Film Reviews

Babylon review: Dir. Damien Chazelle (2023)

Damien Chazelle loves an obsession. Whiplash – 2014’s tribute to all things jazz, about a teacher/student pairing both obsessed with performance – was a huge success, catapulting his name up the industry’s ‘one to watch’ lists. 2016 saw the release of Academy Award favourite La La Land – again, about two characters determined to succeed in their respective fields – solidifying Chazelle as a star director. When buzz began around Babylon, his next project, fans couldn’t wait to see what he’d obsess over this time. Turns out, we’re heading back to Hollywood…

Opening in 1926 Los Angeles, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) finds himself in the middle of a wild party held at a movie exective’s luxurious mansion. We’re talking mountains of cocaine, extravagant Champagne towers, naked bodies writhing together in piles, all soundtracked by an uncomfortable jazz band fronted by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who watches the debauchery unfold in front of him. Amongst the madness, Manny bumps into Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe actress looking to find any way into Hollywood, convinced she’s destined to be a star. Nellie’s wishes are soon granted after she’s asked to replace another young starlet for an upcoming shoot, while Manny is hired by Hollywood legend Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) as his assistant. From this one party, our characters’ lives become intertwined – with each other’s, but also within the mess that is Hollywood.

As Manny and Nellie make their way up the slippery, fickle ladder towards stardom, Sidney follows behind as his own star starts to rise with the introduction of sound cinema – but he soon comes face-to-face with a much darker, incrediby racist side to Hollywood, leaving him to make a difficult choice about his career. And soon, Jack, Manny and Nellie experience their own setbacks (Manny’s are largely due to Nellie), revealing that all that glitters isn’t gold when you’re part of the studio system.

With a runtime over three hours, Chazelle has a lot of time and cast to fill, with names including Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Li Jun Li and Katherine Waterson, amongst many others.

Now, three hours sounds like a long time, and it is. But once you’ve given yourself over to the luxuriousness of Babylon, it feels like it flies by. That being said, it’s not a perfect film by any means. We’re thrown from location to location, speed through scenes at a pace which means you can’t fully enjoy what’s being said and what you’re seeing (and Chazelle crams every frame full of detail), and the power of the soundtrack occasionally overshadows the dialogue.

There’s been a lot of chatter online about the first 30 minutes or so – the party. Long, sweeping shots of the room uncover so many tiny moments, while your eyes try to track Manny’s whereabouts. It’s loud, brash, bold, a party you’d want to experience for yourself. With such a big opener, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect the next 150 minutes to follow suit. Unfortunately, for me, it was the highlight. While the performances are strong and the attention to the time period is beautiful, the jarring jumping from scene to scene just left me feeling underwhelmed. The final 45 minutes are surprising, as the story takes a very twisted turn, and the finale feels like it doesn’t fit the film we’ve just watched – circling back round to Chazelle’s personal obsession with cinema, it all screams ‘meta’ to me.

For anyone hoping for La La Land 2.0, Babylon is its ugly, dirty cousin, a history lesson in the pitfalls of stardom that tries too hard for its deflated ending.

Babylon is showing in UK cinemas now

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