Jared Leto will sleep easily tonight after the release of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. The latest film from the man who created Whiplash (2014), First Man (2017) and La La Land (2019). Films many cinephiles consider as a ‘Masterpiece’ and the Oscar success of his previous film, the word that comes to mind is baffling…How the mighty have fallen.
This has no memorable dance scenes between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. What it does have is an Elephant pooping, sex, drugs and flappers in one big orgy. This was meant to be a love letter to the end days of the silent cinema age moving into the talkies. What we get is one ugly film that wants you to think it’s loving cinema, when in fact it’s butchering it.
When you watch and review films, you want to be truly honest. You don’t want to write something that’s outright negative, you want to be constructive. For Babylon that constructive criticism goes out the window, leaving you with a bitter taste. Chazelle wants to tell us Hollywood 1920’s was a hedonistic hellhole. That maybe true, that doesn’t mean he has to give the viewer the middle finger. Then punish them with a bloated sluggish 3 hour plus mediocrity.
Babylon takes us back to 1920’s Los Angeles and off course Hollywood. We follow 3 individuals in different stages of their career in tinsel town. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring starlet from New Jersey, struggling to get her first break. She loves to dance, drink and snort the ‘devil’s dust’, a real exhibitionist.
Then we have Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) Silent film’s man of the moment, idolised by millions. He’s your Douglas Fairbank-esque type actor who wants to prove film is a ‘real art’. If anything he probably has the most to lose with the transition. He loves to party, loves women and drink, drink and drink and not always in that order.
Manny Torres (Diego Calva) a Mexican immigrant who dreams of working under the bright lights of Hollywood. He’ll do anything to get his first foot in the door, full of will and determination. He’s if anything is the film’s true protagonist, will his honesty get him in the door and up the ladder.
As Hollywood’s illumini party hard, their workplace is changing. This is 1926 a year before the first talkie, The Jazz Singer starring Al Johnson is released. Babylon follows the journey of those in their twilight years on the screen and those taking those first steps. Also highlighting those who believed they where untouchable and living a life of comfort now meeting their deadliest foe, sound.
When we first meet the aforementioned ‘players’ and ‘Flappers’ is at the extravagant party arranged by the big wigs at Kinoscope. Whose who of the industry front and behind the camera are here living a hedonistic dream. All morals thrown out the door so has creativity control. Chazelle seems to be adamant in constantly showcasing they can only live the dream high on cocaine and living on deaths door. Is the terrified Nelly with the loose bowel movement simply a metaphor in what Hollywood will do to you? Or simply there is so much ‘shit’ going on in the industry ? It’s a path of destruction who fall at the first or last hurdle. It sets the tone for the whole film, and not scared to get graphic, answering why it got a rating 18. Everything is uphill and Manny lives to his promise to do anything .
Babylon wants to be an ambitious film, it has some positives. The sets were visually striking, ones that Baz Luhrmann would be proud of. Pitt is reliable as ever and he delivers what you expect from him every time. Jean Smart is fantastic as gossip journalist and writer Elinor St.John. She sits quietly in the background watching everything, socialising with the wealthy and even dishing out kind words to the actors.
Jovan Apedo is Sidney Palmer, his character does experience racism, forced to wear black polish. Li Jun Li, is Lady Fay Zhu she’s like aAnna May Wong character who has the persona of Marlene Dietrich. Both victims of the system who don’t get enough time to shine on the screen.
We mustn’t forget Damien Chazelle has only been directing for a short period of time. He has achieved a lot in that period, doing what many in the industry for a longer time have tried and failed. Has his ego cross wires with his creativity? Because he’s worked on several award winning films does that give him the right to make what he wants? No! Maybe he shouldn’t have read the Kenneth Anger film play book.
Like many good ideas, Babylon is a big missed opportunity. What we get instead is a film that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and a mind numbing back side thanks to the 3 hour running time. That thinks it’s celebrating cinema, in the words of Tobey Maguire, ‘Welcome to the Asshole of Los Angeles’. A pretentious, overblown mess that might be unforgivable by some. His next film will have to be one hell of a redemtption.