Babylon: A Love Letter to 20s and 30s Cinema

After a love letter to the golden age of musicals with La La Land, Damien Chazelle delivers a love letter to 20s and 30s cinema in Babylon.

You’ve never seen a film like Babylon and you’re probably never going to see anything like this epic ever again. What’s there to say about it? The film–over a decade in the making–is the epic tale about Hollywood that we’ve been waiting for and it’s absolutely awesome. There’s only one filmmaker who could make this film and his name is Damien Chazelle. Much like Singin’ in the Rain, the film focuses on the transition of silent films to sound through the eyes of an ensemble cast starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva as the three core players. Other supporting cast members also include Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li. We experience their rise and fall during the three-hour-plus run time. Jovan Adepo is one of the standout players, too.

There’s a lot of ambition taking place during the era, which also makes sense for an ambitious film pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. Many people would survive the transition while others would not. I’m not going to spoil what happens but Chazelle pays homage through his script. Chazelle does the research and gives us a look at a Hollywood that was both pre-Code and pre-studio system. Sure, actors were working under contract but it wasn’t the assembly line factory that it become shortly thereafter.

Given that most of the film takes place before the Code went into effect, I love what Chazelle does to bring life to characters long gone…or at least composite characters. This includes the female directors represented by Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) that certainly don’t get their due. Chazelle gives them the justice that they deserve. The character of Adler is inspired by the likes of Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport, and Dorothy Arzner.

When it comes to the transition to sound, there are some very hysterical scenes. One of them includes Nellie LaRoy’s (Margot Robbie) first talking picture. It is hysterical as anything that can go wrong does go wrong. I’m not going to spoil the particulars of the scene but it plays just as funny on second viewing. While Nellie is becoming a superstar actress, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is working his way up the studio ladder after starting out as a lowly assistant. While they’re rising, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is on a journey of his own. Where will the sound transition take him?

You couldn’t have scripted a better ending to the film, crane shot, beautifully made montage and all. Again, I won’t give it away but it does call back an earlier moment in the film. It also speaks to the magic of cinema and what it represents. My understanding is that Chazelle had a different ending in mind but he nails the landing on the film’s final minutes.

Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz‘s score has been shortlisted for the 95th Oscars. Hurwitz delivers one of the best scores of the year in my book–it’s been on all of my awards nomination ballots. We may have our ideas of 20s jazz but he goes for more of the underground scene that rarely got recorded. Hurwitz has a lot of room to play with when it comes to his biggest score yet for a Damien Chazelle film. As a side note, I love that all of the orchestra are credited in the film. They deserve it.

In addition to Hurwitz, Chazelle once again works with Oscar winners Tom Cross and Linus Sandgren. Their work goes above and beyond in this bigger-than-life epic. They shoot the film on 35mm with an anamorphic lens and honestly, it’s hard to imagine Babylon on digital film. Visually speaking, they capture the era in all of its glory. That’s not an easy feat because LA is such a huge city now!

In terms of the film’s production design, it’s possible to find yourself back in the 20s by standing on a corner in LA. However, Babylon’s Supervising Location Manager Chris Baugh had his work cut out. Thanks to Hollywood’s early years, it’s grown from the rural community to a vast metropolis. As a result, finding locations were not easy for a shot with the vast hills in the background.

I read a number of books about studio moguls and filmmakers during the early months of the pandemic. Not even reading books could prepare me for what Damien Chazelle had in store in his most ambitious film yet. Well, the scenes where they are shooting films are one thing. It’s exactly what one would expect–with visual effects being what they were in the time, time is of the essence when it comes to capturing a scene before the sun goes down. There’s a lot of drugs but that’s what someone would expect in the pre-Code era. But for me, the party scenes were far rowdier than what I expected and I’ve read Tinseltown by William J. Mann. But then again, I don’t think I’ve read book in which an elephant is defecating on the way to a party. It’s brilliant and magnificent filmmaking.

A few days after watching Babylon for the first time, I got to attend a virtual press conference with the cast. A few things to note: Margot Robbie based her performance on a mix of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford on screen and also worked with a clown. She tried 31 different accents before deciding on the one she used for the film. In order for Nellie LaRoy to work, she needed to know who was playing Manny because the two worked off of each other. Speaking of Manny, his story is inspired by Cuban immigrant Rene Cardona, Mexican immigrant Enrique Vallejo, and the Rodriguez Brothers. As for Jack Conrad, the character is similar to leading silent stars John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino.

Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is a gossip columnist who later trains Nellie to annunciate during the sound transition. Writer Elinor Glyn, reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns, and the later-era Louella Parsons are inspirations for the character along with All About Eve‘s Addison DeWitt.

As for trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the basis for the character was Curtis Mosby. Les Hite and Sonny
Clay are other models for the character. Palmer has quite the role in the film as he provides the soundtrack to the many party scenes, making Adepo not just the film’s MVP but someone who should be contending for an Oscar. But as silent transitions to sound, he becomes something of a star himself.

Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) has a way of finding the spotlight. Chazelle models the character after Anna May Wong. She’s introduced by way of a song at the party. “My Girl’s Pussy.” In case you’re wondering, it is a real song but Hurwitz gives it a new melody and arrangement.

Babylon isn’t just a love letter to Classic Hollywood but one of the best movies of the year. It’s a glorious Damien Chazelle masterpiece.

DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Damien Chazelle
CAST: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia
Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan
Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde

Paramount will release Babylon in theaters on December 23, 2022. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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