Damien Chazelle directs Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and Brad Pitt in this epic ensemble dark comedy drama about the death of the silent movie business in Hollywood and the fallout among the decadent has-beens and wannabes.
Close-up on a gargantuan anus. It sprays shit all over us. And if you aren’t on board and cackling aloud with that first scene, sorry folks, it is uphill all the way. Overweight bellies are pissed on. A pantry with every possible narcotic is opened. Someone crashes through a window and nobody misses a beat. Excess, orgy, relentless. That is 32 minutes before the title card appears. BABYLON.
Chazelle understands pace, his education in music gifts him this over nearly any other director (Carpenter?). He is probably the finest director to have arrived in the 21st century. Whiplash, La La Land and now this are the incontrovertible evidence. He moves breakneck here, tearing up whatever rule book may exist for accessible, pleasant storytelling. Multiple characters screech and swerve around a chaotic party. The first hellish celebration of many. Babylon has party scenes like Jaws has sea bound sequences. Fuck Gatsby get-togethers. This is Anger and Arbuckle raves. Hollywood Babylon and Singin’ In The Rain are the key sources. Kenneth Anger’s unbelievable gossip book lingers about, engorged and leering back at us, in all the background details. When the USC football team turn up half naked, you wonder have they all fucked the starlet yet… as essayed in Anger’s chapter on Clara Bow… and if so, which one of the wooden nude lunks is supposed to be a young John Wayne? You need to move quick if you wanna pack it all in. Catch the rattlesnake. Let us experience the heady rush without questioning the depravity or morals or marbles or truth of the endeavour. Chazelle knows when to give pause, knows when to leap a year. The screen fills with writhing devil may care oblivion, then lingers on an exhausted face. Or a crying one. Realising there’s no way this will all ever last.
He has assembled a crack team of creatives. Some are his house band. His wife plays the small but pivotal role of established silent director Ruth Adler and she more than any cast member really understands the rhythm he is going for. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren matches Gordon Willis’s love of darkness in the night time bacchanals yet lenses the widescreen carnage of an early Hollywood shoot with an arid expanse closer to crisp Conrad Hall. Justin Hurwitz’ score is another persuasive ear worm, even if it playfully calls back to a stanza in La La Land occasionally (welcome), in the main it is its own dirty raggy, jazzy stomp that cuckolds the movie stars and possesses them.
Of the new faces to Chazelle; Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li all make their mark. You possibly want a little more of all of them out of three hours plus but they aren’t the leads and they more than serve their purpose. Adepo gets a particularly brutal moment of self realisation and spiritual compromise when he is forced to darken his skin. There are gorier, more transgressive moments but this is the one calmer scene that truly wounds. Tobey Maguire has a fantastic extended cameo as a creepy merchant of evil. His third act horror set piece shows where all this corruption goes once LA starts becoming formalised and sanitised. Underground. Yet it is Robbie who deserves highest praise… she takes that grating, sexy, unpredictable Harley Quinn / Tonya Harding energy and amps herself all the way up to blitzkrieg level. FOR. ALMOST. 180. BREATHLESS. MINUTES. Have a word with yourself Academy voters. Shame on you.
In box office and, to a lesser extent, critical acclaim Babylon has not exactly set the world alight. It is a $80 million production that reminds me in many, many ways of the self destructive hubris that ended New Hollywood. The big communal celebration scenes of Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate instantly spring to mind. The bitter, half fat musical synergy of New York, New York and One From The Heart is definitely there. The budget churning, audience disregarding cynicism of all these productions. Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon achieved on the scale of Apocalypse Now. Mature, ambitious, career wrecking big swings that general audiences rarely embrace on opening weekend (see also BladeRunner, Fight Club). Potential Career Enders. I see very little wrong in Chazelle’s massive vision: a blood stained love letter to every major schism in American movie making. Some quieter scenes gasp and squeak a little under the constant pressure of their neighbours and it often is branded in gross-out bad taste. I laughed my arse off. I cared when I wasn’t laughing. And when I was doing both I was utterly terrified. This is cinema! Catch it on the biggest screen, as you’ll regret listening to the naysayers and eventually streaming this at some expired date instead… kicking yourself afterwards that you missed out on the big one.
Perfect Double Bill: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)
My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/