“You don’t become a star, you either are one, or you ain’t” – Nellie LaRoy
After dazzling with his drum-centric mainstream debut Whiplash (2014), and moving onto the lavish and Academy adored La La Land (2016), director Damien Chazelle has rightfully become one of the most anticipated and exciting directors of the modern era. Even with 2018’s The First Man being the first minor bump in his quality (a film that is still delivered to a high standard), the stories he chooses to tell and his approach to directing them is something that always fills me with eager excitement.
Babylon starts with elephant defecation and a party scene filled with booze, drugs and scandalous sexual activity. Within the movie’s first fifteen minutes we realise that this is Chazelle’s most outlandish project yet. A daring and disorientating display of pure debauchery and decadence during an era of cinema that is often painted in such light.
The story of Babylon begins in the late 1920’s. Centred around three characters who are each trying to navigate the tough world of Hollywood, heading into the new era of cinema that they call ‘the talkies’. Mexican immigrant Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is hired for setting up a party for the pretentious panjandrums of the movie making machine, but one day dreams of dining and partying in their presence. One of those attendees is self-proclaimed star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) of New Jersey. A “Wild Child” with a sense of wonderous ambition and a deep routed desire for fame.
The third is silent movie superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), whose presence at the party becomes Manny’s way in. The pair quickly forming a bond and earning the job as Conrad’s personal lackey, Manny is quickly thrown into the chaos of what goes in to capturing a moving picture.
Whilst these three characters are favoured to flourish with their screentime, it’s Calva’s Manny who is the constant drive of development in its story. It’s his connection to both Nellie and Jack that is at the centre of this movie’s constant craziness. He meets a full house of characters that embody the many caricatures surrounding the film industry. The best of which include the rowdy German director Otto Von Strassberger (Spike Jonze), jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the sultry Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and the ghoulishly grotesque gangster James McKay (Toby Maguire). But even for a film that goes beyond that dreaded three hour mark, it limits many of these to mere moments to shine, and many moments of engagement shared between characters are only dropped or forgotten by the next scene like it was yesterday’s news.
Babylon is a whole lot of movie. The plethora of characters and story beats that it introduces are only a part of it. The energy it exudes through its performances to its spectacular soundtrack (provided by Justin Hurwitz) and picturesque cinematography (Linus Sandgren), Chazelle’s chaotic behemoth operates like a beating heart tackling a caffeine overdose. Catching your breath simply isn’t an option Chazelle is allowing you.
Not so much an ode to classic cinema as it is an outrageous peek into the unseen fluctuating filth of fame and power. Taking a more scandalous approach as apposed to a sensual one, and having a more anti-Academy message than one that looked to have garnered Oscar gold.
There are certain moments in Babylon that standout as some of my favourite scenes of this year in film. Manny and Nellie’s first day on set and the constant flow of chaos and carnage that spills out around them, and Nellie’s first attempt at filming a scene in sound is like watching a boiling pot ready to erupt. But with over three hours of footage, it often feels like a lot of these sequences are Chazelle throwing s#!t at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s a hot mess that has understandably divided viewers, and its exaggerated enthusiasm throughout is as in your face as one might suspect just from its trailer alone.
Chazelle’s filmography is one of the most impressive and consistently compelling to date. Having four solid pieces of work to his name and achieving that in less than a decade, it’s almost criminal that he hasn’t found as much success as one would expect from the films he’s directed, but Babylon seems like the first the Academy wasn’t so eager to reward.
You could say that Babylon was perhaps saved by its sheer star power (mainly from its three leading cast members) and I wouldn’t argue against that. It’s a three hour sensory overload that bursts into flames at least every other sequence, but when I tell you that this is unlike any other film you’re likely to see this year, you best believe it.