Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature as a director (after Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man) will not be for everyone, and it is as well to get this out of the way early, to avoid wasting anyone’s time. At a whopping three hours and nine minutes in duration, the length of Babylon alone will alienate many. Add to this the Hard R/18 certificate nature of the film: the first scene features an elephant voiding its bowels over the camera, whilst the second scene features a golden shower performed on a morbidly obese presumably analogue for Fatty Arbuckle by an actress in the midst of overdosing on cocaine. This is taking place at a pre-filming party that is awash with sex and nudity that will endure for the first 30-35 minutes of the film.
The overdosing actress is to shoot a film for Kinescope Pictures the following day, and this party is being held at the company’s mansion and organised by Bob Levine (Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It is 1926, and we are near the end of the silent movie era, though most of the stars of the time are seemingly unaware of the seismic change coming their way. Assisting Bob at the party is Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calvo), a Mexican immigrant assistant for the studio, who is required to deal with any incidents at the party and keep the stars well supplied with drugs and alcohol. Amongst attendees to the party are Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a veteran actor and the leading star of the era, and Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), a wild, aspiring actress with no existing studio contract or invite to the party. Jack’s marriage – strongly hinted not to be his first – to a briefly appearing Olivia Wilde, is ending, and he will spend the film’s running time going through a number of relationships.
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Picked off the dancefloor by a desperate Levine, LeRoy is chosen to deputise the following day for the indisposed actress. When arriving on what appears to be multiple sets – the lack of sound considerations mean that many sets can be arranged in the same area – Nellie proves able to essay any number of emotions, to any degree of intensity, on command, demonstrating onscreen sex appeal and presence. Conrad takes a liking to Manny, which also kick-starts Manuel’s progression through the industry.
From there we see the dawn of the the ‘talkies’, as the main body of the film takes us through the rest of the 1920s, to around 1932. We see how an industry inexperienced with sound copes with the technical difficulties of coping with images and audio at the same time, and how the stars of the silent era suddenly have to develop skills not in their existing arsenal. Jack is ageing past his peak, and Nellie struggles both with learning lines, and her voice, which is seen as downmarket, lacking in class. At the same time, her wild ways are risking her career, as her drug problems worsen, and her liking for gambling spirals out of control. Poached back from MGM, Manny is tasked with rebranding her as a lady of manners, a task that leads him into proximity to some of LA’s most dangerous characters. Meanwhile, Jack is trying to fight to tide of audiences now finding his work amusing, for reasons he cannot fathom.
There are definitely some thematic similarities between Babylon and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In the latter, Leo’s Rick Dalton character is facing the end of the era of the young, lantern-jawed hero, and the birth of the ambiguous anti-hero, which he deals with in a manner similar to Clint Eastwood in real life, by heading off to do spaghetti westerns in Italy, giving birth to greater longevity and more in the way of character acting. Pitt’s Cliff Booth’s character has some ambiguity about his past, but it is brushed under the carpet, as he is useful to the industry, by keeping Rick on the straight and narrow. In Babylon, Pitt’s Conrad makes the journey from successful leading man, where his excesses are of no consequence, to sporting a failing career, which means executives no longer take his calls. Both films even feature Margot Robbie watching one of her character’s films with a paying audience.
Where this film differs is in how the theme seems to be the cost, to the characters, of this lifestyle/choice. The absolute worst thing for LeRoy was fame, as it brings with it access to money and drugs, when she was always a problem waiting to happen. Staying at the top costs Jack multiple relationships, or, at very least, stunts any development of a sense of responsibility: he remains an indulged child until his career success fades such that this is no longer an option. Manny gets the job of his dreams, but the responsibility of this gets so great as to put his life in danger. Elinor St. John (Jean Smart as an industry journalist) explains to Jack late in the running time that they are all replaceable. The industry will outlive them all, and their time at the top is fleeting, but there will be people born long after they are all gone that will see Jack’s work and feel a connection to him. They have paid a price excessive for the short lifespan of the success, but light for this form of immortality.
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This all makes Babylon sound like a tightly designed thematically rich look at the fading of the light. In truth, it is overly long, ill-disciplined, and has whole sections that feel like a selection of unconnected set-pieces. When Manny is brought into contact with the underworld, this leads to a star cameo that stops the film in its tracks, as we have this ridiculous section of them all going to some underworld party. Restructured, this film could have been a spellbinding 120-150 minutes, as it is, it is undeniably bloated.
That said, the technical work on display is exceptional, with so many steady-cam sequences worthy of a Scorsese film, and a propulsive score that gives the film an energy that drops only very rarely. Robbie and Pitt both have new entries in the debate for their best performances, and Chazelle shows that he never makes the same film twice. He is now four-for-four in what is unfolding as a remarkable career. So, Babylon is wasteful, excessive, occasionally very random, and self-indulgent… and we loved it.
Babylon is out now at cinemas.