When I was in my undergrad, one of my professors constantly drilled this one saying into our brains over the few classes he taught. Though I studied music business, the same logic applies to the film industry as it applies to any competitive industry and its nature. The saying goes – “Luck gets you there, but talent keeps you there.” Both the music and film industries have built their foundations on this saying – networking, the right experience, education and talent will only get you so far when breaking into either industry. If you’re not lucky when the opportunity strikes, a career can be finished before it even starts.
Babylon, the newest “epic” film from writer director Damien Chazelle harnesses the power of perseverance. Practice and sacrifice makes perfect. Or, at least the constant practice with swearing will eventually get the job done. The same theory applies to the directors previous films. One showcases a drummer set out to be the best, practicing day and night until his fingertips bleed and his drum kit either breaks or was broken in frustration to match a tempo. The next, two people follow their dreams and hearts through the magic of Hollywood. The next, one man’s journey to outer space, where no one before has boldly gone, where one miscalculation can mean life or death, is met with triumph. Chazelle’s latest follows this trend in a pivotal time in Hollywood and film history.
“You’re either born a star or you’re not one. No one just becomes a star.”
For everyone stuck in mediocrity, according to Chazelle, there is no way to break out and be a star. According to my professor, all you need is a little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Consistant talent will take care of the rest.
That one line goes on to define Babylon, in more ways than one. Opening in 1926, the silent film era is on its last few breaths and thanks to technology, the transition to “talkies” is beginning to carve out its own piece of the pie. Inevitable as it is, Hollywood and how movies are made will change, just like everything else, adapt or die – survival of the fittest. And for those who built up their star power and clout in the silent era like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), exciting as the change is for movies, not everyone has the ability to thrive with the change.
For the character who spoke that line about being born a star, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), all she needed was a bit of luck and by fate’s hand, she is plucked from obscurity at a drug and alcoholic fueled party that moonlights as a sex induced debauched orgy and thrust into the spotlight at the request of a Kinoscope executive. At said party, Nellie meets Manny Torres (Diego Garcia), one of the hired workers looking to make something of himself in the land of opportunity, who before meeting Nellie is tasked with transporting an elephant to this exclusive party for the attendees.
A party with the same energy as Jordan Belfort’s weekly romps in The Wolf of Wall Street. Same uninhibited mayhem, different era.
A basic interpretation to the premise is this – Babylon follows Hollywood in its transitional period from silent films to films with synchronized sound and voice, the first major one being The Jazz Singer in 1927. How those adapt and cope with the change is what Chazelle uses as inspiration for his bombastic narrative. Everything else is utter madness and anarchy with lines of cocaine, liquor, a snake fight, disturbing depictions of bodily fluids and sex stirring the vat of distraction.
Babylon is not for the prude, squeamish or faint hearted.
In the midst of all this hysteria and uncontrollable nonsense playing out, Chazelle’s film loses its grip on reality. Each sequence of events that overstays its welcome, takes place over the course of a few years, becomes an attack on the senses. For 3 hours Chazelle puts us in the mud and dirt and grime of the industries underbelly inflicting repetitive scenes of uninhibited mania by individuals forced to come to terms with their own legacy. For the industry as we know it, it has progressed, and those executives and heads of studios steer the ship in the right direction.
Where Babylon shines the most is in the depictions of how the Hollywood machine made films in the silent era to how they adapted in the beginning of the talkie era. One large set consisted of many different films being shot consecutively next to one another. It’s chaotic but it’s magical, you can feel the energy and passion for filmmaking in every frame. Manny and Nellie dream of being on a movie set. It’s the greatest place on earth anyone can be.
While Nellie showcases her talent in a bar scene where she can cry on command in more than 1 way, Manny is on set of a war epic that stars Jack, frantically racing against the sunset to find a camera to use after all 12 have been destroyed during production. It’s during the frenzy of shooting that Chazelle juxtaposes the chaos of the previous night’s party to the intensity of making a film. There’s no controlled environment, the director who barely speaks English has no respect, films were shot in open fields of the studios backlot with a full orchestra and real violence compounded with little or no supervision. Hollywood in this era was the wild west.
Comparatively, when shooting on a sound stage in the early years of talkies, Chazelle cranks up the tension and uncomfortable environment films were shot in. Drenched in sweat because the AC creates too much sound for the meticulously placed microphones, something as missing a mark on the floor or speaking too softly can tighten the grip Chazelle places on the environment. It’s here that the supporting cast shine in their comedic timing amidst being overworked and probably underpaid (the characters). It’s here the repetition is strengthened by the organic humor of the moment. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren places the camera in the right spots and stays there accentuating the looks of frustration and panic for getting one good usable take.
Coming in with a runtime of exactly 189 minutes, just 3 minutes shorter than The Way of Water and 13 minutes longer than The Batman, Babylon feels like an eternity compared to the former films. Going into the final hour, the film hits a wall, whatever narrative Chazelle envisions unravels into uncharted territory. Outside of Manny who is given the emotional reigns, Chazelle gives zero complexity to his main characters. Finding a connective thread of relatability is asking too much from this film. Characters like Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) are gone as soon as they’re introduced. Smart and Li make the most of their limited time hitting their marks, carrying the heavy emotional burden of the film with the underlined fragility of legacy and fame touched upon.
I’m torn with Babylon, on one hand, Chazelle creates a technical marvel from the production design to the costume and an unforgettable score from Justin Hurwitz. On the other hand, Babylon feels like a collection of scenes stitched together with no real purpose. To say Babylon is ambitious is an understatement, ambition is Babylon’s Achilles heel. When it’s not focusing on the disturbing and grotesque, the message fails to come across in a meaningful way. There is no denying Chazelle’s talent as a writer or director, Babylon misses the mark with its abrasiveness and nihilistic tone.
Screenplay By: Damien Chazelle
Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Music By: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Running Time: 3 Hours 9 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%