After enormous success and Oscars for films ranging from Whiplash to La La Land to first man writer-director Damien Chazelle returned to an early dream project first envisioned 15 years ago — a no-holds-barred look at early Hollywood, a time when not only movies were transitioning from silent to sound but Los Angeles itself was booming from desert to bulging metropolis. People were caught up in a turbulent time of change, and it didn’t always work out for some. As witnessed in the resulting film and years of meticulous research, Babylon is a sight to behold, a decadent, freewheeling, at times even poignant look at a series of dreamers, stars, fringe players and all who wanted a piece of a world that felt out of control, uninhibited and full of promise — and downfall.
With more than 100 speaking roles and a widescreen full of extras, Chazelle has created a vision of Hollywood at the time that seems strikingly original, yet oddly appropriate from the man who viewed another set of dreamers in Hollywood through a more romantic and contemporary lens in La La Land, the film that would make him the youngest Best Director Oscar winner ever, garner 14 nominations, and win 6. He seems drawn to the intrigue of who drifts into this city, separated by several generations, but still finding LA a magnet. In Babylon it is breathtaking to see an untamed and adventurous new world transition to something that will be more controlled and business-like once it starts to talk, but the view from the top and the bottom before it gets there is a wild ride like no other in recent cinema.
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That seems to be the goal here. Chazelle would host screenings in projection rooms of some of the most ambitious, risk taking films of all time in order to be inspired in the early days of writing this Hollywood epic. He and associates would watch everything from the likes of DW Griffith’s massive Intolerance to Wings to La Dolce Vita to Nashville to Citizen Kane to Chinatown, The Godfather Part 2, Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Cabaret and more. You get the idea. If Babylon, at 3 hours and 9 minutes doesn’t quite reach those heights, it is guaranteed to be a movie that will stay in your head, a swing-for-the-fences journey through an unimaginable rabbit hole of excess and jaw dropping behavior that stands alone in 2022 and more than earns its stripes.
Storywise it focuses on a few key characters, including wide-eyed Manny Torres (a breakout role for Diego Calva), a young Mexican man with hopes of finding work in movies, and he finds an open door at a wild party thrown by a top executive (Jeff Garlin), one where he promises to deliver an elephant (!) to liven up the proceedings (he wasn’t real, Peta, but you could have fooled me). Literally crashing into this gathering is wannabe actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who drives her car right into the entrance and then dives into all the completely unhinged and densely populated denizens of this gathering, people who snort what seems like mountains of cocaine, dance til dawn, get naked and debauched, and seem to have no limits. Strolling into it all is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a major silent film star who is first introduced motoring up in the heat of an argument (Pitt using a hilarious Italian accent for this) with soon-to-be-ex wife Ina ( Olivia Wilde in a fun cameo). Manny befriends Nellie, and observing the madness here is Elinor St. John (a terrific Jean Smart), the top gossip columnist who has seen it all and written it all. It is colorful stuff.
We get to follow these characters as Nellie ascends, Jack descends, Manny finds himself in both the right and wrong places and their individual fates take fascinating, somewhat unexpected turns. There are many others we meet. An Anna May Wong inspired performer, the striking Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) who works other odd jobs to survive in addition to singing ditties like “My Girl’s Pussy” (a real song from the period); Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (a great Jovan Adepo) who finds soaring success when his musical talents meet the needs of an industry moving into the sound era; Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton who is also a producer on this) a driven rat-a-tat-tat female director with clear visions for her film; her assistant director Max (a hilarious P,J. Byrne) who is clearly heading for a nervous breakdown in one of Babylon’s uproarious signature scenes where Nellie, in a first role, can’t quite hit her marks; and the imposing and psychopathic James McKay (Tobey Maguire as you have never seen him), a shady criminal who causes trouble for Manny and Nellie.
Flea (yes, that Flea) plays a studio fixer; Max Minghella is the legendary studio wonder boy Irving Thalberg; Rory Scovel plays The Count who wants to act but survives by providing the drugs everyone needs to operate on these levels of craziness; Eric Roberts as Nellie’s dad; Katherine Waterston as one of Jack’s many wives; and on and on. The Extras number way too many to count, but all seem comfortable in various stages of Orgiastic undress. For a movie made during Covid, the scope and sheer scale on display here is something to behold.
This is a film that twists and turns, with Chazelle packing in almost too much, but it seems exactly what this take on early Hollywood required. Remarkably he manages the shifting tones from rollicking comedy (in that scene of endless takes for Nellie), to epic location filming, to roaring parties, to just about anything you can imagine. Towards the end when Maguire comes on (he is also an Executive Producer) that tone dramatically shifts and becomes almost too dark and horrific to merge with all that has come before, but the movie recovers splendidly with a coda set years later at a theater playing a new movie musical, Singin’ In The Rain, the plot of which famously is set in the same 20’s period when silents gave way to talkies. It is the perfect homage from Chazelle.
Production wise Babylon is top of the line with sharp cinematography from Linus Sandgren, lavish costume design by Mary Zophres, superb Production Design from Florenzia Martin and Anthony Carlino, and a great score from Justin Hurwitz, the Oscar-winning composer of La La Land who has collaborated with Chazelle on all his films.
Robbie is simply sensational here in a go for broke performance that really lands. Smart is chilling, particularly in her brilliantly played key scene with Pitt where she delivers the sad truth about his fading career to Jack. Pitt is dead-on perfect here too, and wonderfully natural in an almost melancholic turn here as a star who knows his time is fleeting, a glimpse once upon a time in another Hollywood. Calva is a major find.
Babylon may not be for everyone. This isn’t cookie cutter stuff, and Chazelle doesn’t hold back. It can be exhausting at times, but as something wholly original and harkening to the spirit of filmmakers willing to take a swing, this is refreshing as hell. Producers are Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe, and Hamilton. Paramount opens it wide on December 23.
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