December 23, 2022 / Paramount Pictures Canada
Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire
From Damien Chazelle, BABYLON is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Written By Darren
Rating 5 out of 5
Babylon is a cinematic experience like no other as Damien Chazelle crafts a magnificent epic depicting the turbulent Golden Age of Hollywood with a sensational musical score from Justin Hurtwitz that is one of the best films of the year!
Ever since Chazelle broke out onto the scene back in 2014 with Whiplash, he has consistently been one of the most exciting filmmakers currently working, and he proves exactly that with his latest film. Babylon is Chazelle's biggest and most daring project to date, an epic love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood with an enormous scale and true passion for the art of filmmaking, that can only be described as the booze and drug addicted cousin of Singin’ in the Rain. It’s easy to see why it is one of the most divisive films of the year, but I was left speechless by it and would have easily remained seated for another three hours if the projectionist had started up the film again.
The film follows a group of new talents and a seasoned Hollywood actor as the film industry transitions from the silent era into the talkies, capturing the exuberance and depravity of the time present in Hollywood. Thematically driven from start to finish, the film explores the changing landscape of Hollywood, the toll the business takes on its brightest and most promising talents, and the changing political and social landscape in America as it transitioned into the 1930s.
Starting off in the roaring 20s, we see the shift to conservatism in the 30s and the effect it has on the film industry, which was once dominated by outlandish, sensational and truly depraved parties, pulling the rug out from under the stars who helped put the industry on the map. This theme is matched by Chazelle’s tone of the film, with the incredibly indulgent parties during the 20s, that make Gatsby’s parties look tame, as you see our talented and creative characters forced to change who they are in the 30s to conform to new societal standards. It’s all told through the changing landscape of Hollywood and movie making, as technology and filming techniques change and cause a burden on the studios with a new appetite for talking films by audiences. With both of these themes, Chazelle’s passion for the art of film-making rings loud and clear, at the same time as he builds a personal story about the characters and what they experienced during this time period. We experience the characters’ excitement of being on set, reactions from audiences at premieres, and the public perception of the stars they worship as Chazelle captures the spectacle of movie making throughout the story.
Though, Chazelle’s love of cinema is at its most prominent during the incredibly beautiful final scene of the film, which is a true artistic expression of everything the audience has experienced for three hours of this film and over the course of movie history that only he could dream up. It’s not only cathartic for the character featured in the final scene, but for those watching it who have a deep love of film, that definitely brought some tears to my eyes. And when I compare this film to Singin’ in the Rain, it’s more than just the themes as Chazelle’s screenplay purposely pays homage to iconic scenes from that film, as well as including music from it. As someone who loves Singin’ in the Rain, this brought a massive smile to my face while watching the film.
The biggest complaint from audiences is bound to be the three hour and eight minute run time, but there is no scene that could be cut as each scene plays an important part in the story and character development. Sure, some scenes could have been trimmed down in length, but it is such an engaging experience that Chazelle has crafted that I never for a second felt the run time.
As he has done with his previous films, Chazelle has crafted one stunning film to watch. The cinematography is marvelous, capturing the grand scale of the vision of the film with every frame. The colour grading matches the themes and narrative of the film, with the first half of the film being full of brighter colours and warm cinematography, while the colour grading turns darker and bleaker in the second half of the film as the film’s characters begin to experience hardship with the changing social and political conditions in America in the 1930s. Being a period piece, the costumes and production design are exquisite, recreating the glamorous Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s with some of the best costumes of the year and larger than life sets. The result is a visual experience that you cannot help but get lost in.
But while the film is visually incredible, it has no match to the exceptional sound design of the film. Having created two music centric films with Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle knows how to create an audio experience like no other, which is exactly what he has done again. The sound mixing and editing is great, but it is all championed by a truly marvelous score from Justin Hurwitz. Hurwitz is Chazelle’s go to composer, having composed all of Chazelle’s films to date, and his score is without a question one of the best of the year! He captures the grand 1920s big band style with a palpable energy that propels the entire film, while playing with different styles of orchestrations for his main themes throughout the film to keep each instance it plays unique and fresh. It’s one that will quickly get stuck in your head, causing an energy to race through your body like a drug that helps create a truly unique experience within the film. And as a fun easter egg for cinephiles, Hurwitz incorporates motifs and melodic progressions of his musical score from La La Land in the “”Gold Coast Rhythm” theme, with each variation for the different characters of the film featuring an element of a different song from La La Land. It is a wonderful nod to La La Land, as well as an ode to the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood that Hurwtiz and Chazelle love deeply. At the same time, Hurwitz has covers of iconic music from famous films and classical compositions throughout the film, helping capture Chazelle’s grand vision while staying authentic to music that would be utilized in films in the time era of the story or music audiences associate with this time era.
Though, audiences will be coming to see this film for the cast led by Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, and what an excellent ensemble Chazelle has assembled. As per usual, Robbie is spectacular, lighting up the screen with her dazzling personality every second she is in the film as Nellie LaRoy, the young new actress breaking out in Hollywood. Nellie is a spitfire, and Robbie brings an uncontrollable energy to her that instantly makes you fall in love with this young and rambunctious woman, while also possessing the darkness within Nellie that works against her successful career. It’s a truly phenomenal performance from Robbie, one that could easily see her land nominations this awards season in the Best Actress category.
Brad Pitt stars as Hollywood actor Jack Conrad, and Pitt brings his signature charm and humour to the role. Casting Pitt as one of the biggest actors in Hollywood is no big stretch, as that is him in real life, but he gives one of his best performances to date. Not only does he capture the fun that helped him win an Oscar for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, Pitt also captures the downward spiral of Conrad as the business that he knew and ruled is pulled out from under his feet. It’s an emotional performance at times that Pitt captures with the slightest facial expressions and mannerisms that bear his character’s soul for the audience to see at all times. At the same time, Pitt has outstanding chemistry with all of his castmates, most notably Robbie who he makes an excellent screen pairing with.
Then there is Diego Calva as Manny, the film’s other lead character, and this is a true breakout performance. Not only does Calva hold his ground opposite the likes of Robbie and Pitt in every moment of the film, but he brings a joyful personality to the depravity run world of Hollywood we experience in the film. As the film progresses, you can see the effects of the industry rubbing off on Manny, while Calva maintains the character’s pure heart and intentions which is the guiding light of the film’s story.
Without a doubt, my favourite performance of the film was from Jean Smart as reporter Elinor St. John. While for the majority of the film she is used for comedic relief to great effect, her big scene with Brad Pitt in the last hour of the film is absolutely brilliant. Smart delivers an excellent monologue about stardom and fame that is absolutely captivating as it perfectly captures the themes of the film in one powerful scene. While her role is smaller throughout the rest of the film, this one scene from Smart is so stellar that she could slip into the Best Supporting Actress race this year as it is easily one of the most memorable moments of the entire film. The supporting cast is full of big stars, including Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, and Katherine Waterston, each with their standout moment, ensuring that there is no shortage of talent or star power at any time during the film.
It is easy to see how the three hour run time and booze and drug fueled chaos of Babylon is leaving critics with a sour taste in their mouth, but I was absolutely enthralled by the experience that Chazelle has crafted in his latest film. It truly is a magnificent achievement in directing, crafting a film that is visually stunning and fascinating as it shines a light on the Golden Age of Hollywood, while also paying tribute to this time era’s effect on the course of cinematic history. Brilliantly directed by Damien Chazelle who energized the entire film that makes three hours fly by with fantastic performances from the entire cast, most notably Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, and another masterclass musical score from Justin Hurwitz that is unlike any musical score you’ve heard before, Babylon is one of those once in a lifetime films that will deeply move film lovers and is easily one of the best films of the year and decade so far!