Chazelle’s script quotes her directly.
In fact there is a lot of truth behind this depiction of Hollywood. When penning the screenplay, Chazelle researched oral histories, examining that hard living lifestyle, drug abuse and suicide that was commonplace in the industry in the ‘20s. He paints the picture of filmmaking on the West Coast as a new frontier, at a time when the rules and constraints hadn’t yet been decided, where there really were women directors, nuanced genre roles, people of colour working in front of and behind the camera – however as the silent era transitioned to sound, the technological shift brought with it a rapid and brutal change. The business end of the process took precedence, and this creativity and ingenuity was sacrificed to make way for that whitewashed conservative version of Hollywood we’re all too familiar with these days. .
The visuals and the grandeur of Babylon are undeniably breathtaking. Shot on film by Cinematographer Linus Sandgre, the basal, feverish, flamboyant shots, and richly exquisite production design is captured with seeming ease and fluidity. Even with the strong pacing, and gripping performances, the length is just not justified. Despite being cut from four hours down to just over three, the meandering nature of the plot would have benefited so greatly from one final culling of darlings. Some of the arcs are undercooked and with such a huge cast, the weight and nuance of what should have been important moments were lost under the next set piece.
Babylon does several very different and equally impressive things all at once. While channelling Baz Lurhman-off-his-antidepressants energy, the writing utilises pitch black humour to lambast a terrible system while still sincerely acknowledging the beauty of the artform. This strange balance of beauty and darkness makes me very very excited to see what Chazelle will do next.
Babylon is in cinemas from 20th January 2023.