Director Damien Chazelle loves obsession, from 2014’s Whiplash to 2016’s La La Land, and so the buzz for Babylon was high, especially when it turned out he’s taking us back to 1920s Hollywood, a time that much of the industry still obsesses over and idolises about today.
Opening in 1926 Los Angeles, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) finds himself in the middle of a wild party held at a movie exec’s luxurious mansion. There an elephant, mountains of cocaine, extravagant Champagne towers, and naked bodies writhing together in piles, all soundtracked by an uncomfortable jazz band fronted by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who watches the debauchery unfold. Amongst this, Manny bumps into Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe actress trying to find her way into Hollywood, convinced she’ll become a star.
Nellie’s wishes are granted when she’s asked to replace a young starlet for an upcoming shoot, while Manny is hired by Hollywood legend Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) as his assistant. From this party, our characters’ lives become intertwined, but it’s also within the mess of Hollywood. As Manny and Nellie make their way up the slippery 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, incredibly racist side to Hollywood, leaving him to make a difficult choice about his career. Of course, it’s also not long before Jack, Manny and Nellie experience their own setbacks (Manny’s are largely due to Nellie), revealing that all that glitters isn’t gold in 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 Waterston, amongst many others. Now, this sounds like a long time, and it is. But once you give 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.
Since the cinema release, there’s a lot of chat regarding the party – where long, sweeping shots of the room uncover endless tiny moments, while your eyes try to track Manny’s whereabouts. It’s loud, brash, and 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 a whole host of meta to me.
For anyone hoping for La La Land 2.0, Babylon is its unhinged cousin, a history lesson in the pitfalls of stardom that tries too hard for its deflated ending, although it does look very sharp and crisp for a 4K UHD release, with all those little details really translating from the big to the smaller screen.
As with anything for Home Ent, your extras include 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes interviews, with A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon, which delves into the inspiration and motivation behind the original story and development of the film. There’s also a look at the costumes, and over 7,000 were created and led by Mary Zophres, who picked up an Oscar nomination for her work, plus a feature on another Oscar nominations for Justin Hurwitz’s score and soundtrack, which definitely plays a huge part in leading the story, plus other deleted and extended scenes (I’ve added more info just below).
Babylon is available now on Digital, 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray SteelBook, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD now from Paramount Home Entertainment: https://amzn.to/432XoX1
The 4K ULTRA HD™ disc includes English Dolby Atmos, French – Canadian and Spanish – Latin American Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Audio. It also includes an Audio Descriptive Track in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. It offers the following subtitles English, English SDH†, Chinese – Cantonese-Hong Kong, Chinese – Mandarin – Traditional – Taiwan and Singapore, Danish, Finnish, French – Canadian, Korean, Norwegian, Spanish – Latin American, Swedish and Thai
The BLU-RAY™ disc includes English Dolby Atmos, French – Canadian, Portuguese – Brazilian and Spanish – Latin American Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Audio. It also includes an Audio Descriptive Track in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. It offers the following subtitles English, English SDH†, Chinese – Cantonese-Hong Kong, Chinese – Mandarin – Traditional – Taiwan and Singapore, Danish, Finnish, French – Canadian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese – Brazilian, Spanish – Latin American, Swedish and Thai