Damien Chazelle’s films – Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), First Man (2018) and now Babylon – have a common theme: ambition. They’re all about following your dreams no matter the cost, whether that’s in the form of jazz drumming, sweet Hollywood stardom, or lunar exploration.
Babylon – which clocks in at three hours and nine minutes, down from a reported first cut of more than four hours – returns to Hollywood but this time just at the point where silent films are being replaced by talkies. Chazelle’s avowed aim is to explore “the dark underbelly of the story in Singin’ in the Rain”, a film referenced and remade throughout, along with many others. For a director skilled at mounting set-pieces, Chazelle is extraordinarily duff at managing structure on a larger scale: perhaps those talents don’t sit well together. Babylon has spectacular scenes yet is hopelessly unwieldy as a whole.
As it opens, in 1926, dishy Mexican hired hand Manny Torres (Diego Calva of Narcos: Mexico) is trying to wrestle an elephant into the mansion of a Hollywood mogul for a decadent party. That party, lasciviously filmed in the Baz Luhrmann style, takes up the next 30 minutes, before we even reach the title credits. There’s frenzied dancing, nudity, open copulating on the dancefloor, a dwarf pogoing on a giant phallus – the usual. A starlet urinates on a mountainously fat naked man (Fatty Arbuckle, but these identifications are loose) and then dies of an overdose, her body smuggled out as the elephant rampages.
Our main characters are introduced here. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, about perfect) is the star of the day, much married, hopelessly alcoholic but still irresistibly charismatic in silent movies. Given to pontificating on modernism and high art, he’s nonetheless unable to adapt to the change that’s coming. He’s a bit John Gilbert, a bit Douglas Fairbanks, a touch Valentino.
Manny, although at this point only a promising servant, is smitten by a sexy gatecrasher, Nellie LaRoy (an all-out Margot Robbie in modern undress) and helps her get into the party, where they do coke and discuss their ambitions. “You don’t become a star, you either are one or you ain’t. I am!”, announces Nellie, a bit of a Clara Bow. Her cavorting and crowd-surfing attracts all eyes and she’s chosen to replace the dead starlet on set the next day, an opportunity she seizes. Manny is hired as an assistant by Conrad and set on a path to becoming a studio executive. Throughout he stands motionless, gazing wide-eyed at all he beholds, our stand-in as an audience.
These three are the movie’s main focus, in so far as it is focused, but are supplemented by more diverse figures. Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is taken up by Hollywood too, in the brief flourishing of music shorts in the early Thirties. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a Chinese-American lesbian cabaret singer (she is Anna May Wong-esque) who sings an ode to “my girl’s pussy” in a top hat. But these characters are sidelined by the film as it progresses.
The film is not just episodic, it’s a series of crescendos and restarts, all cut and cross-cut to the drumbeats of Justin Hurwitz’s relentless soundtrack. Set-piece highlights include a vast panorama of numerous silent films being made side by side in chaotic conditions, and a tortured attempt at making a talkie which goes wrong for take after take. In the first, an extra dies, in the second, the recordist perishes, one of the takeaways from Babylon being that the great machine of Hollywood not only chews people up and spits them out but carelessly kills them too. The film ends in outright gangsterism, Tobey Maguire playing a red-eyed psycho who takes Manny to a gothic sex dungeon (more dwarfs) where his career ends.
But if this is a dark underbelly, Babylon blithely ignores the fact that coercion and rape were rife in this world, an extraordinary omission. For that matter, there’s no hint that gay men might have had a part to play in early Hollywood either. But then, despite the writhing nudity, the movie is never actually interested in sex, Chazelle always having been turned on exclusively by the drive to stardom. And furious drumming.
Amazingly, Chazelle tries to give the film a climax with a closing montage of the entire history of the movies, like an Oscars reel for cinema itself, as though Babylon might just be its culminating act. You can’t say it’s not ambitious. You can say, though, it’s a dog’s dinner.
This article was originally published on 13 January 2023.
[See also: The genius of Jennifer Coolidge]
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis