From its grand opening to its audacious ending, Damien Chazelle's latest drowns its flaws in a tidal wave of laughs, feeling and craft
“This town used to know how to party,” bemoans one character at a pivotal point in Damien Chazelle’s simply colossal Babylon. It’s a line that feels both perfectly fitting and absurd – Babylon is a tribute to LA nostalgia and the way that Hollywood is always yearning for the past as it careens towards the future, yet if there’s one thing this film could never be accused of, it’s not having enough party. As much a paean to sexy, sleep-deprived coke fiends as it is a “love letter to the movies,” Babylon never stops partying, from a gigantic dick swing of an opening scene done in a staggering oner all the way to the year’s boldest, maddest film ending.
It’s through this first party that we’re introduced to Babylon’s world, through the eyes of Manuel (Diego Calva), one of the thousands of anonymous assistants and fixers that keep Hollywood moving through its drug hazes, sex scandals, and almighty hangovers. It’s 1926, a time when Silent film stars were somewhere on the spectrum between royalty and outright gods, and Manuel, aka Manny, is helping to oversee a party, mostly preoccupied by the task of wrangling the elephant that is to provide the night’s entertainment. Here, chance encounters with aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and established megastar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) will eventually launch Manny to a power position as a studio exec in the rocky transition from Silents to Talkies.
It’s mostly through Manny’s eyes that we take Babylon in and he makes for a superb audience surrogate. He and we are always equally overwhelmed by the sheer scale of debauchery and madness in front of us – whether that’s in a palatial home being soaked in booze and bodily fluids or the filming of a massive battle scene that proves fatal to a couple of the extras involved. Even in the first party – a lot of which is covered in one of the most audaciously ambitious long takes I’ve seen in years – the technical bravado feels a bit alienating until Manny encounters Nellie and we, by extension, meet this Margot Robbie performance.
Robbie is on bring-the-house-down form for the entirety of Babylon, but never more so than in this early sequence, featuring a dance that is one part seductress, one part wild animal, fuelled by a positively nuclear amount of energy that draws both us and Manny deep into this Hollywood world. Chazelle gives himself plenty of time to chart Manny and Nellie’s meteoric rises, but Babylon’s much-discussed three-hour-plus runtime never feels too long, the Wolf of Wall Street-esque carnage melding with rich world-building for a deeply immersive experience that never once slows down.
Chazelle has always been a kinetic filmmaker for his most show-stopping moments – just see Whiplash’s finale or La La Land’s opening – but Babylon sees him step this up to a whole new level. The set-pieces he’s managed to marshal here are just absurd in their ambition and intricacy and though they are certainly inspired, at least in part, by a desire for Chazelle to simply show off what he can do, these moments also mostly serve his story, their grand scale allowing more intimate truths to be revealed about his characters. Whether it’s Nellie’s dance or a black-out drunk Conrad holding himself together to get just one perfect take, the love these characters have for this false but magical world of moviemaking is simply infectious.
Of course, Babylon also gives Chazelle a chance to indulge his darker side, most notably in an excursion to a thrillingly, frighteningly bizarre underworld nightclub in the company of a bizarre LA gangster (played by Tobey Maguire, channelling Alfred-Molina-in-Boogie-Nights energy). There are also more serious issues at play, like the omnipresent racism of the studio system, as encapsulated by the experiences of Black jazz trumpeter Sidney (Jovan Adepo), who finds that his sudden rush to stardom under Manny’s watchful eyes doesn’t protect him from racially-motivated humiliations.
Adepo is phenomenal in these scenes – you’d happily watch another three-hour epic that focused exclusively on him – a standout in a ridiculously good cast. Calva’s performance is star-making, while there couldn’t be a better pair of actors to play deified superstars than Robbie and Pitt – Chazelle and DOP Linus Sandgren’s camera absolutely worships them and the beautiful costumes they wear. Sweeping desert vistas, magic-hour sunsets, and immaculately designed interiors form the backdrops for some of the year’s best close-ups while the breath-catching beauty and glitz is propelled forwards by a thunderously enjoyable score from Justin Hurwitz.
Babylon is not without its flaws – it’s silly yet self-regarding and constantly picking pointless fights with Singin’ in the Rain that it can’t possibly win – but they are always washed away by a tidal wave of gauche yet entirely earnest feeling. The ending will prove divisive, but I found it both deeply cathartic and utterly hilarious (Babylon is keenly aware of how great jokes can make a long film feel like a breeze), all while being a far more honest and clever “love letter to cinema” than its more straight-laced genre counterparts. It puts a perfect, galaxy-brained bow on a sometimes unwieldy but almost always astonishing juggernaut of a movie, one that is insistent in putting its own stamp on cinema history. It’s an undeniably arrogant and often fruitless endeavour to try and pre-ordain your own film’s immortality – what makes Babylon so extraordinary is that it might just pull it off.
Babylon is released in UK cinemas on 20 January.Where to watch