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Babylon is Damien Chazelle's love letter to cinema and hate letter to Hollywood

Evelyn Heis reviews Damien Chazelle's newest raunchy and boisterous whirlwind film Babylon, highlighting the crazy lives of the rich and famous in the 1920s in this three-hour cinematic experience.

By Evelyn Heis, Film & TV Editor

Ladies and gentlemen, he’s back. After nearly five years since we last saw his work on the big screen, Damien Chazelle has made a grand return, showcasing what I believe to be one of his most innovative works yet. As an avid La La Land (2016) and Whiplash (2014) lover– although Damien Chazelle could release a 12h long silent film, and I would still be there, eagerly waiting to watch it– I have to say that nothing could have prepared me for what Babylon (2022) had in store.

Interweaving multiple narratives, Babylon follows a crowd of Hollywood actors, singers, writers, and directors looking to find their big break in the industry and, most importantly, remain relevant. Conscious of the futility of their careers, everyone involved is looking to amount to something bigger: to contribute to cinema and have a lasting impact as they move from silent, black and white films to the roaring twenties and its technological advancements.

Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures on IMDB

In other words, Hollywood is one big, boisterous party, and everyone is dying for an invite. The star-studded Babylon crowd trails the life of Manny (Diego Calva), an aspiring actor and first-generation Mexican immigrant who longs to work on a film set and consequently falls for the up-and-coming ‘it’ girl Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the overnight acting sensation whose hidden talents are her rock-hard (and definitely not iced) nipples, as well as crying on cue.

Her emergence into society as ‘new money’, with a crude sense of humour, a voracious sexual appetite, and numerous cocaine-frenzied outbursts (at one point, she wants to fight a snake), leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth and a fizzle in her short-lived career, something which Manny is desperate to help her resolve. Simultaneously working for Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s most famous- and borderline alcoholic- and highest-paid actor, Manny finds himself swept into the lavish lives of the industry’s ‘it’ stars overnight.

Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad and Diego Calva as Manny Torres // Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures on IMDB

But it doesn’t end there. The film revolves around their fleeting encounters with Elinor St John (Jean Smart), Hollywood’s cut-throat and renowned journalist, who takes the role of Conrad's mentor; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a queer actress, performer and singer who is bound to seduce every woman in the audience with her brilliant solo ‘My Girl’s P*ssy’ and her cloud of smoke. And Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), whose memorable trumpet-playing and jazz career happens to be one of the most poignant: faced with the blatant racism in the industry as a Black man, Sidney is torn between wanting to play for a wider audience or back at home, for himself.

These larger-than-life characters are all interconnected, even if not blatantly or directly, at first, as they all inevitably cross paths with one another, whether it be in these lavish drug-filled, sex-crazed parties or in sweltering film sets.

Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu // Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures on IMDB

It was extremely entertaining to watch these encounters unfold throughout the course of the three-hour film– yes, that’s right, three hours– and without giving too much away, an honourable mention has to go to Toby Maguire for his performance as James Mackay, a callous mob leader whose grin alone is bound to give you nightmares.

The scene in which they develop the first 'talkie' (sound) film and need absolute silence for it to work was one of the funniest moments in the whole film. In contrast to the stifling and blistering film set where everyone had to be quiet, the whole cinema was continuously breaking out into laughter with every interruption.

Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer // Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures on IMDB

The best way for me to describe the immeasurable cinematic experience that watching Babylon is like is The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) meets The Great Gatsby (2013), Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) and Boogie Nights (1997), while still retaining glimpses of Chazelle’s earlier musically-driven works, like La La Land (2016).

It was dizzying, and innovative, and exhausting, seamlessly capturing the whirlwind of the industry, the rise and fall of their careers: the decadence and the depravity of the era.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres // Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Babylon’s cinematography was mesmerising, with every scene having been perfectly captured and full of colour, life, and emotion. It was visually hypnotising, and only further enhanced by Justin Herwitz’s dazzling musical score. From tranquil jazz notes in the film’s rare slow moments to the exuberant and eccentric brassy trumpet rhythm that was ever present at every party, there was no better soundtrack to have accompanied this work of art. I still can’t get the jazz theme out of my head.

The acting, the cinematography, the music, and the storyline hit 10s all across the board.

That being said, I don’t think this is a film that will be appreciated by everyone due to those exact reasons. But, at the risk of sounding like a ‘Film Bro’, I believe that it’s not meant to be appreciated nor understood by all. Its message is clear: we will all die, but what we create and our impact will remain long after we are gone.

And perhaps this is Chazelle’s way of critiquing the industry today, for the incessant production of Netflix films and low-quality ‘bingeable’ shows mean people have lost touch with the craft. Films and cinema are no longer what they used to be, and that is something that should be mourned; for Babylon, though hidden under the drama, glamour and excess of these Hollywood rising stars, tells a story about the love and passion these individuals have for cinema.

Courtesy of Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures on IMDB

Babylon showcases different genres, experiences, and innovative ways of filmmaking that only exemplify how much he has pushed himself to reach a new level. But, what I loved the most was seeing glimpses of characteristics that are evident in his other films, showing that, perhaps, Babylon is not so different after all, evoking his evident love for filmmaking and cinema, bringing these projects to life.

Though often graphic, excessive, and bizarre, as well as brilliant, raw, and magnetising, this was certainly an experience I urge everyone to try.

With all of its glitz, glam, and grotesqueness (I believe every bodily fluid made an appearance), this was an impressionable love letter to cinema, which cinephiles, and those looking to have a good time, are sure to appreciate.

Featured Image: Paramount Pictures on IMDB

Babylon (2022) is out in UK Cinemas from the 20th of January. Will you be going along for the ride?