Director – Damien Chazelle – 2022 – US – Cert. 18 – 188m
The rise and fall of stars and other talents navigating the excessive lifestyle and work ethic of the silent era US movie business – out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 20th
Having established himself as a top A-list Hollywood director with the likes of Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), Chazelle delivers a cast of thousands epic about Hollywood in the silent era and beyond, a project that’s apparently been gestating in his head for some 15 years. With its name referencing a city that grew to great heights and considerable excess before crumbling into dust, Babylon starts with Manny Torres (Mexican actor Diego Calva in his first US role) and compatriots attempting to deliver an elephant to a Hollywood party at a desert mansion in the middle of nowhere. The tone for the whole is set – or perhaps set free from audience preconception about what is to follow – when one of Calva’s compadres, walking behind the trailer containing the creature pushing it up a hill, is unexpectedly covered in elephant excrement.
Effervescent force of nature Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) considers herself a movie star before she actually is a movie star. For her, it’s simply a question of getting to the right place at the right time and being discovered by the right people. Something about her convinces Diego – just as desperate as she to get into Hollywood and make his mark and now part of the security detail at the desert party – that he should let her in. From this point on, their stories intertwine.
Like the vast, empty desert around the mansion in which it takes place, the party is a place of not just excess but huge scale: like the movie itself, it is, quite simply, massive and sprawling, with its share of sex and sometimes fatal drug abuse on the fringes, and an elephant on hand to create a diversion should things get out of hand which they frequently do – in the sense not of director and crew losing control of it since their marshalling of creative forces into this behemoth of a production is impressive throughout, but of the whole world of silent era Hollywood being like an unregulated wild west where the collateral human cost both on the margins and all the way up to the top can be immense. Many of the stills being used to promote the film are from this sequence.
Established screen star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a cinematic icon from a nascent medium finding its feet as it learns to fly (the mixing of metaphors here seems somehow apt), acts as a godfather to everything else that’s going on until, as sound comes in and the silents change to the “talkies”, he too finds his star is waning. Before that, though, there’s at least one other incredible set piece chronicling a day on a silent movie lot where cameras get irreparably damaged on shoots involving massed crowds of extras fighting one another and LaRoy takes improvisational steps to cement her impending career success.
There are characters too numerous to mention in total. Particularly worthy of note in the wider narrative are Hollywood gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) who has the power to make or break any star in Hollywood and the ability to see the big picture about where the phenomenon is going at any given point in time, and attention-grabbing, black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who plays gigs at parties but only finds his place on the screen when sound comes in, and Chinese American personality Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) who first puts in appearance at the opening party sequence to sing actual period song My Girl’s Pussy.
As everything falls apart in the final half hour, seemingly unaware that they may be destroying the film, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (No Time To Die, 2021, La La Land, 2016) start to separate out the greens and reds of the images as if to tell us that the impending rise of digital media will destroy Hollywood as was. This coincides with an extraordinary sequence involving movie backer and gangster James McKay (a terrifying Tobey Maguire as you’ve never seen him before) and a sudden, unexpected, forced journey deep into a heart of darkness – or, as the film puts it, “the asshole of Los Angeles” complete with an underground labyrinth and an alligator.
The red / green fringing element proves a conceit as irritating to watch as it thinks itself to be clever, and one indicative of the misplaced self-importance with which the whole film regards itself. You’ll certainly never be bored and the corralling of vast assets onto the screen is remarkable, yet its uncritical praise for the institution of Hollywood leaves much to be desired. Much as it aspires to greatness, it plays out as a form of sycophancy.
Babylon is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 20th.