Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a behemoth about Hollywood excess in the silent era, a feisty female ingenue’s rise and its biggest male star’s fall, and the arrival of the talkies and how that changed everything.
It packs a lot in and moves at pace but whoah is it long. At three hours and a handful of minutes it covers more or less the same ground that Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist did with 90 minutes to spare. Chutzpah on Chazelle’s part, you could say, or a lack of discipline, maybe. It’s big and baggy and overegged yet undeniably glorious. The first two hours are brilliant and the last hour-and-a-bit brilliant too. But as a whole three-hour-plus chunk it is a lot of tinsel to digest in one sitting.
There are two and three-quarter stories. Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt get one apiece. She’s the sparky new kid on the block, an instant star who is lifted straight into the firmament the instant she’s managed to hustle her way onto a film set. He’s Hollywood’s biggest lead hitting the career buffers when sound is introduced. Diego Calva gets half a story as the Mexican grafter who does with hard work what Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) does with wattage. And Jovan Adepo half as much again as the talented jazz trumpeter finding a place in “race films”, where the problem isn’t that his skin is dark but that it’s not dark enough.
As in the similarly Hollywood-homaging La La Land, Chazelle kicks off with a big number, except this one is truly gargantuan, a wild bacchanal of music, dance, nudity and drugs on the maddest of scales, the inspiration in look and complexity and vibe coming from the brilliant 1920s-set first season of the German TV show Babylon Berlin.
From here, introductions to the main players all having been made, Nellie LaRoy, Jack Conrad (Pitt), Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) and Sidney Palmer (Adepo) weave an A Star Is Born tale with diversionary dog legs, while side characters such as Jean Smart’s gossip columnist and Li Jun Li’s exotic oriental star, plus various wives, fiancées and studio executives, fill in the gaps.
Fans of the films of the era will be able to put a real name to the fictionalised characters on the screen. Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy is probably Clara Bow, first of the Hollywood “It” Girls, while Pitt is playing a version of John Gilbert, Hollywood’s highest paid star, who, thanks to a studio contract, continued being Hollywood’s highest paid star even after talkies effectively ended his career. Jean Smart’s Elinor St John is based on either Louella Parsons or Hedda Hopper, the grandes dames of Hollywood’s unofficial build-em-up-knock-em-down publicity machine, while Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu stands in for Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong.
The collaborative energy and exhilaration of making and being in a movie is what Chazelle wants to put front and centre but he also takes time out to show that it’s hard work too – an extended sequence about the problems raised by the introduction of sound could almost function as a potted film-studies lecture – but there’s also a sideshow concern with authenticity. Sidney’s blackness (or lack of it), Manuel’s Mexican roots (he prefers to go by Manny, and at one point pretends he’s Spanish), Nellie’s attempts to de-New Jersey herself, while Jack hits his crisis when sound reveals that though he’s a film star, perhaps he isn’t film-starry enough.
It’s a stand-back-and-marvel production not unlike a Baz Luhrmann movie, with big set pieces and big performances. They’re a good cast and it’s full of blur-ons (Olivia Wilde, Lukas Haas, a particularly memorable Tobey Maguire), insider references and little movie in-jokes but it’s Robbie who brings the wow factor, especially in early scenes where Nellie first sets foot on a film set and proceeds to knock em all dead.
Ars long vita brevis, the brief nature of fame, the mistake of linking self-worth to star status, all get a trot around the block, but depth isn’t really what this film is about. In a fabulous late arrival, Chazelle delivers a barrage of movie moments in a farewell-to-cinema montage including moments from films by Buñuel, Kubrick, Spielberg, the Wachowskis and Carl Theodor Dreyer. And inserts himself right alongside, false modesty be damned. Quite the claim. But then isn’t that what Hollywood’s been about all along?
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© Steve Morrissey 2023