There comes a time when many of the great directors feel they need to tell their Hollywood story. This is not necessarily their own story, but rather a film that reflects on the place that has long positioned itself as the very heart of film, the dream factory with the dark past. In recent years Tarantino, Cronenberg and the Coens have stamped their impressions of the place in their idiosyncratic style, to great effect. In the past, there was David Lynch, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Sofia Coppola, Billy Wilder. Each of these visionaries had a different way of seeing Hollywood – in each film, our understanding of the place, its many mysteries and marvels, fed into these stories, brought their comedy or their tragedy or their horror (or, often, all three) to the fore.


It’s company that Damien Chazelle would like to keep. Indeed, of the new wave of young directors whose work may come to define the next generation, few have enjoyed such success as Chazelle. His first, Whiplash, was an incendiary shot across the bow, a film of high stress and high payoff. His follow-up La La Land, was something of a paradox – a generally safe, likeable and colourful picture that became embroiled in controversy, largely as it was put up as chief aggressor to a smaller awards hopeful, the far superior Moonlight. Then came Chazelle’s best, most thoughtful and thorniest work – First Man, a film whose sleek, shiny surfaces suggested coldness but hid genuine feeling inside a traumatised shell of a hero, who just happened to be the first man to walk on the moon. It was a film that cemented Chazelle as an ambitious mind with an abiding love for the construction of cinema, who enjoys it’s movement and dream-making potentialities. 


All three also shared a common theme at heart – that to achieve greatness, sometimes one has to make sacrifices that cost them everything up to and including their happiness. It’s there in Neil Armstrong’s dead-eyed commitment in First Man, in Emma Stone’s quandary of career-or-Ryan Gosling in La La Land. It’s there in Whiplash, as Miles Teller’s young jazz student submits totally to the devilish lure of true artistry, at the expense of his dad, who watches awed and terrified in the doorway. It’s there in Babylon, Chazelle’s latest, too, a film in which the director has decided to take his crack at the Hollywood opus. The greatness in question? That would be the entirety of cinema. The cost – the souls and lives of his characters. What’s most compelling about Babylon, arguably, is that Chazelle seems less certain than ever that the sacrifice is worth it. 

Crash-landing a summer season full of bombastic blockbusters and stately awards plays, La La Land’s Damien Chazelle pitches his Golden Age opus as something intriguingly wedged between the extremes. It’s a hedonistic, occasionally thrilling, often baffling cavalcade of early-Hollywood glamour and brutality that sees Chazelle swinging for greatness – and missing as often as he hits.

To say that Babylon evokes the work of Paul Thomas Anderson – most specifically his whirlwind vision of the seventies porn industry in California in Boogie Nights – is to put it lightly. Chazelle doesn’t so much homage as often crib entirely from that earlier film, in tone, in style and in narrative structure. Chazelle’s film takes place in the later 1920s and early 1930s, following an array of characters – actors, behind the scenes yuppies, gossip columnists and the like – as they swirl around each other in the maelstrom of early-Hollywood. Then, the sound picture ‘talkie’ arrives, and much like Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain (another film lovingly evoked by Chazelle), the world crashes down around these characters in ways both beautiful and telling. At the centre of it all is Manuel (Diego Calva, a pretty-boy snooze), a young Spanish production lackey who falls head over heels for Nellie (Margot Robbie), a small-town wannabe desperate to become a star at all costs. In the mix is also a young jazz musician (Jovan Adepo), a pithy gossip queen (Jean Smart) and a fading movie star played with lingering sadness and swagger by Brad Pitt.


Over the course of three hours, Chazelle throws us from the early, cacophonous wildness of the silent era, in which health and safety were nothing but a rumour and drugs, sex and inhibition were the main point of order, to the doldrums of the Great Depression-era (though Chazelle barely touches on social issues such as this in the film proper) and the new wave of talent and challenge that the sound era welcomes. 


It’s a lot to take in, an incredibly unwieldy beast for even the surest of hands – though Chazelle clearly admires the structure and moxie of Boogie Nights, he lacks Anderson’s precision of intent – but certainly not without its pleasures. Chazelle packs this thing with pure spectacle – there are parties, there are on-set shenanigans, there are drugged up bacchanalias, there are shootouts, there are snake fights and pooping elephants and a man eating live rats, and so on and so forth. Chazelle’s game cast largely come off well – Robbie’s role is chasing the vapour of her superior performance in Wolf of Wall Street, but the supporting cast are all aces. Pitt is particularly strong, an ageing lion grieving the end of something that might not even have been worth grieving at all, The Leopard’s Burt Lancaster with a rustic drawl and a pencil moustache. It is with Pitt’s character, too, that the story feels most focussed. 


If there’s a fatal flaw in Babylon, it’s that Chazelle seems too eager to have his cake and eat it too. He looks at Old Hollywood through a distinctly modern Millennial lens – in a telling scene, Robbie’s character screams and rants at the hidden perversions of an assembly of old money wonks who gasp at her lasciviousness, a performance with a notably of-the-moment inflection. Chazelle seems to want to revel in the lewdness and exploitation on display, to laugh at the cynicism – nay, nihilism – at play while also conjuring a moving tragedy by film’s end. He at once attempts to condemn the hedonism and condemn those that would condemn the hedonism. It’s a jumble of intentions and desires that misses the crucial thing that makes Boogie Nights tick – for all its whizbang theatrics and complex camera moves, it’s the film’s big, goofy heart that sticks with you. 


Chazelle gazes over Old Hollywood with something like bitterness, before plying us with a montage of the films Hollywood has produced (and some produced in spite of it), willingly pairing human destruction and cinema together – but with little to say in conclusion. Chazelle is an unconvincing director of excess. One has the sense that his depiction of the sex, the bodily fluids and the drugs is largely academic, a theoretical understanding of destructive impulses rather than a learned one. All the while, Chazelle continues to pull us back to Boogie Nights (there is even a scene toward the end featuring a cameo, a drug deal gone wrong and a loud, repetitive noise designed to build stress, exactly like the one featuring a blissfully nutty Alfred Molina near the end of Nights). 


A revision of the Old Hollywood legend is well-overdue, particularly in light of the starry-eyed Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood from a few years back, a legitimate masterpiece that conjured up a Hollywood that never really existed at all, but longed to. The ugliness of Babylon is a refreshing tonic in a sense, a sharp reminder of the reality of things. Babylon is nothing if not a hell of a ride, a film that is determined to shock and push to the limit – but one that never quite escapes the hollow feeling of a scolding.

Babylon in cinemas now.



Movie title: Babylon (Chazelle, 2022)

Movie description: Crash-landing a summer season full of bombastic blockbusters and stately awards plays, La La Land’s Damien Chazelle pitches his Golden Age opus as something intriguingly wedged between the extremes. It’s a hedonistic, occasionally thrilling, often baffling cavalcade of early-Hollywood glamour and brutality that sees Chazelle swinging for greatness - and missing as often as he hits.

Date published: January 20, 2023

Country: United States

Author: Damien Chazelle

Director(s): Damien Chazelle

Actor(s): Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie,

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

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