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The decadence of the 1920s is on full display in Damien Chazelle’s three-hour adrenaline rush, chronicling the lives of three characters as they experience the last few years of the silent era.
A rapid moment in the film industry that quickly took the medium of film to new heights as creatives no longer had the control they were used to. Close-ups were still relatively a new thing and the industry was just another job market that people could move west to exploit. ‘Babylon’ is the wild west of filmmaking; a choreographed masterpiece where the craft of filmmaking permeates through.
‘Babylon’ – Full Commentary & Reactions
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Grandiose by nature, the film portrays much of what this era encompassed, from the drugs to the parties to the exorbitant lives of the characters. Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva inhabit the lives of people who have the desperation to make it. These were the first stars of their kind, dealing with the press, fans, and false honesty of the industry. This objectification of stars and executives led to a multitude of suicides and drug overdoses in the era.
Broad themes ethereally float through the collective moments of the main characters as they experience interactions with the industry. A time when Hollywood was mounting as a real art form, not to be looked at as the bottom of the fine art world. As seen in Babylon is this change of tides to a different era and how it affected the lives of so many people.
‘Babylon’ – Full Rendezvous at the Premiere & Reactions
The Craftsmanship of Damien Chazelle
Chazelle makes sure you are never bored; from the parties to on-set, it is a never-ending spectacle in all facets. His collaborators for the film, Justin Hurwitz, Tom Cross, and Linus Sandgren, each play a part in making sure there is always something tantalizing in each scene, whether it be a sunset or a quick cut; these moments help to make the picture a comprehensive whole.
The perfectionism in every piece of the filmmaking process is what makes Chazelle so original… even when he is alluding to so many great pieces of Cinema. Damien Chazelle is clearly someone that loves Cinema and the ineffable impact it has on all of us. The narrative plays a homage to many great films of the classic era to emphasize the impact Cinema has on us all. A point is made that this experience in the theater is one to remember, a reminder of the stories that can be as big as the CGI special-effect movies.
‘Babylon’ – Red Carpet Arrivals
The sound itself plays like an experience of its own. Frequent in a Chazelle film is his collaboration with Justin Hurwitz in the early stages to create a sound. Always with jazz and always with big bands that herald themselves into the atmosphere of the era. Life is a party that does not stop. The parties are like a liminal space where the true trading of the industry takes place.
Cinema lends itself to sound as it accentuates as well as juxtaposes what is being shown. It is a unique tool that is able to make the emotions of the piece more complex. Often the jazz behind the scenes plays as a heartbeat for the film. It provides the pulse of pace that Chazelle needs to keep the audience excited.
Tension builds as if you are trying to diffuse a bomb. Beyond what the dialogue or visuals is doing, the texture painting of the score bleeds its own story. Displayed in the final montage is a series of shots of dye going into the water like the chemicals shooting off in the brain as the trumpets blare and the drums ride a rhythm into our hearts.
Damien Chazelle Tribute
In partnership with the sound is the edit of the film. Energetic and motivated, the mix of Chazelle’s quick pan shots and sweeping camera movements with the cuts brings the intensity of what is happening to go up. Motivated by the context of the scene, a quick cut to a letter someone is writing fast because they just did a line of cocaine can be funny and even thrilling.
Editing was done by Tom Cross, who has also worked on ‘La La Land’ and ‘Whiplash’.
The last piece was the larger-than-life aspects that directors today would just CGI into the film. In the first-act studio scene, a large battle takes place with 700 extras that are all real. Even in slower moments, the cinematography is able to tell so much. The setting sunsets mean it is time for parties to start, for the day to start, or even begin for others.
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Brad Pitt – Evolution – All Roles
Cast of Degenerates
Our main hero is just like us, observing from the outside into a world he so desperately wants to be a part of. Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, is a dreamer, aspiring to be something bigger than himself. His mentor, Jack Conrad, is the first of his kind – the biggest star in the business. He was around when the industry was nothing and now he has helped it transform into something beyond himself.
Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, is a star that is getting to the end of his career, very reminiscent of Leonardo’s character in ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’. A character becoming introspective and reminiscent of his life is only to find his trust and ego broken by the thing he has devoted his entire life to.
Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, inspired by Clara Bow, who joins Diego in his dream of being in the industry. Nellie has one level of going 100% all the time, with drugs, with sex, and with her acting. Margot’s performance brought the others around her to life as she took on this troubled character. Her hubris to stand for nothing other than being a star eats at the character until it seems no one is able to help her anymore.
The supporting cast help to bring a well-rounded understanding to the industry that eats people up and spits them out. These characters are not just your splash of Hollywood diversity that is imposed, these characters are the true pioneers who helped to create the environment of the movies we love.
Jovan Adepo is Sidney Palmer, a talented trumpet player who for the first half of the film spends most of his time yelling at his bandmates. Adepo shows the moral compass that the rest of the characters in the film don’t. His confidence permeates through his instrument, but when Manny helps to establish his career, the reward doesn’t seem to be enough to beat the humiliation. On set his trumpets bell stays down, and he is no longer the leader, the controller of his destiny.
A distinct character, based on the gossip journalist Hedda Hopper, is played by Jean Smart. Elinor St. John is her character in ‘Babylon’ who seems to be the bounce board Jake Conrad needs. She rounds out one of the most poignant points of the film that puts the three main characters in better perspective. She is the cockroach that stays a constant in an industry always changing. She enlightens Conrad that the system does not need him, time for stars comes and goes and often does not come back. It is not until later that other generations put more meaning and context to bringing someone into legendary status. A hard look at the way the media snakes through Hollywood.
‘Babylon’ – Hollywood Reflexivity
In part, the most exciting moments for audiences is the meta. From scenes to dialogues to characters, it all feels so natural. Reflexivity is when the film makes the audience aware of the filmmaking process; it is used throughout to make the audience not only appreciate the movie-making process but to parade what makes movies so lovable.
A scene that seems completely inspired by ‘Singin’ In the Rain’ is when Nellie LaRoy is forced to repeat a scene as the new sound technology is being used. It takes the banality of the set life and makes the audience feel the dread and excitement of getting one shot off.
Many times it feels that Chazelle has taken influence from other great pieces of Cinema. Arguments could be made that the party scenes, especially the opening, feels straight out of the cult in ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ The dark depths of Los Angeles feels reminiscent of David Lynch’s surrealist film ‘Elephant Man.’ Clearly other Cinema was referenced, as the aforementioned ‘Singin’ In the Rain’, which makes the piece feel inviting and comfortable even when mayhem is unfolding.
The last montage of the film displays an epiphany of Cinema. Like the chemicals being shot off in our brain, Chazelle tries to capture what the experience of Cinema is like from the hedonistic executives that incept stories, to the creatives who make them and the parties that fuel them, to the distribution and how it ends up on the silver screen in front of us. Babylon is a front-row seat to the extraordinarily beautiful and horrific Hollywood.
Damien Chazelle’s next films are still in development. Brad Pitt will next be seen in an Untitled Formula One project with Lewis Hamilton, directed by Joseph Kosinski. Margot Robbie will next be in ‘Barbie’ with Ryan Gosling, directed by Greta Gerwig.
Writer/Director – Damien Chazelle
Producers – Olivia Hamilton, Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe
Mentioned Cast – Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Diego Calva, Olivia Wilde
By Devon James
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Devon James is a screen and media writer determined to provide readers with engaging and informative content. His film industry background gives him an adept knowledge in the entertainment industry. This complies with The Hollywood Insider’s mission to educate readers. Devon likes seeing hidden voices in film that provide new cultural perspectives. He enjoys the conversations cinema creates; hoping through his writing to open up topics for discussion.