Babylon (2022) Movie Review: Ain’t Life Grand
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon won’t be for everyone, but a career best performance from Margot Robbie anchors a chaotic, hilarious, disgusting, beautiful masterpiece
The latest effort from Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle is unlike anything you have ever seen before. Babylon is an adrenaline rush from start to finish, with said rush being raunchy, hilarious, powerful, confounding, just about anything you can imagine. This film throws so much at you from the very beginning, and there is a good reason for that, when you consider what the period in which the film begins was like and the main players involved.
You see, a film like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) puts a positive spin on the critical period of cinematic history when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies”, but that sort of squeaky-clean image was not everyone’s reality. There were several silent film stars and other individuals working in the world of film that struggled to adjust to this major change. Babylon does not shy away from the difficulties of this period, and puts the good, the bad, and the ugly of the era on display for the audience. Chazelle does not pull punches, and still manages to highlight his love of film and Hollywood.
For any cinephile, this will be a fascinating watch for a multitude of reasons. Even if the narrative has its weak points, namely that Babylon is not always the most original story, the parts that are unique really stand out. This script shows you so many different sides of the world of cinema, has three incredibly compelling leads, and really strives to make you feel something at every moment. The performances of Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, and Brad Pitt help to carry the story that Damien Chazelle has crafted to greater heights. Justin Hurwitz sets the mood for each moment perfectly with his bombastic, jazzy force of a musical score. I also cannot help but love the way that Hurwitz blends pieces of music on this soundtrack together and incorporates them in other songs. Finally, you have Linus Sandgren’s sensational cinematography working in harmony with wonderful set and costume design to ensure that your eyes are never pulled away from the screen.
Babylon takes audiences through Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s and primarily focuses on three characters. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a popular silent film star who throws lavish parties. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring actress from New Jersey with no shortage of confidence that is looking for her big break. Then there is Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), who is a Mexican film assistant who dreams of being part of something bigger. In an era of excess and depravity, there is no telling how the lives of these three will turn out.
Chazelle has clearly been inspired by filmmakers that have used a sort of “rise and fall” narrative, like Martin Scorsese. Where his script manages to stand out is the level of care that has clearly been placed into it. With Babylon, Damien Chazelle wants to display his love of the film medium and Hollywood, but he also wants audiences to understand that not everything in this world is sunshine and rainbows. Things were absolutely a mess during the transition from silent films to “talkies” mainly because everyone was getting used to this new form and certain people managed to make the adjustment better than others. Imagine being at the top of your craft, living a life of excess and wonder, and then boom, your entire industry begins to change rapidly.
It is fascinating and gut wrenching to watch characters like Jack, Nellie, and Manny go through this so suddenly, especially knowing that people, whether they are actors or not, deal with the very same issue to this day. Chazelle does a wonderful job showing just how nuts things were before the transition through the various parties that are thrown and more. Seeing these characters at the top will make their struggles hit so much harder. You will get wrapped up in the extravagance of the film industry and Hollywood before the era of sound films arrives, and then Damien Chazelle will show you the other side, one riddled with frustration, confusion, and anger as our characters struggle to keep up with the times.
The parties in Babylon are chaotic in every feasible way, truly showing off the outrageous and excessive nature of the pre-sound film era. There is constant sex and nudity, dancing, and of course, plenty of drugs. Justin Hurwitz soundtracks this sequence with plenty of smooth jazz and then finishes the opening party off with a massive dance sequence set to “Voodoo Mama,” a booming number which soundtracks one of the coolest things I have ever seen Margot Robbie do. The cinematography does not let you breathe, and practically forces you to take everything in, all the shocking, gross out moments. Everything moves so fast and yet you still have just the right amount of time to take everything in. Nellie LaRoy’s dance number is jaw dropping in a clever way though, hats off to choreographer Mandy Moore (who also worked with Chazelle on 2016’s La La Land) for helping craft something that will be seen as iconic in the decades to come.
That chaos is mirrored on the fictional film sets of Babylon: you are given time to take every part of the filmmaking process in, but everything still moves fast. Chazelle wants audiences to have a little peek into what making a film was like during the silent film era and then during the early sound era. Whether you are a cinephile or not, this process is fascinating to watch because of the level of detail put into recreating these environments. Everything looks extremely close to photos that I have seen from both respective time periods. The time spent on these sets provides some of the more hilarious moments in a film filled with things to laugh at. I particularly loved the back and forths that Margot Robbie’s Nellie had with Samara Weaving as Constance Moore, a rival actress. As serious as some parts of this look into the filmmaking process are, having a diva off with Robbie and Weaving maintains some of the insanity and helps keep the viewers on their toes.
No matter how graphic and disgusting things may get, and believe me, they get rough, you never lose the feeling that Damien Chazelle has a deep love for film and Hollywood. There are so many bits of illusions to real film history and outright references that it becomes delightful when you spot them. The narrative is constantly reenforcing just how magical the world of film is through the dialogue of the ensemble, and that beauty is reflected on the screen. Seeing Nellie LaRoy do something simple and yet difficult like nailing a take will become a source of joy because you are invested not only in the character, but also in the wonder of filmmaking. Therefore, I really recommend Babylon if you are a cinephile. This story was crafted by a filmmaker whose heart is in the right place, even if parts of the film get outrageous to the point where you might want to throw up.
These characters go through so much during the massive runtime of Babylon, all in service of showcasing the good, bad, and ugly during the silent film era, the beginning of the sound era, as well as getting audiences to understand just how magical the art of film is. Our three leads, Manny, Nellie, and Jack get the most development, but there are plenty of key ensemble members that get mini arcs and push our main characters forward. The cast is incredible, and no one gets truly left out of this story. Jovan Adepo gives an intriguing performance as Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpet player. Sidney, much like Manny and Nellie, is thrust into this world and he offers a unique perspective on just how much someone is willing to do to maintain success in the industry.
Manny’s arc is clearly meant to be the lens that the audience sees everything that goes on, at least at first. The second act sees him become more ingrained in the film world, achieving his dream, which is great, but it takes us out of his shoes. When we can slip back in, it is beautiful and through Manny, audiences experience just how insane, wonderful, and heartbreaking this medium can be. Diego Calva constantly commands the screen and even wins some of his head-to-head battles with an extraordinary Margot Robbie as Nellie. He will make audiences see a lot of themselves in Manny, who is charismatic, but he knows as much about this world as the viewer will. The way that Manny evolves helps Babylon stand out from narratives that it might have been inspired by.
Speaking of standouts, Babylon has the biggest of any awards contender this season. I am of course referring to Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy. She is a fascinating, frustrating, absolute marvel of a character. You will love her, drawn in by a never-ending allure, and you will groan at some of her actions. Nellie is, as she constantly affirms, a star, for better or worse. Damien Chazelle could have easily made that her only trait, but he, along with Robbie’s performance, transforms Nellie into someone with multiple dimensions. They dive, if only for a few fleeting moments, into the complex human within Nellie that she keeps buried by her bubbly personality and various forms of addiction.
Margot Robbie’s facial expressions, cadences, charm, and passion turn Nellie into an absolute force of nature that is not going to be stopped by anyone. Her pain will cut audiences deep as she struggles with the pressures of Hollywood, because we have been there, having worked so hard to get somewhere and even after all that time and energy, the pressure never seems to let up. She has such an amazing personality and is not as dumb as her New Jersey accent might make you think: you want to see her succeed. Nellie was thrust into this world without understanding that it could just as easily spit her back out and how she deals with that is troubling, and yet spellbinding to watch.
Margot Robbie gives the finest performance of her career to date in the role of Nellie LaRoy, and could very well earn her first Academy Award. However, even if she does not, her work in Babylon should stand the test of time. This is an iconic performance, filled with quotable lines and moments that will leave you in awe.
Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad is also tremendous and a key component in capturing the struggles in transitioning from silent films to sound, along with Robbie’s Nellie. Jack also helps the audience to understand just what makes the art of film special in several ways. We meet him when he is at his highest point, and see how he, much like everyone else, struggles with the transition. Babylon not only focuses on that transition but serves in part as a lesson that no matter who you are or what you have done, whatever field you are in will eventually move on. That does not mean that you will not leave an impact or be remembered, but that your time in the spotlight will run out. In this case, the magic of cinema and its impact on audiences will live on forever, even if the faces in the lead roles, stories, and ways of storytelling/filmmaking will evolve.
Nowhere is this better expressed than through Jack, Manny, and Nellie. This theme is what helps make Babylon a masterpiece of modern cinema. It is a flamboyant, bonkers, gross, delightful, and stunning experience meant to be seen on the big screen. This film expresses what makes movies special, without ever shying away from the parts of the industry that are not too pretty.
I cannot stress enough that Babylon will not be something that everyone will be able to watch, let alone like. However, Damien Chazelle has delivered an absolute experience, led by a powerhouse performance from Margot Robbie, that stands out from anything that has hit theaters in 2022 and will live on no matter what anyone thinks of it, for the rest of time.
Babylon is now playing in US theaters and will be released in UK cinemas on January 20, 2023.