BABYLON is a dazzling, heartbreaking, masterpiece.
“You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful. Your time today is through, but you’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.”
Damien Chazelle’s super-charged, maximalist, love-letter to the cinema, BABYLON debuted to stream on Paramount+ over the weekend and it is as much of a tonal whiplash disaster as it is a magnificent work of art.
In the same vein, as pricy auteur-driven flops that came before it such as 2008’s SPEED RACER, 2013’s THE LONE RANGER, or 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE (to name a few), BABYLON is the result of a director’s sole and undeterred creative vision completely and fully realized on the screen.
BABYLON chronicles the white-hot rise and gut-wrenching fall of several fictitious stand-ins for real-life Hollywood players in the 1920s as the movie business began to transition from silent films to the “talkies”.
We follow Manny Torres (newcomer Diego Calva) who is working a drug-fueled party of debauchery at a studio executive’s mansion in outside of Los Angeles.
It is there, amidst a dazzling sugar rush of sweaty sex, hardcore drugs, and absolute depravity that Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who has just come to L.A. from New Jersey to become a star.
Also in attendance is Chinese-American Lesbian cabaret girl Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and square-jawed film icon Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).
From this party, we follow the careers of these individuals over the course of the next 10 or so years. Manny climbs tooth-and-nail up the studio ladder, Nellie becomes a white-hot star that falls into gambling and drug addiction, Fay Zhu is ostracized as the morals of the world change, Sidney Palmer struggles with the racial tension of the age, and Jack Conrad bounces between marriages as he watches his career falter and fail.
At nearly 3 hours, everything in BABYLON feels necessary. Some scenes might seem like they go on for too long, some feel like they need to be longer, but everything just clicks. The manic fever dream presented on screen, perhaps intentional to mirror the addiction of Robbie’s Nellie, has moments of splendor, terror, relief, laughter, tragedy, and desperation.
There is one scene early on where we see Nellie watching in a packed theater as her first picture, a silent film where she is a flirtatious old west prostitute, plays out in complete silence. Of course, it is a silent film, but you hold your breath as she does while she steals looks around the room. This is is her make-or-break moment.
Finally, the dialogue card comes out with her big joke- “they called me the least-dressed person in France!” and… laughter. The audience erupts into laughter, and the nail-biting silence is broken.
It is in silence, that BABYLON’s greatest tool is used as a contrast to the cacophony to the rest of the film’s major moments. This silence allows us to stew on what is happening and makes these moments hit so much harder.
Film aficionados and Hollywood historians will find a lot to love in BABYLON, and in the amalgamation of different historical figures presented by these characters:
Robbie’s Nellie is a stand-in for Jeanne Eagles, Joan Crawford, and Alma Reubens but, specifically, Clara Bow, “The It Girl” herself.
Pitt’s Conrad borrows from John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino.
Manny can be equated to real-life figures like Rene Cardona while Zhu’s cabaret girl is tied closely to Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American actress to gain worldwide celebrity.
Adepo’s Sidney Palmer is based on several prominent black figures such as Loius Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Curtis Mosby, and Sonny Clay, according to director Chazelle.
While the all-star cast spread across BABYLON plays their heart out (including a very chilling and against-type Toby Maguire), the real core of the film to me comes from Pitt and a particular scene he shares with tabloid-writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart).
Elinor published a scathing piece in her magazine about Conrad’s fall from leading-man glory in the age of the talkies as his films have become flops and his career prospects dry up. Conrad confronts her, and she tells him that his time as an actor and an icon is up, but that he shouldn’t be sad about it.
He should enjoy it, because he is immortal now, and nothing he can do in his lifetime, regardless of his current career prospects, can change that. He will spend eternity with ghosts and angels on the screen, and every time someone views a film of his or sees his picture, he will be alive again, hundreds of years after he or Elinor are long gone from the earth.
It is in this exchange that the seeds are planted for BABYLON’s final scene.
It is the 1950’s now and Manny has long since left Hollywood behind. He goes to a local theater and catches the 1952 classic “Singin In The Rain”, a film itself about the transition from silent pictures to talkies.
He recognizes, through tears, the allusion the film makes to people he knew. He weeps, head in his hands, as his past comes rushing back to him. Then, in a dazzling display, we see the future of cinema.
We are whisked away in a psychedelic series of vignettes and color as we see the first moving picture “The Horse in Motion” to “Intolerance”, “The Jazz Singer”, and “The Wizard of Oz” all the way to the likes of “Psycho”, “Indian Jones”, “Terminator 2”, “Tron”, and 2009’s “Avatar”.
All the while the camera dives from Manny in the balcony seat of the theater to show us the faces of the people watching these films. Young, old, black, white, men, women, children.
We see cinema for what it is- hope. Immortality. Unity. Connection. Love. Sadness.
BABYLON might be a film about actors and characters, yes, but it is a film about film coming at a time when the world is coming back together under the big-screen after a global pandemic.
In the bible, Babylon and the Tower of Babel was halted and smited by God for mankind becoming to close to him in his heavenly kingdom, But now, that is used intentionally perhaps, as a symbol for all of us coming together again.
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