A bold, and brazen immersion in 1920s Hollywood
There was plenty of buzz surrounding Babylon in the build up to its release. Another likely awards contender from Damien Chazelle, the man behind Whiplash, First Man, and La La Land. But it came, and went without making a big impact. Unusual given the indelible mark a viewing of the film leaves, thanks to the visceral and vibrant filmmaking that went into this tainted love letter to Hollywood.
Bablyon opens with an explosive and debauched party. A 1920s rager, celebrating the golden age of Hollywood. This classical, silent era begins its tilt into a new one, of color and sound. Among the attendees is silent film star Jack Conrad (a period perfect Brad Pitt). A man who is near the end of the road, but has secured his legacy. He sees what’s on the horizon, for himself and his industry, unlike newcomer Nellie LaRoy (a swaggering Margot Robbie) who is unaware she’s late to the party. Drawn to her is studio fixer Manny Torres (a beguiling Diego Calva). Through them, and a collection of other industry characters, Babylon plunges into the film industry. From production to politicking, from parties, to film sets, to on location shoots, and into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, as these people embrace a nightmare to realize their dream.
A sprawling affair that starting in 1926, plunges us into an era that feels akin to the fall of Rome. Hedonistic indulgence, over the top spectacle, and seedy glory, as an era comes to an end. A cycle of death and rebirth, for the industry, and for the talent within it. Paying the price for fame, or failure to reinvent themselves as times change. These themes pervade the film’s narrative, as well as its structure, as Chazelle looks to the past while weaving in the future and legacy of cinema. His reverence for the medium is clear, especially with the film’s ongoing homage to the star-studded Hollywood epic, with Babylon delivering one elaborate, overblown, debaucherous set-piece after another. Sequences that do much to convey the breathless rush of the era, as well as the process of movie making. A screwball energy propels the film, with comedy coming in sharp and caustic bursts. Justin Hurwitz’s score is one of the best of the year, adding to the chaotic, vibrant tone.
The film isn’t just about big and loud moments, it also finds potency in its quieter moments, as characters reflect on on their lives and careers. Some are admittedly superficial, which feels generally reflective of Hollywood. The arcs and emotional contributions from Jovan Adepo as breakout trumpet player Sidney Palmer, and Li Jun Li as powerhouse performer Lady Fay Zhu, are some of the more interesting parts of the film and warrant greater investment to explore the experience of minorities (specifically relating to race and sexual orientation) in this era. This somewhat encapsulates how Babylon critiques and commemorates the hubris of this era, while embracing some of its own. The film is as subtle as a brick in the face. As messy as it is mesmerizing. But in its mission to remind us of the magic of the movies, as art, as entertainment, it is a soaring success.
Babylon was one of the most lush visual experiences of 2022, and the 4K reflects that admirably. Colors are deeply rich and robust, blacks are inky, textures and detail impress (notably in showcasing production and costume design), while natural grain adds to a filmic quality. In one word, sumptuous. The release reviewed here was the steel-book version, which itself is a very handsome presentation.
- A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon: Just over 30 minutes in length, it collects interviews with cast and crew as they discuss the origins of the project, experiences during production, perceptions of Hollywood, homages to cinema in the film, and more
- The Costumes of Babylon: The film is a rich and authentic production, and part of it’s appeal is the effort that went into the period costumes. This is a (too short) look at the work on this facet of the film
- Scoring Babylon: Considering this was one of the best scores of the year, it warranted more than the 2 minute featurette included here
- Deleted & Extended Scenes: Just under 10 minutes of extended/cut scenes, presented without commentary. Manny Drives Jack — Deleted, Elinor Chats with Extra — Extended, Cutting Room — Deleted, Dressing Room Fight — Deleted, Powder Room — Extended, and Passport Search — Deleted
The Bottom Line
Babylon is an an ambitious venture. An excessive embrace of Hollywood, and all the glitz and grime it has to offer. Often messy, always magnetic, Damien Chazelle’s latest film is an experiential feast that warrants your attention.
BABYLON Arrives on 4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray March 21st
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4K Steelbook: https://amzn.to/3MleM3f
4K Standard: https://amzn.to/3MmNEkr