By the final few minutes of Babylon, there’s this almost indescribable chaotic celebration of cinema’s birth and death.
Published on December 23, 2022
Rating 4.5 /5
Babylon is the type of film where you feel like anything can happen. Dreams can be made in one night and broken just as easily. Film production can be as exciting as it is dangerous. Parties can feature everything from wild dancing to dead hookers. Evenings out can lead anywhere from the glow of a cinema to an underground hell of freak fights. The amount of waste expelled in the first three minutes is bizarre enough, and there are still three hours of wildness proceeding it.
The story centers around the rise and fall of movie stars and executives during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The assistant Manny (Diego Calva) and the amateur actress Nellie (Margot Robbie) are aiming for high things in cinema. All it takes is one crazy party of miscalculating elites for them to be working the next day. Manny scrambles to change cameras on a war epic while Nellie puts on her sexiest acting for a western throughout the day. Despite the problems of crumbling sets, diminishing daylight, and a murder, filming proceeds, and the two souls feel they can keep going.
We meet a few actors already watching their careers taking different paths as the sound becomes present in the pictures. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has enjoyed a life of luxury for being a silent movie icon. Unfortunately, he’s not versatile enough to adapt to speaking his lines, bringing about his career’s twilight. Observing and being honest about this passage of time is the friendly film critic Elinor (Jean Smart), recognizing the timelessness of film but the mortality of its players. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is better built for cinema as a cabaret singer and someone who can hold their own in a snake fight, which surprisingly comes in handy during one out-of-control party.
The film is a dizzying delight with different stories as it quickly progresses from one wild development to the next. Everything from the decadent drunkenness of the fledging actor to the troubled rise of a jazz trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) is a trippy yet vicious saga. The ugliness of the era is not omitted from what could’ve been a nostalgic glee-fest akin to La La Land. Here’s a film where old Hollywood is portrayed as corrupt, stuffy, gross, racist, and littered with some of the darkest souls behind the grueling process. The hideousness of shooting with sound for the first time is showcased in a scene reminiscent of the filmmaking movie Living in Oblivion, complete with frustrations at repeating the same dialogue over and over when everything technical goes wrong.
As a mixture of darkness and wonders, Babylon has the look and feel of a gangster movie that embraces the surreal nature of it all. The lavish orgies and sweaty arguments contribute to making this intoxicating experience a memorable one. There’s also this contentment for the present about how so many of these desperate and vice-craving souls realize their mortality and choose to live in the moment. The opening party sets this tone well and continues on with a desire to never let the good times die while also recognizing that those days will decay. Some can endure, while others will simply find a way to die rather than watch the dust of depressing careers acclimate on their corpses.
By the final few minutes of Babylon, there’s this almost indescribable chaotic celebration of cinema’s birth and death. It paints a blindly blazing montage of movie history and production, pushing faster with a life-affirming jazz mash by Justin Hurwitz. This type of chaos will certainly not be for everyone, but as an all-encompassing approach to old Hollywood, I felt like this may be Damien Chazelle’s best film to date.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.