Damien Chazelle’s new film, Babylon, has divided critics and fans alike and it’s easy to see why.
The movie basically tells of the transition from silent movies to talkies in the mid-1920s and early 1930s and the impact on a group of people involved in the industry.
How that story is told is far from basic. It’s extravagant, showy and totally over the top featuring wild parties, violence, sex and drug use which leave little to the imagination. While some love this type of story-telling and believe it adds to the movie’s appeal, others find it confusing, too chaotic and lacking any subtlety.
The movie starts with one of its biggest, longest and most outrageous party scenes. Held in the Southern Californian home of a movie executive, it highlights all excesses possible including an elephant!
It’s here we meet the main characters of the film. Mexican American Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is employed to assist with organising the party and other odd jobs. He is desperate to work in the movies in any behind the scenes role.
Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a confident newcomer looking to break into movies whom Manny instantly falls in love with, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an established superstar of the silent era, are also guests at the party.
Babylon then follows the progress of the three leads and to a lesser extent other party attendees including Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a cabaret singer and an actress with a gift for painting silent-film title cards, and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) a black trumpeter.
Manny’s introduction to a movie set comes when he drives a very drunk Jack home. Jack decides he wants Mannie to be his full-time driver. Nellie’s break comes when an actress overdoses at the party. Nellie takes the actress’s place and instantly becomes a star thanks to her sex appeal and ability to cry on cue.
Conrad is shooting a movie on the same film lot. As sound isn’t an issue in movie making, several films can be shot at the same time in close proximity While Nellie’s movie is small scale, Conrad’s is massive involving a cast of hundreds.
Manny proves himself invaluable on the set ensuring future work with the movie studio. Nellie becomes a star despite her gambling, drug use and sex life. Jack’s career, unlike his marriages, also continues to shine.
Then the first movies featuring talking actors hit the cinemas. For different reasons neither Jack nor Nellie can make the transition with disastrous results. While Manny’s career working behind the scenes is far more successful, his love for Nellie and his subsequent attempts to help her have a devastating impact on his life.
All three leads are very believable in their roles while Adepo does an excellent job in a smallish but significant role portraying a black musician who finds talkies help his career until a racist act forces him to address his priorities. Jean Smart as the gossip columnist Elinor St. John who records the goings on of the stars and Olivia Hamilton as Ruth Adler who is Nellie’s director in both the silent and talking movies, are other standouts.
Babylon certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted prudish or anyone with a fear of snakes, wild men eating rats or excessive bodily or animal functions! It has a very different vibe to Chazelle’s last movie about Hollywood – La La Land.
While the reaction to the movie has been mixed, with a running time of over three hours there’s a good chance some part of the movie will appeal to most audiences. For me the most enjoyable component was the personal impact of talking movies on silent movie stars (the characters are composites of real actors and industry executives of the time). For my companion it was the look of the picture and the underlying humour which features in many scenes.
Babylon opens in cinemas around Australia on January 19.
*Photo credit: Scott Garfield
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