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  • Writer's pictureJT

Babylon | Raunchy, Energetic, & Jazzy | #reviews

What was Hollywood like before the streets were paved?

Today's show business is filled with coordinators for stunts, intimacy, and sometimes even cultural sensitivity, but this story is set 100 years ago before people had all the boundaries. Before it wasn't okay for people and horses to die on sets.

Film all day, party all night taken to the extreme.

And remember, this was only 30 or so years after the Old West which means lawless chaos still reigned in this hilarious representation of the early days of the world's greatest movie-making city.

Damian Chazelle is one of my favorite directors. He's brought us Whiplash, La La Land, that Neil Armstrong movie....he is a unique director, with a specific voice and a love for jazz whose movies contain some of the most energetic and visually captivating scenes in modern day film.

(I'm thinking of the finales of both the aforementioned films...)

Figure 1: Whiplash (left), La La Land (right)

For Babylon it seems he wanted to tell a story that was about the movies, filled with people who were consumed with the art of cinema before anybody even allowed it to be considered an art form. We follow Manny Torres (played earnestly by newcomer Diego Calva) who slowly gets pulled into the movie making business, starting as a butler and working his way up through the ranks. Manny meets several people along the way, most notably the newest silent film actress to come on the scene, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and an older veteran of the silent movies, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

This triad of loveable, flawed, and somewhat/mostly narcissistic characters offers an interesting take on 3 disparate perspectives of movie making as the crew makes silent films along with the transition rapidly into "talkies". Manny is a wide-eyed spectator who is in love with everything about the process, Nellie rapidly rises to fame in silent films before the transition to "talkies", and Jack has been making silent movies for years and only now has to deal with his voice being heard by the audiences that adore him.

Something I didn't think of before this film is that movies became a lot less magical once people could be heard. Flaws in how a person expresses themselves, or what could be considered as a disingenuous performance becomes immediately obvious when you can hear the actors saying the words on the screen versus the audience reading the words for themselves. This is a challenge I had never thought about before and it was interesting to see these characters navigate that shift in how they tell stories. The most interesting part for me was seeing how Nellie dealt with this shift. Once people could hear her speak, they wanted to dictate how she spoke and what she said. And she doesn't like that... (lolz)

Babylon is filled with parties. These guys partied so fucking hard. And Chazelle represents these parties as something biblical in nature and in scope. Titties everywhere, dicks hanging out, sex when and where ever you want it with all of this action being fueled by cocaine. What happens on screen is accentuated by the jazz music which beautifully underscores all of the sodomy.

Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and his band play some incredible tunes throughout the movie with intricate solo lines mostly coming from Sidney's trumpet and the syncopated rhythm of the drums dictating editing cuts and characters' dance moves. The dancing featured in the film looks to be tightly choreographed but maintains the chaotic nature of the action surrounding it while allowing Margot Robbie to pop offscreen as she lets the drugs and music tell her how to move like someone coming out of their pew at church. Sidney's storyline also gets us into some of the racial tension that was present in that time and I appreciated that this was written in as a response to the reach his films were garnering instead of a contrived conflict between the characters we knew weren't racist.

My absolute favorite segment of the movie was the first "talkie" scene Nellie filmed. The amount of time and effort and personal sacrifice (blood, sweat, tears, etc.) it took to get one take back in those early days was incredible and represented here to hilarious effect.

Overall, I loved this movie. It was a little overstuffed for my taste and at its 3 hour runtime definitely could have been tightened up. But all of the actors' performances and their stories kept me engaged all the way to a magical ending that showcases everything people love about the movies.


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