By Evie Knight
Elephant excrement, rattlesnake bites, a man eating live rats … welcome to Hollywood!
Known best for his direction of La La Land, a fantastical film that explores the beauty of the film industry, Damien Chazelle’s newest film takes on a rather different tone. In fact, Babylon feels more like a three hour-long panic attack than a hopeful homage to cinema.
Where La La Land felt like a dream, Babylon feels more like a nightmare. It is as if we are never allowed to settle, rest, or even breathe. Constantly, the audience is pulled into scenes of on-set deaths, hellish underground parties, and coke-induced orgies. Despite all this, it is impossible to not be intoxicated by the familiar rhythm of Chazelle’s ode to cinema.
Babylon explores the shift from silent cinema to the talkies, where stars are pushed into the shadows by The Jazz Singer and the Hays Code. In a sensory overload, Hollywood is depicted as an institution of madness, drugs, carelessness for human life, and constant partying. Characters do little but suffer at the hands of cinema. It is as if Chazelle is simultaneously exposing the corruption of the industry, meanwhile celebrating its insanity.
Ignoring the opening scene, consumed with elephant shit, and a larger man giggling as a woman urinates upon his belly, the first party is undoubtably the best scene of the film. The craziness, nakedness and freedom of the roaring twenties provides the film with an energetic, exciting tone. Chazelle allows us to dance through the crowds in a tightly choreographed scene. He makes us feel as though, we too, are dancing.
Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is introduced as a character who is rather like the party, hedonistic and energetic (but not entirely different from how we have seen Margot Robbie before, in The Wolf of Wall Street and as Harley Quinn). Her confidence, coolness, and frantic dancing steals the show. She creates a frenzy of euphoria that becomes so addictive. I’m not sure if it’s the choreography, the jazz, the animated characters, or Margot Robbie herself, but everything about this scene just works. However, Chazelle seems to lose this thrill and boldness as the film goes on.
Nellie and Manny’s love story will be undoubtably familiar to fans of La La Land. Their first conversation mirrors that of Mia and Seb’s, where Manny asks Nellie who she works for, what films she has been in; all the while she persists that she is a star. Even the music that plays in their scenes holds a similar tune to Mia and Sebastian’s Theme. Like Mia and Seb, Nellie and Manny are both dreamers. They want to be in the movie business and will do anything they can to get there. This symmetry between Chazelle’s characters makes it feels as though the couple are doomed from the start, where the movies will bring them together, but are destined to be torn apart.
Manny eventually climbs up the ladder to meet Nellie in her stardom, only to remake her into a ‘lady’ for the changing social climate. Chazelle does something very interesting with this. His constant references to Singin’ in the Rain becomes potent and tangible through Nellie. She becomes the fictional character, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who fails to shift into the talkies because of her accent and attitude. There is a direct reference to this, where Nelly is practicing her pronunciations on set, dressed in the same costume once worn by Lina.
Chazelle uses Singin’ in the Rain to expose the harshness of Hollywood, where the audiences of Singin’ in the Rain mock Lina and the film becomes a comedy at her expense, Babylon displays this struggle as a tragedy for Nellie. Manny’s love for Nellie is eventually destroyed by drugs, hopelessness, and Hollywood, itself. Instead of escaping to Mexico, she walks off into the night, humming a familiar tune.
Chazelle seems to imply, through Nellie and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), that silent cinema was a lower form of art, where the extras create their own battlefield, sets are rackety wooden structures plopped in a desert, and drunkenness is to be expected. In contrast, The Jazz Singer leaves audiences screaming as ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’ plays on the silver screen. The difficulties of the shift from silent to sound is mocked with on-set disputes, sweaty tantrums, and even a heart-attack. Chazelle’s satirical film forgets the beauty and complexity of silent cinema, especially with the work of Murnau and Lang being from the same period that Babylon is set.
Where La La Land failed in its white washing of jazz and pretentious misogyny, Chazelle attempts to re-write these faults in Babylon. He provides marginalised voices with somewhat of a storyline. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a talented black trumpet player begins the film as a source of entertainment, but soon stars in his own film. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a queer-Asian star, who announces her entrance by singing ‘My Girl’s Pussy’. These characters stories were the most interesting and distinctive, and yet were slighted by the stories we have all heard before.
Sidney gets more fame and money, but at what cost? He is forced to paint his face with what appears to be coal. Perhaps the most unsettling and unforgettable scene in the entirety of Babylon’s marathon of madness is the desperate eyes of a man, who realises his fame stems from racism, as he plays the most hauntingly sinister jazz song you will ever hear. Lady Fay Zhu is fired due to her outward display of sexuality and her work no longer being necessary in the age of sound cinema.
These characters are slighted, their storylines are never properly explored. Whilst paying homage to Hollywood, Chazelle becomes Hollywood. He fails to properly explore the stories of those who Hollywood failed, and continues to fail.
Hollywood’s ridiculousness and absurdity, its lack of consideration for human life, and the constant need for hedonism, spirals the film into disaster. Babylon is breathless insanity. However, all this craziness stops the moment the word “ACTION” is shouted. Even when Jack Conrad is so drunk he can hardly walk, when that single word is spoken, the most beautiful scene is captured with him kissing a woman on top of a hill at sunset, with a battle raging below him. It is as if implying that behind the scenes, Hollywood is chaos and hopeless, but the result is something magical.
Babylon understands that to the audience, what happens in the making of the film is not important, but the film itself is everything. Cinema, after all is so much “bigger than us”.
Babylon is available in cinemas now.
Powered By Spotlight Studios
0161 275 2930 University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PR