Babylon Dir: Damien Chazelle (Film Review)

Babylon seems like a tribute to Hollywood golden age. But is it a love letter to the movies from director Damien Chazelle or a ransom note?

Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart

After sitting through the 189 minutes of Babylon, I’m not sure Chazelle even knows the answer to that question.

Back in the 1950s, Kenneth Anger wrote Hollywood Babylon, a scandalous expose of the excesses that turned out to be more fiction than fact. It was promptly banned

Chazelle opens his film with one of those scandalous scenarios, set in 1926, it is one that involves drugs, sex, jazz, death and a defecating elephant.

Hold on to your hat, because, if nothing else, Babylon is one helluva ride.

That opening set piece introduces us to the main characters.  We have a major silent movie star named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a very ambitious young starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young Mexican immigrant named Manuel, or Manny, Torres (Diego Calva) who probably has more common sense than the rest of the characters combined and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who plays his ass off despite being the target of racism.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack to Babylon, produced by Justin Hurwitz, is extraordinary. Hurwitz manages to capture the spirit of 1920’s jazz and pop with recreating a tinny, static-laden imitation of old YouTube clips.

The plot of the film, such as it is, follows these characters as the jazz age transitions into The Jazz Singer…in other words we find these film stars all dealing with the introduction of sound, or the ‘talkies’ in their own ways.

And while this is a very, very well made film…cinematography, editing, directing and acting are all impeccable…the plot definitely lacks focus.

Main characters appear, then disappear, then pop up again. Is the film about Conrad? About LaRoy? About Torres?

And I’m still not sure why the Sidney Palmer character is there, although the trumpet playing is a definite highlight.

While the script may lack focus, it is very well written, with plenty of laugh-out-loud lines, particularly in the first half.

By the time we get to the third hour, things are getting quite Lynchian, which isn’t a bad thing, but some consistency in style might be appreciated.

Because of the script’s shortfalls, Babylon feels like a series of memorable scenes rather than a cohesive story. And those memorable scenes are many…I was never bored, never looking at my watch.

Trainspotters will revel in the many nods to Hollywood classics and there are cameos from the likes of Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Albert Hammond, Jr, Joe Dallesandro and even Flea.

There is lots to love about Babylon and when the end came, I was applauding along with the rest of the audience, but given time to reflect, I’m still wondering what I just saw…should I be Singing In The Rain or crying in my beer?

Marty Duda