Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
It is the 1920s, Silent Films are king and Hollywood is a hedonistic, drug-filled paradise. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) are young, ambitious and want to become a part of the action, any way they can. They meet at a massive party, and while Manny instantly falls head over heels, Nellie has time for nothing except her quest to be a star. With the advent of Sound and “Talkies” on the horizon however, a new era threatens to change the game forever.
BABYLON, Oscar-winning Writer/Director Damien Chazelle’s ode to a decadent, mythical Hollywood ideal that looks nothing like the current studio and blockbuster-driven system, opens with an elephant literally defecating all over the camera. It then proceeds into an outrageous and bombastic party featuring dancing, orgies, cocaine, alcohol, overdoses and horny fat cats who are all too pleased to be urinated on. It goes on like this for nearly the entire first hour of the picture – ending with the Film’s title card. And to me, it seems like Chazelle deliberately frames and paces the Film’s opening out this way as a litmus test for what is to come. Because if you are not on board and strapped in tight for the sheer madness of this Film’s party scene, then there is no point to continue on through the remainder of BABYLON’s gargantuan 188-minute running time.
You may as well just pack it in and move on. Thematically, the rest of the Film does not match its sheer audacity and perversity. But that chaotic and frantically frenzied style and energy? Well that never lets it up. It only gets more pronounced as Chazelle gets deeper into that tumultuous period of time, as well as the immediate, revolutionary effect sound had on the industry at large.
If you have not already guessed, I absolutely loved BABYLON. I have been a fan of Chazelle’s work since Whiplash knocked my socks off at TIFF’14, and this is easily his magnum opus – or at least his most ambitious and sprawling film to date. He pours so much love into every scene, recreating certifiably insane production days where multiple films would be shooting in the same location at the exact same time while also referencing the hardships and learning curves these early Filmmakers and actors went through to create the kind of art that has stood the test of time. A high-stress scene with a crew desperately waiting for a new camera to capture the sunset at just the right moment is a highlight, as is a maddening scene of a crew trying their very best to properly capture sound while trying to stay as quiet as possible. Much like that incredible party scene that opens the Film, Chazelle lets each of these scenes, and others, breathe and move at their own speed. It gets episodic in some instances (often reminding me of how Quentin Tarantino structured Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood), yet never feels stale or boring. It just gets more fascinating as it goes on.
Suffice it to say, without further embellishing, what Chazelle and his team have created with BABYLON is stunning. All of the technical elements on display here are outstanding, from the Production Design right through to the camera work into the sound and back. Tom Cross’ editing is exquisite and Mary Zophres’ Costumes are divine. What really blew me away however was Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz’s Score, which goes hard from the very beginning and never lets up. I have been listening to this soundtrack ever since it hit Spotify, and the way the trumpets and bass explode out of every speaker is a thing of beauty. He understood the assignment and creates an instant all-timer that is unforgettable.
Where BABYLON stumbles is in its story, or more specifically, its eclectic Cast of Supporting Characters and their tremendous amount of subplots. There are way too many of them, each one clawing for space on Chazelle’s enormous canvas, and each one at odds with the camera’s inability to look away from Calva and Robbie. Together or on their own, they light-up the screen in a way that no one else is afforded. Calva’s magnificent work is easily a “star is born” moment for anyone who witnesses it, and Robbie is practically incendiary in every single one of her scenes. I love her Oscar-nominated work in I, Tonya, yet it looks like amateur hour compared to her portrayal of the hungry and deeply-troubled Nellie. Much like Chazelle does with the Film itself, she pours her very soul into the role and positively swings for the fences every time she pops up. It is going to be incredibly difficult for her to ever top this performance.
While I wanted to see and learn so much more about Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu (who, no word of a lie, is introduced as a sultry siren singing a song entitled “My Girl’s Pussy”) and Jovan Adepo’s trumpet-playing stand-out Sidney Palmer (who has the single most devastating and aggravating scene in the entire picture), Chazelle wisely does not indulge in their tales. They are not his to tell and his restraint is admirable, even if it means that they often seem to pop in and out of the Film nonsensically. Jean Smart is positively delicious as gossip rag reporter Elinor St. John and Tobey Maguire’s late entry into the Film is genuinely unhinged. Again though, Chazelle never seems to know what to do with either of them and much like the rest of the Supporting Cast, seems all too content to undercut and underutilize them.
That said, the one Supporting Player he does focus on is Brad Pitt’s aging Silent Star Jack Conrad. He is at the top of his game and part of the Hollywood elite at the beginning of the Film, and practically obsolete once sound is introduced. He is absolutely brilliant in the role, channeling both his legendary on-screen persona and his own career path. He gets many of the Film’s best laughs and just as many of its most emotional beats. He also lends himself beautifully to the Film’s thesis of the importance of memory and legacy in a way that is profound and ever so slightly meta. If anyone can even dream of competing with Calva and Robbie here, it is Pitt.
Imperfections aside, BABYLON is an incredible piece of cinematic art that needs to be seen to be believed. Chazelle has lovingly crafted a definitive, albeit fictional, portrait of an era of filmmaking unlike any other. The pastiche he has created with his behind-the-scenes team and on-screen players transcends the medium, and is easily one of the best films of 2022. Do not let all the talk about the debauchery dissuade you. This one demands to be seen big and loud.
Paramount Pictures Canada release BABYLON on Friday, December 23, 2022.