Review of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon
Babylon (2022). 3hrs 9min. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Featuring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, and Tobey Maguire.
Naked bodies litter the screen, bombastic jazz fills your ears, so much alcohol the viewer can almost smell it themselves, all drowning in a sultry gold color scheme, the drug-induced haze of party-goers is palpable. The opening of Babylon at “the greatest party in Hollywood” swallows the viewer whole from the get-go, allowing the three-hour run-time to fly by. The immersive first 20 minutes also serve as the launching pad for the story of the intertwined web of established stars’ and newcomers’ careers that director Damien Chazelle waves into the film.
Babylon is a wild child. An epic of old Hollywood, the film tells the story of how the transition from silent films to talkies shook Hollywood in the late 1920s. We follow the five leads at various points in their careers in the film industry, and this structure shines light on old Hollywood’s racism, homophobia, and general exploitation of its workers. Babylon argues that perhaps there has been less progress in 100 years than we might think.
Manny (Diego Culva) is a young Mexican man trying to break into the film industry in any way he is able, which, so far, has only amounted to odd jobs. He meets Nellie (Margot Robbie) while she is trying to sneak into the aforementioned greatest party in Hollywood, where he is working. Manny, charmed, lets Nellie into the party despite her not being “anyone.” The pair share a discussion (while doing lines of cocaine) about their greatest dream: being on a movie set. Nellie later steals the attention of every party-goer with her over-the-top dance moves that look all too natural thanks to her undeniable star quality. In putting on this show, she catches the eye of a producer, and is given her first shot at acting as a stand-in. She also manages to catch the fearless cabaret singer, Lady Fay Zhu’s (Li Jun Li), attention. Lady Fay has already asserted her star-power by singing “My Girl’s Pussy” and kissing another woman on the mouth during the performance, making clear she is unabashedly herself as well.
The next day, on an adjacent set to Nellie’s, A-lister Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has taken a liking to Manny, deciding to hire him as his assistant after Manny drives him home from the party where Jack was belligerently drunk. Manny proves himself to Jack through his dedication and hardwork, something that he and jazz trumpetist Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) have in common. Sidney is the heartbeat that brings the film’s score to life, appearing frequently as the diegetic iteration of the soundtrack both at parties and on film sets.
Nellie LaRoy sticks out as the definitive star of Babylon despite its stellar ensemble cast. Both Robbie’s performance and LaRoy’s character cause our jaws to drop from start to finish. Like Robbie herself, Nellie is undeniably a star from the moment she steps on screen, which, paired with her stubbornness, leads her to be unrelenting in pursuit of her dream to rule the silver screen. Nellie’s rise to stardom is almost immediate since not only is she wild and showstopping, she is also an incredible actress.
LaRoy is dubbed Hollywood’s wild child for her rebellious nature and magnetic look. She refuses to be anything but a star and does so by embracing what makes her stand out. Nellie is deemed a slut. She has unkempt hair, shows more skin than clothing, and demands the attention of every eye everywhere she goes. Nellie’s suddenly on top of the world and fulfilling her own prophecy of stardom, she fascinates the public. Until they hear her voice. Echoing Lina Lamont’s (Jean Hagen) main conflict in Singin’ In the Rain (1952), the shift to talkies threatens Nellie’s entire career. Until now people found her raw style endearing and fun, but as soon as her New Jersey accent debuts, her allure is gone. Nellie becomes a punching bag for gossip columnists, all except for one who is said to be the most powerful in LA. Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) makes it her mission to ensure Nellie remains the star she is meant to be. Despite Elinor’s best efforts, however, Nellie’s gambling and drug addiction, along with the classism among studio executives may make that task impossible.
Among the pandemonium, Lady Fay is Nellie’s calm, cool, and collected confidant. This is perhaps a reflection of her own inner self acceptance, as she is open about her identity in a way no other characters are. Lady Fay is based on real-life star Anna May Wong, who is regarded as the first Asian-American movie star. Much of Lady Fay’s arc follows Anna May Wong’s life story. Lady Fay is a performer of all kinds—a dancer, a singer, and an actress. In a Vanity Fair interview, Li states that while the film doesn’t show outright discrimination against Lady Fay, in her performance, she “carried that subtext in her role, not necessarily just being pigeonholed her entire life, but certainly the discrimination that she had endured and how much she’s kind of adapted to navigating around it.” Fay begins to realize her time in Hollywood may be coming to an end as the 1930s bring a more conservative general opinion than was held in the roarin’ twenties. As Manny declares to Lady Fay,“times are changing, people have morals now.”
Jack Conrad is a larger-than-life star (exceeding even Nellie’s wildest dreams) who has a rude awakening as his talent is called into question when forced to act in talkies. Conrad is a self-obsessed, loveless shell of a man who serves as a warning to the younger generation of Hollywood hopefuls like Nellie. He has had four failed marriages and each one carries little weight for him;he seems to be incapable of love. Think of Conrad as an “evil twin” to Singin’ In the Rain’s Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly). The character is given his lifeblood through Pitt’s performance as a real-life superstar who may be reaching the latter half of his career. This role makes an incredibly self-aware statement for Pitt, allowing him and the audience to reflect on the true magnitude of his stardom, and perhaps reckon with the idea of it, at some point, coming to an end.
Manny, the first character in the film to get a glimpse into Jack’s life as his assistant, pretends not to notice any of the glaring red flags that Jack carelessly waves around. Jack’s fourth wife divorces him as they drive into the party at the beginning of the film because, while they are clearly mid-fight, he’s deliberately annoying her by speaking Italian after she asks him multiple times to stop. He stumbles into the party and is received as royalty, acting as if nothing is wrong. It’s all happened before, afterall. As everyone else in the film, Manny is starstruck by Jack and knows that his position as Jack’s assistant is priceless for an aspiring filmmaker, and it pays off. He moves up the ranks from sound designer to producer while simultaneously being challenged with his ethnic identity. Manny decides to tell people he is Spanish rather than Mexican, knowing that people will respect and accept a European far more quickly than a Central American. Because the Hollywood bigwigs don’t know Manny’s true background, Manny is on the front end of talkies, which cements his spot in Hollywood as an important figure on the production side of films.
Sidney Palmer is playing background music on set when Manny asks his opinion on the film. Sidney says “I think you’ve got the cameras pointed in the wrong direction,” which sparks an idea to embrace sound in film with jazz music presented on screen. Sidney Palmer is shot into stardom thanks to Manny’s idea of putting the musicians in front of the camera (which was really Sidney’s idea…) and quickly becomes the face of jazz in film. When Sidney starts seeing success in the world of “jazz shorts,” Manny forces him to darken his face with charcoal so he will appear “more black” on camera. The dramatic scene utilizes high contrast and is washed with a deep green, perhaps to reflect Sidney’s repulsion. In an interview with Time, Chazelle explains he wanted to illustrate that “there was a short window of opportunity for black performers when sound arrived.” Actresses like Fredi Washington and jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington went through this very thing, and this pivotal scene is used as a metaphor for that. The harsh truth shines through, Hollywood was, and for many remains, an oppressive and disturbing place. Sidney was the hardest working musician for years, yet he ends up being forced to perform some exaggerated, clownish, degrading characterization of his race.
Many viewers hate Babylon, criticizing it for its vulgarity, its length, its alleged unfocused narrative, and plenty of other grievances. In doing so, though, they are missing an enormous central message of the film: Babylon is a wild child. Unapologetically itself, Babylon is a mordant critique of cinema—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Drugs, sex, violence, racism, homophobia, sexism. They are inescapable in Hollywood, yet so is beauty, creativity, expression, talent, and love. A central theme in the film is the battle between self acceptance and suppression to live out the dream of a Hollywood life. The question Babylon poses is quite simple though complexly answered: is it worth it?