sat 25/05/2024

London: The Modern Babylon | reviews, news & interviews

London: The Modern Babylon

London: The Modern Babylon

Julien Temple fuses a treasure trove of archive material with a punk-fuelled soundtrack to celebrate the multicultural metropolis

Pre-war Chinatown, glimpsed in 'London: The Modern Babylon'

Julien Temple’s new documentary is a timely accompaniment to the London Olympics. While the Games casts a spotlight on the capital, the film offers a wondrously dense and evocative, warts-and-all portrait of the city.

And oddly enough, it has echoes of the Olympic opening ceremony. Just as Danny Boyle used live spectacle, clips and music to celebrate the city’s enviable cosmopolitanism, so Temple draws on a treasure trove of archive material and his own deep familiarity with British music to present the complex story behind that multiculturalism.

In essence, this is a history of London from the turn of the 20th century to the present day, its central theme being that the capital of the most extensive empire the world has ever known has been transformed, at times begrudgingly, by the citizens of those very countries it once ruled – and is all the better for it.

En route, we find history repeated over and over: cycles of deprivation, disaffection and rebellion, waves of immigration leading to racial prejudice, then eventual inclusion and a new layer to the city’s cultural diversity.  Throughout, a combination of dogged perseverance and creative energy has held the city together.

The film opens with a racy montage – of bustling streets and speeding tube trains, riots and catwalks, pearly kings and queens and Muslims at prayer, Winston Churchill and Charles & Di – accompanied by The Clash’s London Calling. The sequence typifies what is to follow, the depiction of history’s ebb and flow, fuelled by imaginative juxtapositions of music and image. And of course the punk anthem reminds us of Temple’s own beginnings, with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle; both the Pistols and Malcolm McLaren will feature later.

But having whetted our appetites, Temple first draws back to the beginning, with hand-cranked 35mm images of late Victorian London, as Michael Gambon’s seductive voice-over describes the heart of the empire as a vortex, emitting the hum of “thousands of footsteps, thousands of hooves, thousands of wheels.”

The director takes us through the decades using a diversity of visual formats – from 16mm to Hi Def,  home movies, newsreel, television – accompanied by interviews with Londoners young and old, famous and everyday, some amusing film clips, and a soundtrack that includes David Bowie, the Kinks, the Stones, T-Rex, Pink Floyd, Adam and the Ants, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Underworld and, ah yes, Max Bygraves.

We witness the devastation of the Blitz and the arrival of the Windrush immigrants from the Caribbean, the suffragettes and the blackshirts, the former phenomenon known as the pea-souper, the growth of Soho and the closure of the docks, the IRA campaign, the Brixton and Poll Tax Riots and the London riots of 2011. The evil partnership of property developers and yuppies is summed up by a telling slogan: “regeneration is social cleansing”. And with 300 languages now spoken in the city, the film rightly suggests that the biggest divide today is not between races, but between rich and poor.

There are more surprises and delights than in a dozen documentaries combined. I particularly liked the Queen at the controls of an underground train, the assertion that the psychological effects of the Blitz included “not only hysteria and shock, but also what might be described as jaunty behaviour” (namely a much greater desire for sex) and a young David Bowie fronting the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men.

Temple describes his documentary as “more time travel than history lesson”. It’s certainly made with the sort of fond enthusiasm, mixed with admonishment, that a certain Time Lord offers his young assistants on his many visits to "The Smoke". 

Watch the trailer for London: The Modern Babylon

There are more surprises and delights than in a dozen documentaries combined


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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