The silent era of Hollywood has never looked more like a glorious mess than it does in Damien Chazelle’s star-studded period epic.
Damien Chazelle has been one of Hollywood’s favorite young filmmaking auteurs since winning the Best Director Oscar in 2017, and followed that up with the overlooked First Man, which received critical acclaim but failed to reach audiences or receive the same amount of accolades that La La Land was able to attain. His newest film, Babylon, on the other hand, is a unique film amongst its competition at this year’s Academy Awards, and one of the best films of the year for its dizzyingly epic approach to depicting life in Hollywood during the silent era, phenomenal performances from its ensemble cast and thoughtful ideas about the film industry then and now.
Babylon begins in 1926 on the tail end of the silent film era in Hollywood, where Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) works as a lowly assistant to producers and stars contracted to the fictional Kinoscope Studios, which houses top star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a heartthrob obsessed with partying and arrives with a different woman to every studio party, jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and well-rounded entertainer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). Meanwhile, at his first big Hollywood party, aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) arrives into his life in dramatic (and dangerous) fashion, and comes to be a constant presence and love interest in Manny’s career.
But then 1927 rolls around, and with it comes the release of the classic film The Jazz Singer, which brings about the talkies and Hollywood’s transition into using sync sound. Conrad is skeptical about the importance of audio in cinema, and its implementation brings about struggles on all levels of film production at Kinoscope which affect the film’s cast of characters in different ways, sending them down opposite paths that cross roads and loop around into glorious messes of self-destruction and the dark underbelly that exists in the City of Angels.
There’s a lot going on within Chazelle’s latest film, between outrageous partying full of drug use, reckless abandonment and even the exchange of every bodily fluid known to man, but the vulgarity here is not without purpose, as Babylon is the polar opposite of La La Land in almost every way, shape and form. While Chazelle’s Oscar-winning ode to 1950s musicals was a cheerful and happy celebration of Hollywood, Babylon smartly does the exact opposite in its portrayal of the industry by celebrating and criticizing the chaos that goes into moviemaking.
Babylon also makes it a point to suggest that the racism, sexism and disregard for everyone’s safety was ingrained in the system’s early beginnings. The mayhem of the film industry at this time period conveys itself through Nellie’s first day on a Kinoscope film set, which sees her scanning a plethora of colorful soundstages housing productions of every genre crammed right next to each other in the middle of nowhere. Upon finding her stage, Nellie faces all kinds of crazy, unrealistic and harrowing demands from everyone around her, as does Manny when he has to rent a replacement camera after the one required for Conrad’s film is destroyed.
But the celebration of the silent era comes into play when Conrad finally arrives on set after an entire day of getting drunk under his tent and watching the bedlam around him. Conrad performs for the camera like a practiced natural in a picturesque romantic scene that has all the crews around him celebrating in unison, further proposing that the end result of the product was all that mattered to this island of misfits at the end of the day, and that this was the generation of filmmakers who knew cinema’s magical power and used it with artistic integrity.
The actors also pull their weight phenomenally for the whole runtime of Babylon, with Diego Calva in particular delivering a star-making performance as fish out of water Manuel, who quietly judges the depravity he’s subjected to at an early party with visible horror in his eyes. However, the more Manuel comes out of his shell and advances his career, the more he speaks his mind, such as when he asks too much of Sidney in a horrifically awkward moment, and when he demands better from a colleague with powerful intensity. On that note, Margot Robbie conveys Nellie’s quiet humanity in intimate moments with Manuel, while also showing her inner stress and frustration when she tries over and over again to nail her take on a set with sync sound despite nerves and circumstances beyond her control.
Chazelle also visually conveys the fading celebrity of each character beautifully tis via the choice of not only shooting the rambunctious parties handheld to emphasize the panic that the depravity incites, but also to stage scenes to where characters drift in and out of focus as if their star is slowly dying as soon as it reaches the top. Meanwhile, a theater screening of LaRoy’s debut silent film should feel like an accomplishment, but stylized lighting that bathes her in red light serves as a warning to the dangers of excess and how her star image on screen and the streets of Los Angeles will come to be defined.
Some may find the anarchic visual style of Babylon off-putting, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as filmic elements that audiences may find unsavory. The film is three hours long and does a lot tonally to the point where we’re not given any time to marinate in the ensemble’s tragedy. An example comes in a powerful instance when a prominent character receives news of a horrible revelation that turns their arc toward a downward spiral, only to go from zero to 100 after a quick fade to black, robbing the scene of its emotional power. It’s also worth noting that the enormous amount of excess, extreme depravity and decadence on display in Chazelle’s latest is absurd to think about actually happening in the late 1920s, so the film does require viewers to suspend a lot of their disbelief.
But those that are able to get past the disgusting components of Babylon will be rewarded, because the film exists as both a celebration of the glorious mess that is the Hollywood machine, a condemnation of the taxing pressures it puts on the filmmakers, crew members and actors that bring movie magic to life. Another way to interpret the film is as a eulogy to the stars that time forgot, particularly after Jack Conrad realizes his legacy exists forever in the movies he made in the silent era, because the sad truth is 90% of them are lost to time. What will last, however, is Chazelle’s epic ode to the past, as Babylon is one of the year’s best films.