New from Peter Spedale on Be Movie See Movie: Movie Review: Babylon

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I’d like to think Babylon started with Damien Chazelle sitting in a screening of Singin’ in the Rain. And when the film ends, everyone is delighted except him. People start asking “what’s up Damien?” And he replies: “This movie’s bullsh*t…needs more f*ckin, murder, and alligators.” And that’s how we got Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a raucous indulgent take on those early Hollywood years that would completely appall Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. But not Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen…they could definitely party.

At a giant mansion Hollywood party in roughly 1926, our 3 leads collide. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the star of the moment: THE leading man for the silent film generation and one epicenter of the insane vortex. The other human tornado is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who’s convinced she will be the next big thing in Hollywood. And trying to keep the tornadoes from destroying everything in their path is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a natural hard working people pleaser just smitten with Nellie whom Jack takes a liking to. The triad take Hollywood by storm, but greater storms are coming in 1927: the talking picture forever altering all of their paths.

The better comp for Babylon is Boogie Nights, the R Rated version of Singin in the Rain. Chazelle’s opening house party is pure glorious movie mayhem. Chazelle assaults all your human senses with pure hedonistic chaos. Set to an incredible Justin Hurwitz score, Chazelle’s camera flings us around this party, where every sin is being committed somewhere in and around this giant house, with long unbroken sequences with hundreds of extras. It’s unrelenting excitement in movie form: one of the great parties committed to camera and a great table setter for the journey we’re about to take. Chazelle then gives us his Babylonian version of life on movie sets at the time, and how much of a deck of hubris cards they are built upon, equally horrifying and amusing as the talent pisses off the directors, who piss of the producers, who piss off the underpaid extras. Which then all fades away when the camera captures something special, uniting everyone in sheer joy. In a rise and fall movie, the rise should always be more fun, and Babylon is Damien Chazelle’s fun frenetic fever dream of those early Hollywood years.

But then The Jazz Singer comes out, and changes movies forever. Jack and Nellie, the dreamers and stars of the silent era, have to learn to adapt to this new medium. As expected, they struggle to do so, but Manny is more adaptable and shines with his forward thinking and eye for what can be entertaining. Chazelle disarms the audience initially, capturing how diabolical those first talking sets must have been with their rudimentary sound techniques, filled with directors screaming at key grips for sneezing or actors for missing their marks. But as the movie goes on, we see the dreams Jack, Nellie, and Manny all have slowly transform into lies they tell themselves. Parties they would have loved in their younger years now carry a desperation to keep the endorphins flowing. And as that desperation mounts, all of these people need to up the ante towards more and more dangerous situations. Chazelle’s version of the Alfred Molina Boogie Nights scene is certifiably insane and borderline satanic as we see the natural endpoints of the lives of these people if they keep going they way they are going. Chazelle himself feels like Manny as the movie nears its end, in that he senses a transition from making whatever his type of movies are, so he ends the movie on his terms. It’s as self-indulgent as Babylon could have ended: partially brilliant and partially unwatchable, but all Damien.

I guess if you wanted to have sex with Singin’ in the Rain, just watch Babylon instead. It’s 3 hours and 8 minutes of Hollywood excess celebrating and demonizing the origins of one of the great storytelling mediums. Damien Chazelle at least got a chance to tell his tale of a Hollywood life. And now, we can look forward to whatever crazy ideas he has in store for whatever Marvel movie he’s chosen to direct next.

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