sat 04/02/2023

Babylon review - sound and fury in silent Hollywood | reviews, news & interviews

Babylon review - sound and fury in silent Hollywood

Babylon review - sound and fury in silent Hollywood

Damien Chazelle's pounding tribute to Twenties cinema is a finally faltering blast

Dance away: Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) steals the showParamount UK

Babylon is sensational, a manic, pounding assault on the senses meant to convey Hollywood’s chaotic birth. Damien Chazelle’s return to La La Land’s showbiz dreams forsakes ineffable intimacy for hysterical thunder, and for much of the time that’s enough.

It’s 1926, with Hollywood growing in LA’s backwater at America’s wild western edge. We start with an elephant shitting in a truck, en route to a party where that will count as decorous subtlety. Inside the party’s mansion doors, frenetic camerawork explores packed, deep-focus frames, embodying a seething, orgiastic crowd. Chinese-American chanteuse Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li, pictured below) steps out in top hat and tails and grabs a woman for a smooch, just like Dietrich in Morocco (1930). Mexican gofer Manny (Diego Calva) and wannabe star Nellie (Margot Robbie) meanwhile seek routes through the melee to the promised land of movie set employment, as regal star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) moves with more measured cool, lubricated by cocktails and longing female gazes.

Li Jun Li in BabylonChazelle desperately attempts rave-like exhilaration, and achieves a sort of numbed extremity. A jazz band including black trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, pictured bottom) convey the music’s contemporary explosiveness, not the tinny fragments preserved on shellac, a philosophy extended to costumes and Robbie’s wild hair, which finds historical accuracy’s far edge. The raucous, racist, drink-damaged characters of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1922) and his rollicking Thirties stories of boozy silent-era hack Pat Hobby are more Babylon’s kin than his (or Baz Luhrmann’s) Gatsby, or even his gorgeous Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon (1942).

Manny, Nellie, Jack and Sidney are our supposedly diverse protagonists. But Sidney only has one major scene, ashamedly blacking-up his skin-tone to reassure Southerners his band isn’t mixed-race - Babylon’s most jarring instance of its era’s underside - while Manny’s everyman observer stays secondary and servile. It’s Robbie and Pitt’s full-beam star power which counts.

Robbie’s Nellie voraciously hunts success, icing and flashing her nipples as she heists a scene and career out from under an established star, in a rapid-fire edit. This is cross-cut with the nearby shooting of an epic in which armies of extras crash into each other, some fatally stretchered off as cavalry trample even the cameras, endangering a by now paralytic Jack’s big scene. Movies make the public feel “less alone”, he muses, before staggering from his trailer to triumph as the sun sinks. The multiple climaxes of this dazzling passage convey early movie-making’s furious mayhem. Babylon is worth it just for this.

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in BabylonOnce this head-on rush slows with the arrival of talkies, though, Chazelle seems spent. The rest of Babylon’s three hours follows its characters’ Biblical falls in the more censorious Thirties, as Manny enters the literal underworld of gangster Jack McKay (Tobey Maguire), a hellish catacombs pleasure-ground. Gossip columnist Elinor St John (Jean Smart) telling Jack that his star time is simply up is overwritten but truer. Wrinkles crease Pitt’s magnificent, mature movie star face as he declines with undiminished grace.

From its Old Testament name to its Awful Warning of immorality’s cost, Babylon’s arc apes Hollywood once 1934’s constricting Hays Code hit. Its real, unfashionable message seems to be: wasn’t it worth it? Didn’t all those heedless, exciting, burnt-out lives, with all their damage – dead, raped, dumped by the showbiz roadside – leave intemperate, invaluable art? Silent Hollywood was built like the pyramids, on expendable labour, with similarly magnificent results: Ben-Hur (1925) remains a matchless spectacle, because they did it for real. At a century’s safe remove, Babylon revels in this queasy truth.

Jovan Adepo in BabylonLa La Land caught the ineffable stardust of Hollywood success, Chazelle choreographing his stars and Justin Hurwitz’s score into an irresistible confection, surefooted in its showbiz understanding. Babylon perhaps shows him hitting his limits. Individual scenes, like Hurwitz’s score, repeat La La Land notes, without enough thematic or emotional detail to sustain its length. Its chaos sometimes seems effortful, compared to the inherent madness of, say, Apocalypse Now.

Like Whiplash and La La Land, Babylon has a coda which revisits themes with the added pathos of passing time. Here, a Fifties Singin’ in the Rain screening triggers a montage of movie magic begun in the wild Twenties. Whiplash’s twisting climax was a murderously played Bird solo, La La Land’s a flooding river of romance, sweeping you to its ex-lovers’ last look; Chazelle’s First Man took you to the moon. Babylon’s big finish is mechanical by comparison, the play for sentimental tears too naked.

It’s still far more vigorous than Hollywood’s last major tribute to its golden past, David Fincher’s inert Mank (2020). And at its best, Babylon is indecently good fun.

The multiple climaxes of this dazzling passage convey early movie-making’s furious mayhem

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters