Hollywood. It’s a town you’ll love more than it’ll ever love you. It spins a yarn of glitz and glamor, fame and fortune, love and tragedy that will be projected time and time and time again. To escape is the only surrender, the only way to retain what remains of your sanity, stability, and pride. Just as running in the cool collective recesses of the theater has been a safe haven for audiences worldwide for generations of yore. And hopefully generations yet to come. Indeed, Babylon, the latest film from writer/director Damien Chazelle, is not the first movie to tell us the tale of beauty and woe that comes from the ever-changing landscape of Tinsel Town, but it sure acts like it might be the last. And based on how things are lately, that concern isn’t unwarranted.
Cruising through the shift from silent films to talkies, as Singin’ in the Rain did once before (and, to which, Babylon pays no shortage of notice), with an attempt to recreate the boozy, jittery epic feel of Boogie Nights or, more recently, The Wolf of Wall Street, Chazelle’s latest feature shies away from the swooning romanticism of La La Land and the meticulous calculation of First Man in order to celebrate a sensationalist examination of Hollywood’s grandeur, cyclical history, and depravity — most as it relates to the ribald formative days of the medium’s near-invention.
A director who has often told stories of hard-working artists and inventors pushing themselves to the brink of madness in order to pursue greatness, Babylon is an orderly storyteller’s attempt to revel in said madness, to create a bulbous and bombastic cinematic chronicle that has been told more than once before, but perhaps that’s the point. Maybe we need to hear this song again and again, because it’s the reason why the movies remain one of our vivacious art forms.
“I think what we have here in Hollywood is high art.”
A Fellini-esque opening party sequence, wherein we’re introduced to our three central figures — or rather archetypes — Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the son of Mexican immigrants who views Hollywood as his gateway to greatness, Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), a flighty socialite who wants to be a screen legend, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a hard-drinking, weathered silent film star who won’t make a smooth transition into talking pictures, serves as a spirited, aggressively outrageous attempt to overwhelm the audience with splashy visuals and jazzy luridness, even in a year filled with maximalist spectacles.
Indeed, Chazelle has no interest in subtlety with his grandiose opening, a half-hour-long sequence that prides itself in overindulgence. A literal elephant waltzes its way into a cavernous room filled with naked partygoers, fountains of libations, literal piles of cocaine, and an assortment of odd characters doing devilish acts for public affection. It’s a stunning, if aggressive, display from a filmmaker who wants to earn the auteurist title of his elders. Does it warrant respect or resentment? Perhaps a little bit of both.
As a young hotshot who has proven his early talents with his impressive last three features, it’s understandable that Chazelle would willingly unrestrain himself in a manner that’s familiar to his creative influences. For a filmmaker who has made his passion for jazz no secret (and this film is certainly his jazziest to date, even compared to his masterpiece, Whiplash), it’s curious and at times liberating to see Chazelle allow himself to revel in the braggadocio of his material. After all, as this Hollywood film notes repeatedly, there are no guarantees when it comes to the biz. If you have the means to go all out, what’s preventing you from doing so? Good taste? Restraint? There’s no time like the present, especially when the future is unwritten and deeply uncertain.
But there’s the unshakeable feeling throughout Babylon that you’re essentially experiencing a film that’s meant to mirror the sensation of watching a cocaine-influenced movie from a filmmaker who, so far as the public lens will let you believe, has probably never touched anything harder than over-the-counter acetaminophen. Perhaps that’s too presumptuous to say? I won’t ever claim to know the ins-and-outs of Hollywood, even after watching a film like Babylon that prides itself in giving audiences a peek behind the curtains. But there’s a lot of emulation throughout Chazelle’s latest, and for every animated moment that wins you over with its singing exaltation, there’s another that wears you down with its chatty confluence of chaos.
“We are gonna be more than they ever bargained for.”
Babylon is at its most winning when it captures the joyous, yet physically/emotionally/creatively draining sensation of capturing something magical on film when seemingly every imposing hardship is thrusted your way. It might just be 15 seconds of majesty, but it comes from a day’s worth of headaches and havoc, and if it can withstand the test of time, isn’t it ultimately worth all the hassle? Is it better to live a life that will pave the way to a legacy, up until the moment when the music starts to fade? That’s ultimately for the audience to decide.
There are a number of entertaining and delectable sequences to be found in Babylon, but outside of the debaucherous opening, the film shines brightest during two scenes where our lead characters work themselves to delirium in order to create perfection. Whether it’s the scientific precision of man’s first astral flight or the intensive training exercises that push a young, daring musician to work his way into superstardom, Chazelle has always been caught up in the little details that make the machine hum. When the writer/director is able to rekindle that spark here, Babylon, similarly, is able to croon with smooth, pristine harmony. There’s no faulting the film’s slick technical prowess. Tom Cross’ editing remains as exhilaratingly swift as ever. Linus Sandgren’s crisp cinematography is both luscious and clear-eyed, as it captures the magic of the movies without shying away from the lack of human decency that follows. The costuming and art direction are as rapturous as you would expect for such a lavish display, and Justin Hurwitz’s gaudy, invigorating score will go down as one of the year’s finest.
Where Babylon falters, though, is in its characterizations. Chazelle’s screenplay too often favors an overzealous crudeness that seems a bit too infatuated with its own resolve. The raunchy dialogue is only periodically as humorous as it thinks itself to be, and our three central leads can sometimes be reduced to their most thematically paradigmatic when it comes to the wide-eyed young man stumbling his way through the Hollywood machine, the beautiful blonde starlet who is destined to rise and fall, and the elder statesman of Hollywood verging on complete decline. For a film enjoying its own mayhem, the whole thing can feel a little too pat, a little too self-conscious, to really capture the humanity found in these personalities. And in a sadly ironic twist, the character of Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a gifted Black trumpet player who is ultimately sidelined in a story that doesn’t quite have the patience to explore his own sad torment.
The bottom line.
Still, for all its apparent faults, it’s hard not to be swept up in the grandiosity of it all. We’ve seen this electric type of display before, and in true Hollywood fashion, we’ll probably see it again somewhere in the future. Ten years earlier, we had The Artist, after all. At a time when the future of cinema remains unclear, as audiences direct their attention elsewhere and movie theaters are viewed as means through which people can collectively catch up on the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s refreshing to watch something as full-throttled and unabashed in its cinematic ambition as Babylon.
But perhaps Hollywood will always find ways to delude itself in one fashion or another. And we’ll always be caught up in that delusion, because it’s better to believe the lie than accept the truth. We might never get the full picture, though we’ll always get quite a show.
Babylon is now playing in select theaters and expands on December 23. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
BABYLON - 7/10