Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle has become one of my favorite directors working today. From my introduction to him in 2014 with Whiplash to 2016’s La La Land and 2018’s First Man, Chazelle’s repertoire has shown that the Oscar winner is unafraid to tackle unique subject matters while challenging his audience. 

It’s been four years since Chazelle last graced cinephiles with a new film. So in terms of my anticipation for his latest film, Babylon, I’d offer comparisons to the excitement some would have for the latest Marvel/DC entry, where through my lens, a Damien Chazelle film is nothing short of a cinematic event.

Regarding Babylon, its plot just added to my anticipation. As an avid fan of 1920-50’s cinema, a film about Old Hollywood and its transition from the silent film to the talkies was catnip, or better yet, the right amount of cocaine for my cinematic palette. Putting the subject matter in the hands of someone with the talents of Chazelle, it’s hard to imagine a world where I’d be disappointed once the closing credits rolled. 

Three hours and eight minutes later, the only thing I could muster was a callback to a classic song from yesteryear, “Hooray for Hollywood.” Babylon is a cocaine-fueled journey that roars through the decadence and tomfoolery of the Golden Age. Rich with awe-inducing production design, costumes, score, and performances, the film is a glorious Hollywood epic set to rock cinema’s foundation.

Babylon not only looks at the transition of the silent era to talkies but also chronicles the rise and fall of multiple characters. Kicking off in the 1920s, the film opens with Manny (Diego Calva), a man whose dream of stardom is on pause as he ruffles through elephant feces and gathering every drug and drink imaginable for his employer. On his rise through the Hollywood elite, he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an actress with similar dreams of stardom, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpet player, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent film star. As the years’ pass and Hollywood moves forward, Manny, Nellie, Sidney, Jack, and many others must navigate the changing landscape or be lost in cinema history.

Similarly to other Damien Chazelle films, the themes of artistic obsession and perfection are fully displayed in Babylon‘s screenplay. Leaning on that theme is a parable of sorts for Chazelle as he’s used this before to tell stories of a drummer’s desire to be perfect for his instructor, a young actress who longs for her star to shine brightest, a jazz connoisseur’s need for the world to appreciate Jazz as much as he does, and an astronaut’s career goal to land on the moon despite his lack of personal relationships. This theme drives Chazelle’s films, and Babylon is no different.

Chazelle crafts a screenplay examining the pros and cons of artistic obsession. With each character comes the lasting effects of Hollywood’s transition and their endless journey to stay relevant. Focusing on different perspectives of this journey is the screenplay’s most effective tool. Whether it’s Manny’s realization of what the industry has personally done for him to Jack and Nellie’s methodologies to remain a star, Chazelle leaves no stone unturned and shines a light on not just the glitz and glamor of the industry but the underbelly of fear and failure. 

This electric ensemble elevates Chazelle’s layered screenplay. While others may be looking at other Oscar hopefuls, Babylon is easily my favorite ensemble of the year. Not only is the film rich with outstanding supporting performances, such as Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu, Apedo’s Sidney Palmer, and Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John, each is given its own unique and exciting arc. However, the film’s three centerpieces shine brightest. While some may view Academy Award winner Brad Pitt’s performance as bland and monotone, his take is grounded and subtle. Pitt exudes the mindset of a man looking at the twilight of his career and can’t find an alternate route down that road.

Margot Robbie is a tour de force throughout Babylon. While Robbie excels in mostly all her work, her performance in Babylon is one of my favorites. Robbie’s take is both nuanced and vivacious as Nellie handles the rise to fame and how one reacts when that fame is taken away. While some moments in Babylon may come off as over the top to some, I found them to be crucial to Nellie’s arc and her relationship with Manny, who is on the same trajectory as a growing star in the motion picture business. In a year where Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh are being credited with fine actress performances of the year, Robbie’s name deserves to be in that discussion.

Finally, we come to the film’s breakout star – Diego Calva’s Manny. Babylon is seen through his eyes as cinephiles enter this era of Hollywood, firstly through Manny getting an elephant to his employer’s drug-fused party that evening. While an elephant dropping feces on Manny may be a unique character introduction, I found it ideal as it shows the work Manny is willing to take to get his foot in the door of tinsel town. Throughout Manny’s rise in Hollywood, his savvy was showcased on production sets, and knowing the right button to push made me think of Desi Arnaz’s rise as a man known for his innovations in the industry and as a Latino figure in Hollywood with his know-how as a producer. With Calva, we are treated to a tender, energetic performance as his charisma jumps off the screen with pizzazz and charm.

While audiences may negatively look at Tom Cross’s editing with the film’s extended run-time, I found the film’s pacing delightful. It’s a frenetically paced joy ride that would fit nicely as a thrill attraction at an amusement park. Along with Cross’s editing, the film’s production design and cinematography are grand and ambitious. Linus Sandgren’s tracking shot on a set during the silent film era will stick with me for a while.

With a notable film, its score should follow suit, and Justin Hurwitz returns with one of his finest scores thus far. Hurwitz doesn’t miss as he blends some of the best from La La Land with a score fitting the era and film. After being snubbed for First Man, Hurwitz’s score should land him another Academy Award nomination next year.

Babylon is a fitting name for what’s sure to be one of the most divisive films of the year. Chazelle’s film captures the good and wickedness of the era and town. But, in totality, Chazelle’s vision was fully embraced by me with an ending that, while on the nose, is fitting for a film of this nature. It’s Chazelle’s Kubrickian finale, and it has not left my mind since my screening. Babylon spoke to me like no other in a year of phenomenal films.

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