We may never know how Damien Chazelle feels about Hollywood. His 2016 masterpiece La La Land was an unabashed and beautiful ode to classic romantic movies and musicals. Whether it be the homages to Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause or literal allusions to Singin’ in the Rain, one could reasonably say Chazelle loves cinema—and that may be true. But his latest effort, Babylon, doesn’t paint as clear of a picture. Babylon is not a love letter to the movies as many have framed it to be. It’s a 3+ hour epic full of sex, drugs, and debauchery that serves as a final letter to the movies.
And it rocks. Every single minute of its 188-minute runtime rock. Babylon is a bold, wildly entertaining, and excessive portrayal of 1920s Hollywood and is hands down the movie of the year. It won’t be for everyone and many people will be off-put by its hyper-stylistic and overstimulating nature. But those who submit themselves to Chazelle’s twisted mind will have nothing short of a rapturous experience.
Set in the late 1920s during the end of the silent films, Babylon revolves around three characters—aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), established film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), and hopeful film assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva)—and their rise and fall as the industry transitions to talkies. As these individuals battle personal and external vices, they find out the industry is ready to move on, with or without them.
This movie, above all, shoots for the fences, and nothing is more evident than its ambitious opening party sequence. Imagine if someone combined the party scene in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby with the opening sequence of Boogie Nights—that’s Babylon’s first scene in a nutshell. It’s as deranged and incredible as you think.
There’s loud music, streamers, an abundance of naked people, dancing, drugs, alcohol, dead bodies, and nearly every deranged thing known to man in this scene. The audience’s POV for this scene (and a majority of the movie) is through Manny, who’s doing his best to keep this party in control. He interacts with all the major characters in a dizzying fashion. And, even amidst all this madness, Chazelle finds a way to include a sweet walk-and-talk moment between Nellie and Manny. It shouldn’t work, and this whole sequence should be a mess, but it’s impossible not to be entertained and enthralled by it, especially as Justin Hurwitz’s fantastic score is blasting in the background. As the party nears its end, Chazelle finds the most absurd way to end it: by having an elephant rampage throughout the party.
It’s at this point that Babylon will lose or gain a viewer because the rest of the movie is filled with similar bravura scenes. There are many other ludicrous party scenes and, in general, the film is filled with long scenes, sequences, and montages. Nellie’s first day on the set of a silent movie is juxtaposed with Manny’s first day as an assistant on Jack’s latest movie. The tribulations both sets have to go through are often hilarious and make the viewer question the magic of making movies. Even with long scenes, Chazelle never loses the viewer’s interest. Either he employs the juxtaposition technique or creates a hilarious situation for the characters to be in.
The technical elements in these scenes only strengthen Chazelle’s direction. His previous films are some of the most technically sound films of the 2010s and Babylon is just as impressive. Hurwitz never fails to impress and his score here is tremendous. The main track, “Voodoo Mama,” is an invigorating song with a phenomenal trumpet component to it, and matches the movie’s frantic nature. Chazelle also uses some of Hurwitz’s La La Land score, which is an insane move and really shows he got to make the movie he wanted. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is stunning and he captures the most depraved things with such grace and beauty. The erratic and whiplash-inducing editing keeps the audience on their feet, never knowing what the next frame will hold.
Babylon does not work if you don’t have actors committed to Chazelle’s over-the-top vision. Thankfully for him, he has three actors who give it their all. In what should be a major debut, Calva holds his own in every scene and leaves a strong impression. He’s given the most detailed arc and Chazelle uses his lengthy runtime wisely to show Manny’s gradual rise and thunderous fall. Pitt is wonderful in a role that was made for him. He isn’t asked to go to lengths like one of his co-stars, but is given some of the movie’s funniest lines. It’s a suave and reliable performance we expect from him. The one-on-one he has with Jean Smart’s Elenor St. John is a great scene. Pitt’s eyes and facial reactions say so much—even if he remains speechless.
To talk about this movie, though, is to talk about Margot Robbie, who delivers a career-best performance. Nellie could have used slightly more depth, but Robbie makes up for it in one of the most committed and wild performances ever in cinema. Nellie is beautiful, but does some truly disgusting things. Robbie is able to depict both of these aspects with ease. In the opening sequence, she has to dance with immense physical force, running around the building, and being carried away by the crowd. That isn’t even the end of it. Without spoiling anything, there are scenes with snakes and bodily fluids that Nellie plays a significant part and I can confidently say no other A-lister has done what Robbie does on screen. When Manny and Nellie first meet, she tells him, “Either you are or ain’t a star. And, I’m a star, baby.” It feels like Nellie is talking about Robbie herself. She is a bright shining star and only continues to get better.
All of Babylon culminates in a montage that is, well, very dumb (and I mean that in the best way possible). No spoilers here, but even if I were to say word-for-word what happens in this sequence, no one would believe it. It’s truly asinine, hilarious, and absolutely perfect. It only makes sense for a movie with such bold choices to end in the boldest of them all. It’s as if Chazelle decided Babylon will be the last movie. Not his last movie, but the last movie ever.
If Babylon is to be the last movie to exist, then it’ll be a great one to end on. It has everything you could ask for—comedy, drama, romance, action—and more. Those who love it and hate it will agree, Damien Chazelle is an unhinged man for making this manic movie. Jack says at one point, “We have to redefine the form.” Babylon redefines the form—so much so—that no other movie will ever come close to it. Bravo, Damien Chazelle. Bravo.