Babylon: Damien Chazelle’s spotlight on Hollywood’s silent shadows

Verdict: ⭐⭐⭐

Babylon has been described as a cinematic masterpiece; a cocaine-fuelled trainwreck; and one of the best films of the last year. In Chazelle’s own words, “The hope was to make something that felt like a rollercoaster, filled with vivid characters, spectacle, and excess.”

The dizzying clash of movie magic and chaos leads us to a film with two different feels in all 188 minutes. With storylines that scarcely fit together, it has multiple unsatisfying endings, and an on-the-nose message is trumpeted to us that despite its flaws Hollywood is the “most magical place in the world.”

Director Damien Chazelle spent 15 years researching the party-filled period of incredible freedom, but he wanted to highlight the scandalous early days of Hollywood with an “unvarnished, unsanitised” honesty. And unsanitised, it certainly was.

Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy sprawled across the party floor with a cigarette in her mouth.

A party as raucous and decadent as the trailer promised roars onto the screen in the opening minutes, which is said to have taken two weeks to film in real life. There is a room dedicated to drugs, a potential manslaughter that is too easily covered up, and an elephant in the room- quite literally. There we meet our main characters, whose performances lived up to the star power promised by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

Pitt became Jack Conrad, who starts off as what can only be described as the Brad Pitt of the 1920s. A perfect choice for the role, Pitt is allowed to be funny at first (with a drunken fall off a roof, and the enthusiastic, optimistic outlook on the chaotic cacophony of the film sets) and appropriately tragic to the last.

He stands out from our other leads in that we don’t see him rise to the top – he is already there, entering the party while ‘King of the Circus’ from the film’s score plays. He is the steady beat that the room revolves around, rarely without a gorgeous woman on his arm, convinced that Hollywood needs him.

Brad Pitt as Hollywood celebrity Jack Conrad (left), with Diego Calva as Manuel Torres (right).

While other characters experience a steep and slippery slope from stardom, Conrad’s road is of a slow decline that winds up in an industry that doesn’t want or need him anymore. Pitt brought depth and a welcome change of pace with the sombre tone and brought about my favourite scene of the film, between Conrad and esteemed gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). While her ideas of living forever among ghosts are delivered bluntly, in keeping with her sharp, shrewd character, I found it beautiful; it served as the poetic final snuffing of Conrad’s star that had begun to burn low.

This is in direct contrast to Nellie LaRoy, who Margot Robbie expertly constructed with equal parts allure and unruliness. We meet her as she crashes the party in a car that isn’t her own, proclaiming prophetically: “You don’t become a star, you either are one or you ain’t. I am.” She is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the bright lights of the film sets, where she quickly exceeds expectations and is catapulted to dizzying heights of fame.

While reminiscent of Robbie’s other popular roles– Tonya Harding as headstrong, Harley Quinn as a freewheeling beacon of chaos- Nellie’s character is entertaining and compelling on the surface, but has unexplored depth beneath.

Margot Robbie (left) as Nellie LaRoy with Diego Calva (right), as Manuel Torres.

Her backstory is alluded to with a brief visit to her dingy, shabby flat, and laughter surrounding her country upbringing with her father. But even more elusive is the full story of her gambling addiction. We know of it, and we hear of it- but we don’t truly see its consequences until it’s shoehorned into the final, underwhelming climax of the film.

Nellie is an eclectic and magnetic character, who drove the story forward with her struggles to adapt from silent film to talkies; from county scrapper to a lady of class and elegance. Themes of change weave throughout as characters lose themselves in Hollywood, but Nellie remains steadfastly herself to the end.

All the while, she is loved by aspiring visionary Manuel Torres, played by the relatively fresh Diego Calva. Manuel’s drive to be a part of Hollywood is introduced in the film’s first scene, where he delivers an elephant up a ridiculously steep hill to be the party’s entertainment. Later he assists a drunk and disorderly Jack Conrad to his home, panting after him as he falls off his own roof and stumbles to bed. Jack brings him to the film sets; Manuel saves the day with a race to replace the cameras broken in the chaos of filming; thus, his career is born.

Diego Calva (right) as Manuel Torres, watching musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo).

Diego undoubtedly gives us a character to root for as he rises and falls, fulfilling his dreams and having them burn around him. Manuel is one of the few who escapes Hollywood after the cracks begin to show. But unlike Nellie, his identity slips away. He favours ‘Manny’ over his birth name for the door to his studios, and he encourages musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) to cover himself in charcoal for lighting purposes, manipulatively reminding him of the casts’ families that need feeding when he’s hesitant to do so. It’s easily one of the most stomach-churning scenes in the film, and Diego evoked the perfect blend of sympathy and distaste with his entire performance. 

Sidney meanwhile is perhaps the only character with a distinctly happy ending, choosing to leave Hollywood entirely of his own accord. Yet Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) was powerful, a force to contend with as she gave a sultry serenade before saving Nellie’s life from a snake bite. The piercing dynamic between the two women was as short as it was sweet, blossoming from curiosity and giving a nod to the secret lesbian ‘Gal Pal’ relationships sparkling without a spotlight throughout Hollywood’s history. 

Li Jun Li as mysterious queer performer Lady Fay Zhu.

Criticisms of Chazelle’s historical research have been rife, but it’s fair that creative liberties are taken in a film that stretches so far from anything reasonable and climbs further toward excess. The parties are akin to those of The Great Gatsby if there were more drugs and more sex. The film itself is like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and comparisons can even be made between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Pitt’s Jack Conrad. Most similarly, the ending of the film veers disappointingly from the incredible gluttony and into a completely different narrative. In Babylon, that becomes the consequence of Nellie’s gambling addiction.

While the energy of the film sputters and peters out towards the end, I feel that this was the inevitable outcome when concentrating on the transition from the explosive silent films to the muted conventions of sound.

Chazelle was all too successful in conveying the wild whirlwind energy of the silents. The movie magic so reverently spoken of is most stunning on the open fields of outer Los Angeles, where multiple sets of mass-producing films jockey for prominence alongside each other. It’s where Manuel rushes to prove himself, and where Nellie dances to fame. It’s where Jack is the brightest star among them all, gilded by sunset and passion and tenderness, complete with a butterfly on his shoulder.

Babylon is at once a dazzling display of ecstasy and cinema and a fumbling criticism of its corruption. It shows the rise and fall of the stars, certainly, but the overarching idea is less that there is an end and more that the industry is always growing, always sparking new fires and new stars. Like the world Manuel so desperately wants to be a part of, the industry is bigger than us. It’s as multifaceted as Babylon’s portrayal. Our job as the audience is to sit back and enjoy the world of cinema, watching as it transforms again and again and again.

The scene in the first film sets in outer Los Angeles, gilded by sunset and smoke.

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