“Alright! No tits!”
Story: 1920s Hollywood was absolutely crazy. Decadent, hedonistic, and straight-up lewd, those in the cinema system were all-out, every day. Work hard, play hard, amirite? But soon, audiences began to eschew silent films filled with “excess”, and wanted talkies with “morals”. What of the folks behind-the-scenes? Let a few actors, musicians, and other shot-callers walk you through it all.
Genre I’d put it in: Crazypants Debauched-to-Moralistic Film Histories
Release Date: 2022
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the history of Hollywood(land), especially how the “anything goes” vibe of the 1920s turned into the “Golden Age of Film” of the 1930s.
Gotta say: Holy cow, Babylon is insane. All the flavors of insane; gloriously insane, strangely insane, horrifyingly insane, and even heartbreakingly insane. You’ll probably either love it or hate it, but director Damien Chazelle left absolutely nothing on the table after making this film. And wow, it’s A Lot. I dig it.
At a little over three hours – not counting trailers, so y’all plan your sodas accordingly – Babylon shoves everything but the kitchen sink at you. The most gloriously shameless studio party ever? Yep. Bodily fluids spilling all over people (with or without consent)? You bet’cha. Craziness on the backlot? Oh yeah y’all. Illegal goings-on that are possibly the ickiest things anyone who hasn’t seen Salò will ever view? Egads, yes. And yet, there’s a heart in Babylon that beats within, thanks to the emotional savvy of the performers in this ensemble. Diego Calva’s Manny Torres, Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer, and Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, are the satellites that everyone else revolves around, plot-wise. But everyone here goes all-in with their performances, though I’ve gotta give my special shout out(s) this time to Jean Smart, as a tabloid gossip monger who’s a whole lot smarter than she lets on, and Samara Weaving as a (brief) rival to Robbie’s LaRoy. Hell, it was worth the price of admission to see those doppelgängers on screen together. Thank you, Chazelle.
Babylon takes tidbits of various film plots and weaves them together in a frenetic, chaotic way. LaRoy and Torres’ rises hark to A Star is Born, as does Conrad’s ultimate fall. The silents-to-talkies transition not only echoes Singing in the Rain, it name-checks the film and shows a tiny clip at the film’s denouement. And the way the hedonistic in-your-face excesses of the 1920s crawled into the dark, where it turns to rot beyond the façade in the 1930s? Straight up Scarface-meets-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Chazelle never met a plot point he didn’t want to dial up to 11, and that’s evident here. It worked perfectly in Whiplash, wallowed in its own romanticized eccentricity in La La Land, but here in Babylon, it’s…both?
There are moments that require that Busby-Berkeley-on-coke feeling, in order to capture the whirlwind that was pre-Hays Hollywood. But there are also moments where this excess feels overdone, in a bad way. For example? The final scenes of Babylon show an older (but wiser) Torres in a movie theater, watching (what else?) Singing in the Rain…and then the editing goes absolutely rabid with jump cuts to colors, moments of this film, moments of other films, news clippings, and probably more stuff, but my brain exploded. It feels like a film student’s first foray into surrealism, and I never thought I’d use the word mastubatory to describe a moment in film, but here I go. It’s so self-involved, self-congratulatory, and cinematically clueless, it had me breathless. I hadn’t been that quickly yanked out of a film’s emotional pull since that weird climax in Spoiler Alert. Oh wait; is this a 2022 thing? Did filmmakers get a newsletter that talked up how cool and subversive it’d be to drag your audience out of an otherwise beautifully crafted moment, in order to mess with them or something? Because I hate it.
So, should you go see Babylon? If, like me, you’re a film history whore, you probably already have your tickets, and can’t wait to see what the hell’s gonna go on in this film. And you’ll probably be glued to the screen for every moment of those hours (well, except for that surrealistic bit, but whatever.) If you’re just looking for something to pass the time, you’ll find lots to enjoy here, and plenty to gasp and gape at. If you just want to see pretty people onscreen, that’ll work as well. Okay, so Tobey Maguire turns himself into a crusty coke goblin as big-time drug dealer James McKay, but even he’s fascinating to look at. Even though the film is gorgeous, even when it’s gritty? The soundtrack is so beautifully crafted you could watch this ish on mute and still feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. You basically can’t lose, unless you bought the big soda, and are sitting in the middle of an aisle in a packed theater. Don’t do that.
#Protip: That moment I spoke of where we see 1920s Hollywood making movies, in all its messy, chaotic glory? Messy-ass movie ranches were definitely a thing back then, and are still used today. And boy howdy how I’d love to have been a fly on the set wall for even one minute back when they started. Check out this behind-the-scenes video from The Wrap on how that ranch in Babylon came to be.