Damien Chazelle seems to have a thing for dreamers, or at least those who want to be larger than life. Whether it is a drummer aspiring to reach perfection in Whiplash, or an actress wanting to be a star in La La Land, to even being the first man to walk on the moon in First Man, he’s always made these films with an enthusiasm and energy that we can’t help but want to see them succeed. In his new film Babylon, he seems to be doing something a little different and on a grander scale as he explores the early days of Hollywood as it made the transition from the silent film era to the “talkies” (basically what we’re used to seeing on the big screen today, just minus all the CGI effects). A lot of money was injected into the production of this film, and you see it in every frame of this movie that is certainly a love letter to a time when Hollywood was trying to figure things out and entertain its audiences. But what I don’t think anyone was expecting is how deep this film was willing to go into the drug abuse and the sordid debauchery that went on in these early days of cinema.
The film opens innocently enough with Manny Torres (Diego Calva) simply trying to get an elephant to a big Hollywood party. Manny is a Mexican-American who is just trying to get his foot in the door, and we get to see these early struggles pay off, but first we get to experience this party that is lavish and epic with a strong Caligula-on-cocaine vibe. It’s at the party where we meet the rest of the cast we’ll be following over the course of the film. There’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who believes she is a star who just simply hasn’t been discovered yet; there is also Sidney (Jovan Adepo), a horn player who is just trying to get by; there is Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a Hollywood gossip reporter, and then there is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the biggest silent film actor in the business. Then we get to see the moment where Manny first meets Nellie and the moment where he falls in love with her; then moments later see how Nellie is simply plucked from the crowd to become a star, This sequence is so well crafted at letting the audience experience the party while getting to know these characters and several others, all while we are subjected to various sex acts and body fluids and drugs that when it ends we can feel the hangovers that these characters are experiencing. Unfortunately for most of these characters, they are due on set in just a matter of hours.
As much as I love the opening party sequence, it is the sequence at the Kino Scope film set that for me is the film’s most ambitious and is such a fun peek behind the curtain of how films used to be made. We get to witness the chaos of creating a massive battle sequence, while just over the hill a variety of other films are being made. We get to see Nellie in her first role, Manny handling business on a film set for the first time, and Jack simply being the star that he is and never letting the chaos around him waver his cool.
It’s The Jazz Singer that film fans and historians know changed the business. And I do love that we get to be in the auditorium with Manny for that experience of an audience getting to see characters talking on screen for the first time. For casual moviegoers I don’t expect them to know this, and I feel this might be what hurt the film’s box office. Unless you know about the history, it is kind of hard to care about this transition, especially when the film doesn’t really focus any of the story on it. But what we do get is a pretty funny sequence that has Nellie performing in her first “talkie” role and just how much of a change it is from how they previously were making films.
The costumes and set design for this film are incredible. Iit really helps add to the authenticity of the film as we see different looks and styles for various classes and the transition in time periods. Then there is the music. Justin Hurwitz knocks this score out of the park. This was easily my favorite score of the year with its high energy that carries the film from start to finish.
Seeing Jack trying to come to grips with his fading star power and then Nellie just going on a downward spiral is engaging, just as it is in contrast seeing Sydney becoming a star musician and Manny rise in the ranks of the industry. All of this is so well executed; the first two hours of this film are just a master class in filmmaking. But then there is the last hour that just takes things in a direction I wish it hadn’t gone. Back in the 90s there was a film called Boogie Nights that explored the transition the porn industry had when it went from film to video. Personally that is a film in my all-time top ten films. Well, I bring it up because that is pretty much what Babylon becomes. Earlier in the film I recognized scenes where I can see Chazelle was obviously influenced by Boogie Nights, but then this last hour of Babylon just basically becomes an overt knockoff of the film. Sure, the film was already a bit of a take on Singing in the Rain, and I’m fine with that, but where he takes Manny, Jack, and Nellie in this final act I just felt he cheated these characters out of something better. Thankfully the films epilogue does pull things together, but the spell the first two hours had on me was gone.
The cinematography in this film should have gotten some awards attention, but sadly it seems the poor box office dashed any chance it may have had. Brad Pitt also deserves a lot of credit for what he does with this role, though in some ways this might be the closest to himself he’s gotten to be on screen. He’s been the heartthrob and movie star for about three decades now, and he’s seen the industry make many changes in that time and has still managed to be a star. Robbie, by the same token, has quickly risen to movie-star status but has had some flops that could threaten her star power (honestly, I think she’s doing fine and will have a hit with Barbie this summer). What I’m more curious about is to see what Damien Chazelle will do next. While I loved Whiplash and La La Land, First Man fell a bit flat for me, and now there is Babylon, a major financial flop, but a film that was so close to scratching greatness but failed. I’m rooting for Chazelle, his love for film, and his fearlessness to tell the stories he wants to tell I can admire, and I genuinely want to see what he’ll give us next.
“It’s all on you now. The future is yours.”
Babylon is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1.The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. The digital intermediate is also 4K, so you’re not getting any kind of upconvert here. It’s totally appropriate that a film about film history should be shot on film. There’s an organic nature to the presentation with just the right touch of grain. It helps to immerse us in this bygone world fully. There are wonderful textures on the period costumes that add yet another layer of authenticity here. Black levels are fairly good with enough shadow definition to keep you in the film. The opening scenes are a bit warm with tons of orange and red. Yet the HDR and Dolby Vision allow you to experience the deep rich red of Robbie’s clothes during those scenes. Everything from facial hair to tan lines are quite detailed in this film. Exteriors are a bit more vibrant, particularly the filming in the desert. The film does a pretty solid job of balancing the period colors and textures with a high degree of a reference look that it’s rather complicated while remaining so atmospheric throughout. Sometimes the detail and texture is too much. The opening elephant scene and resulting punchline are too spot-on. It’s a system show-off piece to be sure.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 7.1. The audio presentation is lively throughout. There are often so many things going on in the background, from the early party scene to the desert shoot with hundreds of extras. You get a sweet feel for it all. It’s completely natural and increases the immersive experience greatly. The trumpet pieces stand out for me. They’re brash and lively. Dialog always comes through and is quite exceptionally placed throughout. The audio presentation does a splendid job of capturing the environments in the sound. This is particularly evident when Manny is taken through underground tunnels. The bass doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the presentation. I kept expecting a little extra boost that never really came. With that said, the audio is certainly full, and there is some nice bottom. It just never really takes advantage of some prime moments. Again I’m talking about the big action scene in the desert.
The extras are found on a bonus Blu-ray disc.
A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon (30:50) This does a good job of covering several aspects of the production of the film with interviews with the cast and crew. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, but one of the more interesting parts is getting to see some rehearsal footage between Margot Robbie and Diego Calva.
The Costumes of Babylon: (2:51) An interview with the costumer discussing the difficulty of creating pieces for the massive cast of the film.
Scoring Babylon: (1:50) An interview with composer Justin Hurwitz about creating the music for the film.
Deleted/Extended Scenes: (9:15) There are six scenes altogether here, and you do have a Play All option. While there isn’t anything here that really stands out too much, I somewhat can understand why most of the scenes were cut, since they do make Nellie an even more unlikeable character.
This film is close to being great but just doesn’t quite deliver. This also doesn’t cater to the casual audience, so unless you are a big fan of film history, I don’t know how excited you may be about watching a three-hour epic about making movies in two different eras. Now, if you have a passion for film, then I’d say this film is pretty much required viewing. It’s a hodgepodge mix of Singing in the Rain meets Boogie Nights and is a lot of fun, but if you’ve seen Boogie Nights, well, you know where things are going.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani