The lives and careers of actors, directors, producers, and
dreamers all intersect in the endless depravity of early Hollywood.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo,
Jean Smart, Flea, Li Jun Li, Eric Roberts, Jeff Garlin, Tobey Maguire
Holy hell, was this an acid flashback down Hollywood's memory lane. Half love letter and half suicide note, Babylon blows open the debaucherous dark side of early Hollywood. Behind the silent movies, the vaudeville, and the charming stars of a brand new art form, everyone was fucking everyone else. Drugs, sex, parties, orgies, manslaughter, and more drugs. Kinda like now. Turns out Hollywood has always been a breeding ground for sick fuckery. Becoming a superstar brings with it a certain degree of emotional baggage, and in order to keep that shit at bay for the good of the picture, studios have often used any method available to them to manipulate the stars' lives to keep that cheery smile alive and on every magazine in town. Babylon simply shows how that went down in the 1920s and 1930s during the transition of silent films to talkies.
Damien Chazelle is four films into a stellar career, but this is regrettably his weakest effort yet. I am however convinced that his two favorite things are movies and jazz. Babylon has a lot of story to tell. We've actually got four main plots. There's Manny (Calva) and his dream of working in the pictures. There's Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) and her Judy Garland-esque rise and fall as a megastar. There's Jack Conrad (Pitt), Hollywood's biggest actor who fails to realize his career is about to take a nosedive. Finally, there's jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Adepo), a black musician who realizes his whole career is basically a novelty act for white people. Any one of these could've been a great movie, but mashed together with zero coherence, they all lose major punch.
Babylon begins with an elephant shitting aggressively onto a poor guy followed by a woman pissing on the chest of a man based not-so-loosely on Fatty Arbuckle. That's our introduction to the world of Babylon. It ends with a gorgeous recap of film history, from The Great Train Robbery to Avatar, and a host of significant films in between. The film's biggest strength is Chazelle's obvious love for cinema. It matters to him and he makes it clear many times. I appreciate that. I just wish he'd been able to say it in two hours instead of three.