Sight and Sound: ‘Babylon’

Studio Executive: This studio will never make a film with an animal defecating followed by a scantily clad woman giving a naked fat prone man a golden shower.

Damian Chazelle: Hold my beer.

Chazelle ignites “Babylon” at 100 m.p.h. before accelerating into filmmaking overdrive. The setting is the end of the silent era of cinema. Beginning in 1926 when Bel Air had one mansion per hill and proceeding over the next several years we observe the introduction of sound to movies.

There are some that would consider film as a medium for art had already reached its bronze age by 1914 with the growth of full length features. The golden age was pre-1900 cinema followed by a silver age lasting a little over a decade of one and two-reelers.

Writer Chazelle has written an episodic journey through a decadent wonderland and director Chazelle has the right stuff to make the story dazzle.

“Babylon” uses a combination of actual events mixed with happenings that are more legend than real. A cornucopia of characters with the emphasis on composites of late-1920s Hollywood players propel the plot.

There are one or two historical figures like Max Minghella as Irving Thalberg while regarding the composites Brad Pitt’s John Conrad is most closely based on John Gilbert.

Margot Robbie headlines as Nellie LaRoy, an overnight success on the silver screen known as The Wild Child. Co-stars include Eric Roberts as LaRoy’s father; Olivia Hamilton, also married to Chazelle, as a femme director modeled after Dorothy Arzner; Jovan Adepo as black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer; Diego Calva, in what should be considered as the male lead, as Manny Torres who goes from gofer to producer; Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu who oozes charm as a Sapphic seductress who doubles writing intertitles; and Jean Smart as a sage Hollywood gossip columnist 

Special mention to a constantly evolving music theme (composer Justino Hurwitz has collaborated with Chazelle on all his films) that’s heard in a variety of 1920s styles throughout “Babylon.”

Individual scenes become gigantic set pieces including an orgiastic party that plays on for 30-minutes. It’s only then we see the “Babylon” title credit.

That’s followed by another lengthy sequence that depicts several movies being lensed on a huge Southern California backlot. The pace of these two scenes race with so much momentum that after an hour you feel like practically no time has passed. We still have uptight society gatherings, garish premieres, and seedy parties to attend.

Chazelle recreates the “Singin’ In the Rain” scene from the film “Hollywood Revue of 1929.” Even more interesting is Chazelle’s use of the song “Aba Daba Honeymoon” that some might recall from a Debbie Reynold’s musical (“Two Weeks With Love, 1950) and which was actually first recorded in 1914. It’s a cute song.

When Chazelle has the song performed by freaks at what could best be described as a rave from hell in a sewer the melody becomes horrific.

It’s easy see “Babylon” once and note structural comparisons of the script to “Boogie Nights” or to reimagine the beginning orgy as the closing orgy from “Eyes Wide Shut.”

A repeat viewing reveals a layered tapestry with fine character arcs that potently bloom in appeal while the story fits in perfectly with the whole ‘print the legend’ custom. Despite a trailer that ruthlessly blares Bowie’s “Fame” there are no modern songs spinning.

“Babylon” is currently in theaters.

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