Big & Bawdy Babylon Blasts Off

Babylon (Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart) – It’s bawdy. It’s gaudy. It’s an orgy, a spectacle, and a visual buffet. And that all happens before the title of the film appeared on the screen. Babylon, helmed by La La Land and Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, is a “big,” colossal movie. Nothing about it is subtle, muted, or intimate.

Babylon is not for everyone, maybe not for most people. It’s profane, loud, and occasionally gross. But it is also well-acted, meticulously photographed, and mesmerizing. It boasts a killer soundtrack created by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s former college roommate and frequent collaborator. If you listen closely, you’ll even here a creative reprise of the melody line from La La Land’s “Someone in the Crowd.” Music beats at the heart of all of Chazelle’s films. He paces his movies rhythmically, and the music is almost a character in all of them.

Babylon tells the story of Hollywood from the mid-1920s through the late 1930s, the transition from silent films to the “talkies.” In Chazelle’s telling, Hollywood was the wild, wild West, a place of excesses, individualism, and creativity.

Our main characters include Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the biggest star of pre-talking pictures. He is essentially Douglas Fairbanks, the handsome, swashbuckling leading man who commands the screen, the audience, and the party circuit. Then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the aspiring actress who believes people are either stars or not … even before they have done anything. She’s unapologetically brazen, sexy, and conspicuous; she may even be talented. There’s Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican journeyman who provides whatever is needed to entertain Hollywood’s elites and hangers-on.  Chazelle blasts us through Conrad’s fall, Nellie’s ascension, and Torres’ fever dream.

As always, Chazelle features incredible jazz in the party scenes, throughout the film, and in the story of Sidney Palmer (Adepo), the trumpet empresario whose evolution from struggling musician to movie star reveals the racial history of Hollywood. We even have the gossip columnist, Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), who makes and breaks stars. She, like Hedda Hopper, is always in the know and always in the show.

After the opening half hour of debauchery, the film exposes the characters’ relationships, the realities of Tinseltown and the behind-the-scenes secrets of moviemaking. It will shatter any myths you might still hold. This isn’t exactly a love letter to Hollywood. It tells the story of the evolution of film from its origins to its revolutions of sound, visual effects, music, and color.

Through it all, the sole survivor is the movies … in all their glory. The people come and go; the audience changes; but the movies always survive. This is the message through all three hours and nine minutes. Boy, is this long; too long. The length will hurt the box office as well as test your bladder control. But most importantly, it will exhaust you. The film blasts at you and almost never relents.

Chazelle’s Whiplash provides an uplifting denouement. His La La Land provided a bittersweet ending. Babylon is a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure. Imagine what a fitting ending to Babylon would be.

It is important that you are prepared for the wild ride that is Babylon. It is not going to be the most relaxing three hours of your holiday season, but it is one of the biggest, most in-your-face movie experiences you will ever have.

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