By Caleb Nguyen, Jan. 24, 2023
Director Damien Chazelle’s film “Babylon” provides audiences with a glimpse of the movie industry’s extravagant transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Diego Calva stars as Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant who rises through the ranks of odd jobs to director, inspired by his love of film. This is the lens which Chazelle picked to navigate viewers through the three-hour rollercoaster ride of story.
Starring alongside Calva is Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, an actress and Torres’ love interest who makes a strong first impression but later divides critics and customers alike. Through her catty attitude, flamboyant and erratic nature, as well as her gambling and drug usage, LaRoy’s rise is as quick as her fall in the transitional period of film.
Brad Pitt stars as Jack Conrad, Hollywood’s most popular leading man who falls on hard times as the industry changes around his fading stardom.
Though much of the film follows Torres’ perspective, both LaRoy and Conrad cross his path multiple times throughout each of their individual journeys through the collective struggle of Hollywood’s introduction of sound to the silver screen.
All three main actors register captivating performances through the film as viewers will be able to feel the weight of every challenge each player in this story endures with fierce conviction through every scene.
Through dwindling dreams, debts, drugs and dying careers, all three main actors of this tale go through equally high peaks and the lowest of valleys one can only imagine.
Taking course over six years, the film’s themes of upward social mobility are evident in Torres and LaRoy, who both started from humble beginnings in Mexico and New Jersey, respectively, to having key roles in their fields of making films in a matter of two years.
Reflective of Chazelle’s earlier film “La La Land,” the romance between Torres and LaRoy is vital to the plot. Despite wishing for a fairytale romance, career aspirations and challenges only pull Torres and LaRoy further apart than when they started.
The theme song of both Torres and LaRoy, part of the soundtrack composed by frequent Chazelle collaborate Justin Hurwitz, reflects such a melancholic tune. The melody is repeated but ends without resolution, indicative of the nature of the relationship between both parties.
Hurwitz’s other music choices include booming jazz, sentimental and reflective piano melodies and heartfelt orchestral arrangements that match the ever-changing emotions of each character.
In an emotional moment these melodies can be played slowly on the ragtime piano, then quickly blared in a jumped-up edition of the same notes on saxophone with a kick drum background reminiscent of club music adding vibrance to an already colorful film.
With various woven storylines and emotional peaks and valleys, the cinematography of the film still stands out. Many stylistic choices such as LaRoy’s red dress seen in many of the promotional posters of the film among the largely blank backgrounds and lighting of certain shots are reminiscent of Chazelle’s prior films “Whiplash” and “La La Land.”
Chazelle also takes inspiration from his previous films for his masterful balance of the highs and lows of each character through the use of color and strategic lighting.
Not to be outdone, supporting actors Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart and Li Jun Li all play significant roles in the film’s telling of this period piece about the cinema industry.
Adepo stars as talented jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer who quickly breaks into the industry with production companies noticing his musical talents, but ultimately deals with racial politics interfering with his identity.
Smart plays Elinor St. John, a gossip writer who first notices Robbie’s LaRoy as a rising industry star and often dictates fan opinion of actors and actresses through her magazine articles in a time when print was the most popular medium.
Jun Li portrays Lady Fay Zhu, a Chinese American cabaret singer who’s sexual identity and self-assured attitude face complications with the changing industry, much like Adepo’s Palmer faces.
Fans and critics alike have been divided on the film, especially the extensive run time and supposed excessive and grotesque representations of the industry’s roots it both idolizes and bashes simultaneously. Despite this, “Babylon” keeps audiences entertained with stellar performances from the cast, vibrant colors and diverse soundtrack.
Chazelle’s ultimate lesson is that despite the film industry’s many messy ends to reach the highest peaks, such a destination is worth the blood spilling.
While the box office numbers aren’t indicative of any commercial peak, to call such a piece as forgotten in darkness would be disingenuous as “Babylon” will leave viewers pondering if the lengths to make this film, and all films, are truly worth the risk.
To the sweat dripping and tears shed by those who may only get a small, and often dark, time in the brightest lights of Hollywood, it’s worth it.
Feature image courtesy of Jackson Gray
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