After a four-year wait and a lot of hype, Babylon is now in theaters for the world to see. This time around, director Damien Chazelle has found a way to mesh elements from his previous projects into something new, exciting, and ambitious. Featuring the vicious nature of Whiplash, the sweeping love of Hollywood of La La Land, and the historical aspects of First Man, Babylon somehow manage to work all these elements together well. Many reactions have said the film has too much going on, calling it “messy” or lacking pace. However, I see Babylon as an overwhelming film in all the right ways.
Capturing the zeitgeist of 1920s silent-era Hollywood and focusing on a group of characters based on real-life stars and producers, it’s a chaotic representation that best exemplifies the bygone era. It’s admirable what Chazelle manages to do with this film. Clocking in at over three hours long, hardly any of that runtime feels wasted. While Babylon is an ensemble, the main focus is on Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), two up-and-comers who experience all the highs and lows of a changing industry. Along for the ride are silent film megastar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo).
Each of these characters, representative of one major part of Hollywood or another, go through transformative journeys in all the chaos Chazelle expertly puts on screen. There’s a method to the madness, and the excess and depravity have the distinct purpose of showing how these characters choose to live in the moment. Hidden underneath all the elephant crap and insane montages and party scenes is a tightly woven film with easy-to-understand story beats that work to an astonishing effect.
Manny is the heart and soul of the film, with his story being one of an outsider looking in before becoming an integral part of the industry he so much admires. Calva cements himself as a bonafide movie star. His powerhouse performance drives some of the most emotional moments in Babylon. The three-hour runtime lends credence to his journey as a character, along with everyone else in the film. Pitt’s Conrad is a philosophical playboy intent on innovation and deeply invested in the state of the industry, despite his drunken disposition throughout most of the film. Given what becomes of the filmmaking landscape, it’s a tragic arc and creates a compelling dichotomy with Manny’s trajectory in the story.
Nellie LaRoy, a silent film actress who bursts onto the scene right before the introduction of talkies, is emblematic of all the chaos in the film. Robbie brings manic energy and vigor to her performance and is an excellent foil to Manny. The chemistry between the two leads to some of the film’s quietest and most intimate scenes. Their interactions are just one of many examples that show the greater dynamics Chazelle has created with every character in this epic ensemble.
Because it’s a Damien Chazelle film, fans can definitely look forward to the incredible score composed by Justin Hurwitz. Filled with classical silent film rag-time piano and a leitmotif for Manny and Ellie eerily reminiscent of La La Land‘s “City of Stars”, Hurwitz goes all out in his musical score. Sidney Palmer helps fuel all of the musically rich scenes. The character’s performance goes hand-in-hand with the score, further putting on display the director’s love for jazz while also exploring the more troubling aspects of being a Black musician in a white and capitalistic Hollywood. Babylon celebrates all things artistic and meditates on the emotional consequences of attempting to leave your mark on the industry.
Babylon is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, using the transition from silent films to talkies to explore more existential themes and recount what a puzzling thing using sound in films was to creatives back in the day. The film can sometimes come across as overindulgent in how chaotic Hollywood was when producing so many silent films, but how well that chaos is edited makes some scenes that feel as if they drag on for too long excusable.
Overall, Babylon is an incredible film. There is so much to unpack in its hefty three-hour runtime, though it feels like some audiences and critics cannot look past all of the eccentrics aspects of the film, calling it surface-level, messy, or simply having too much of everything. Underneath the stunning production scale is a tightly woven story about a period of Hollywood that tested people’s creative integrity and ruminated on those who could not change with the times and those who could, but at a deep emotional cost.
Aesthetically pleasing on every technical level and telling an ambitious story that rarely falters with its pacing, Babylon is a stunning achievement. The final montage speaks to its themes and story, showing the double-edged sword that is Hollywood. It’s sometimes morally bankrupt, but the way it brings out the need to stay creatively afloat and tell new and engaging stories is where the true beauty of the industry lies, scars and all. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Babylon is Now Playing in Theaters.