If one were to create a line-up of directors primed for telling a story of Hollywood hedonism, it's highly unlikely that Damien Chazelle would feature on many people's lists. A high achiever since day one, Chazelle's work has always carried an air of pedigree, so much so that at age 32 he became the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Director. His new film, 'Babylon', is the first time one of his films has not opened to universal acclaim, and while it doesn't always work, it's bloody admirable to watch a director widen their horizons and take such a big swing.
'Babylon' tells the concurrent stories of Mexican immigrant Manny Torres (Diego Calva, TV's 'Narcos: Mexico'), unpredictable up-and-coming actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, 'Amsterdam'), silent film icon Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, 'Bullet Train') and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, 'Overlord'), as their paths first intersect in 1926 at a party to end all parties. From the very opening moments, this party makes it clear that 'Babylon' is going to be an assault on the senses (and, in some moments, on good taste). Bodily fluids, both human and animal, flow just as freely as the champagne, clothes are apparently optional, and mountains of cocaine that would make Jordan Belfort weak at the knees are a must-have. The reckless abandon with which our main characters party is not coincidental; the "talkie" revolution in Hollywood is about to take place, and while Manny and Sidney are set to flourish, Nellie and Jack struggle to find their place in the new status quo.
Of course, my personal love for the work of Damien Chazelle might raise an eyebrow or two at how objective I am towards 'Babylon,' but it's that very fondness that makes me the ideal candidate to pull this film apart and contextualise its DNA within similar threads of his other work. 'Babylon' clocks in at a gargantuan 189 minutes, and in that time there's a lot to untangle, and a lot for the actors to chew on. Although it is coined as an ensemble film and the entire cast give great performances, 'Babylon' obviously belongs to Robbie; when Nellie first crashes into frame – literally - as a cyclone of wild hair and a red dress that is equal parts restrictive and revealing, it's not hard to see why Manny is instantly taken with her, and their friendship/quasi-romance forms the emotional core of the film. Chazelle's long-time friend and collaborator, composer Justin Hurwitz, is also back with a bombastic score that both pushes his own sonic envelope and calls back to some of his key motifs from his previous Chazelle collaborations, particularly 'La La Land'.
SWITCH: 'BABYLON' TRAILER 2
In fact, it's almost impossible to discuss 'Babylon' in general without making frequent comparisons to his infamous almost-Best Picture Academy Award winner. Many have coined 'Babylon' as 'La La Land's' deformed, cocaine-addled older cousin, a Hollywood suicide note to 'La La Land's' love letter. Manny repeatedly voices his desire to be "a part of something bigger," hinting at the immortality that only the silver screen can provide - and while his intentions seem far purer than others, we still actively pity him. Where Chazelle's protagonists are historically perfectionists driven to the brink by their ambition, 'Babylon's' main characters feel far more aimless; a menagerie of extremely damaged lost souls who commonly use the arts as an anchor because they have nothing else. This is exactly why Nellie and Manny bond - she has no real family, and the family she does have exploits her, and he's an immigrant whose identity becomes blurred in the flurry of Hollywood social climbing. Thankfully, Manny manages to avoid the pitfalls of similar characters we've seen before, but only because his love for Nellie forces to be her foil and in turn he cannot let himself slip. If Nellie was more well-adjusted, Manny would be snorting coke off a dancer's boobs and getting into gambling debt like everyone else.
Furthermore, where 'La La Land's' protagonists Mia and Sebastian seemed to have the world waiting for them to dominate, the possibilities for 'Babylon's' characters feel far more limited despite the technological boom they're living through. Perhaps this comes from their active ignorance of the fallible nature of humanity in every element of their lives, from the amount of drugs they take to their lack of sleep, fuelled by their larger-than-life personas (and the physical size of their big-screen selves). Of course, it wouldn't be a Chazelle film without a character whose ambition is their defining trait, and while Manny's ambition sees him serve as more of a stand-in for Chazelle than as an audience stand-in, he's the closest thing we get to a functioning, normal human being in the film. For the first 45 minutes, we rarely hear Manny say anything; he simply stands there and lets the insanity of the world he's entered wash over him. The notion that Chazelle is way too sincere of a filmmaker to tackle this kind of story given his reputation as the clean-cut nice guy is very valid, but his more cynical streak has been present since J.K. Simmons threw a chair at Miles Teller's head in 2014's 'Whiplash'. Through Manny (and unintentionally through his own public persona), Chazelle feels like the nerd who never got invited to big parties, trying to imagine what those parties are like, and going so overboard that the whole thing comes off looking more like a nightmare than a dream. Simply through its graphic, bombastic nature, 'Babylon' feels like a sudden left turn when it is, in fact, a very natural thematic progression for Chazelle as a filmmaker, and although it is on the surface his funniest film, it's also by far his saddest – and I don't just mean the tragic endings many of its characters face. Of course, with all of this narrative upheaval going on, it's up to the technical elements to help tie 'Babylon' to Chazelle's brand, and his long-time partners, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross, sadly feel like they are on autopilot. Save for one excellent scene in which Nellie laboriously shoots her first film with sound, there's nothing here that we haven't already seen in a Chazelle film before – and sometimes those previous examples are far superior to their 'Babylon' counterparts.
Many have coined 'Babylon' as 'La La Land's' deformed, cocaine-addled older cousin, a Hollywood suicide note to 'La La Land's' love letter.
I will warn you now, dear readers; while I was strapped in and ready for whatever challenges it threw at me, 'Babylon' definitely will not be for everyone – just ask the mass of viewers who walked out of my screening with 15 minutes to go, clearly unimpressed with the film's unnecessarily repeated coda. Chazelle has been known to wear his passions on his sleeve, but 'Babylon's' overreliance on motifs from 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'Boogie Nights' (an inspiration he has discussed multiple times) is often to its detriment. For many, the reminders of these films may have them wishing they were just watching those films instead. Furthermore, it's impossible to dive into Sidney's story without exploring the implications of being a black man in a predominantly white industry, and while Chazelle – a white man – wisely refuses to involve himself in that narrative by not engaging with it, it doesn't mean that Sidney's storyline feels any less undercooked. If only he remembered the value of non-holistic storytelling for the film's final moments: a mishmash of clips from major cinematic technical milestones that feels incredibly out of place. I understand that the film clearly wants to go out with a bang, but I cannot stress how jarring it is to watch a montage jump across history from 1952 (the year in which the final scene takes place) to clips of modern films such as 2009's 'Avatar'.
While 'Babylon' struggles to remain a consistently knockout experience, the simple fact that I still don't feel like I've scratched the surface on what this film has to offer should be enough to intrigue you. It's rare that directors are given the budget and resources to do whatever they want and tell original stories, and it's something we should all be supporting and championing. Not everyone will love 'Babylon', but everyone should sure as hell respect it.