A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Just like the period it represents, Babylon's reputation precedes it. Much has been spoken of the film's outlandish scenes, from the wild orgies to the mountains of drugs to the elephant defecating onscreen – and all of this happens within the first half an hour of the film. So the question is, is this film worth watching despite all the grandiose moments?
My short answer is yes. My long answer is that it depends on your tastes because, if anything, this is a film that will divide audiences.
Babylon starts in 1926 Los Angeles when Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant, is transporting an elephant to a Hollywood executive's house for a party. At the party, he falls in love with wannabe starlet Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), who declares she is a star. Although she is right because at the party, through some luck, she is spotted and immediately cast in one of Kinoscope Studios' films. Also at the party is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), one of Hollywood's leading men, lesbian cabaret star Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and African American trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Through the next three hours of the film, we watch as these players' careers rise and fall and intersect with each other until the inevitable end – the beginning of the sound films or the 'talkies'.
The transition from silent films to 'talkies' has been tackled in numerous other films like The Artist, Downton Abbey: A New Era and most famously in Singin' In The Rain (which Babylon inevitably references). However, Babylon looks at how this meaningful shift in the film industry affected everything in the industry, from the excesses of the parties to how filming was done, to what actors were able to transition, to what was deemed okay to show onscreen. It has an honest and raw approach to the time period, which is usually treated with reverence and rose-coloured glasses, despite being over-the-top at times.
One of the truly great sequences of the film shows the filming of multiple silent films at the same time on one big stretch of desert. Because sunlight is free, studios could cut lighting costs and only had to build minimal sets. It also did not matter if a love scene was filmed next to a war scene because there was no sound, it was magnificent to see this played out in real life, and the actual chaos of how it would have been made was depicted.
In another scene, after talking films were introduced, Nellie is on set for her first speaking role, and we see the tension, the stress and how pedantic everyone needs to be to make sure that they get the sound right. It did not go from sound to no sound automatically; it truly was a transition. These scenes on-set show the brilliance of what Damien Chazelle is doing with Babylon, allowing us to experience the gruelling process of filmmaking along with the crew.
While the film is definitely entertaining and it has an element of spectacle to it, it falters by trying to do too much. The romance between Manny and Nellie is underwritten, and despite at times reminding me of the romance between Sebastian and Mia in Chazelle's previous film La La Land, it failed to bring across the same magic. Some of the scenes feel like it runs too long, which adds to the gruel of the three-hour runtime, but it feels as if Chazelle is just indulging too much in this world that he has created. The graphic nature of some of the scenes might be too much for some of the audience, but I felt that it hammered home Chazelle's point of the opulence of that time to counteract the prudent nature of Hollywood post-Hays Code (which was the self-imposed code that Hollywood put in place in the 1930s to make sure that there were no immoral scenes in the film).
Those who are familiar with the Netflix series Hollywood by Ryan Murphy would see some similarities in the revisionist narrative. Although, Murphy was a lot more romantic in his version of Early Hollywood. Chazelle, however, takes characters who would have been in the peripheral, like Adepo's Sidney, Li's Lady Fay and even the main character of Manny and brings them to the centre stage, even if only for a moment. Sidney's character arc seems to be in response to criticisms Chazelle received after La La Land that he had white-washed jazz, but it did not take away from the fact that it was still interesting to watch. The character of Lady Fay, reminiscent of classic actor Anna May Wong, was so compelling that I wish we got to see more of her. The storyline has her taper off in the middle and then return for a brief scene at the end.
Most of the performances are strong, with Margot Robbie putting her all into her role. The character is so full of energy, and Robbie shines in it, showing how well cast she was and breathes life into the film, even though the film is so fast-paced, it does not even need it. Brad Pitt is charming and suave but plays a role that we have seen him in before, and the ageing movie star trope seems very on-the-nose as to Pitt's current career. Calva has a breakout performance in Babylon, and even though the character feels a bit flat at times, he does an amazing job.
As I mentioned above, the film is a spectacular piece of art. Chazelle shows why he is such an accomplished director leading a team that has excellent editing by Tom Cross, stunning cinematography by Linus Sandgreen, and music by Justin Hurwitz, this makes the film a pleasure to watch because one cannot help but enjoy how all these pieces come together. Hurwitz's score stayed with me long after the film was finished, and the music placement in the film as a whole was so well done.
So, should you watch Babylon? That honestly depends on your personal tastes. If you like flashy, over-the-top, ostentatious films, then yes. If you enjoy films about Old Hollywood, it is worth giving it a shot. If you like your films short, snappy and to the point, then this is not for you. Despite all the qualms I had about the film, I found this to be a fun ride and even deeply moving at times.
Cast: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart
Our rating: 3.5/5 Stars
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: