By: Amanda Guarragi
When we look at the entertainment industry, we see it divided into sections; the filmmakers, the producers, the critics, and the audience. The majority of the industry is divided. Especially the critic/audience disconnect. But Damien Chazelle’s Babylon explores the importance of everything working together perfectly as a beautiful mess. The film tells a tale of extraordinary ambition and outrageous excess. The film showcases the decade when silent film stars suffered the transition of talkies, and filmmakers had to change. Chazelle presents multiple characters from the silent film era wanting to make it big in Hollywood and stay at the top. The film takes a bit to find its footing, but once it hits its stride in the second act, Chazelle subtly places moments for the finale to tie it all together.
Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) met one fateful night at a party. Torres worked with elephants for the movies, and LaRoy is a star waiting for her big break. At this one party, things changed for both of them, and in a way, they navigated the silent film era together. One thing about Hollywood is that the highs are high, but the lows are low. The drugs, parties, and alcohol aided the crushing reality of how insignificant they felt in the grand scope of Hollywood. This is also applied to Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who was at the peak of his career. Chazelle emphasized the extraordinary parties to show the emptiness in these characters. Each had something missing, and cinema filled that void for them. Whether they were in front of the camera or behind, it completed them. However, the ego does get in the way, and actors are fragile people.
Chazelle captures the essence of filmmaking and what it would be like to be on a set in the 20s/30s. Many don’t understand how jarring the transition was from the silent era to “talkies” until they watch Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. Those silent film stars often exaggerated their reactions and were larger than life in a silent picture. “Talkies” didn’t have to be that extra because there was dialogue, and they had an added layer of expression. It’s almost as if the actors and to learn how to act again. This changed the trajectory of many careers, and some couldn’t handle the shift. Chazelle has always leaned heavily on the sound design of his films, and Babylon played with all of it. He mixed the incredible score by Justin Hurwitz, the sound on set, the orchestra, and the dialogue to have the audience understand the monumental shift in cinema. The two that suffered the most in this film because of their image were LaRoy and Conrad, who had two different paths, yet they came to the same conclusion.
Margot Robbie gives the most vivacious, and emotional performance to date as Nellie LaRoy and is the star of this movie. She steals the spotlight continuously and is the only person that could have played this role. Even though Diego Calva is the lead of this film, it felt like Manny Torres was a bit sidelined. His character arc is the strongest because of the turn of events in the third act. Calva and Robbie had wonderful chemistry that held it together. Even though their romance felt forced, it still showed the hopefulness each of them had because of their love of movies. Torres had romanticized his relationship with LaRoy because she was bold and exciting. Loneliness and the ambition to be a star made LaRoy do wild things to stay in the public eye, which is one reason her star power fizzled as it did. As for Brad Pitt, it seemed he wasn’t playing a character but instead a more accurate version of himself as Jack Conrad. He was the only one who felt out of place in his 20s for me.
Babylon is Chazelle’s love letter to cinema history and how everyone in the industry has a part to play. No work is ever insignificant but a moving piece to propel the medium forward. Whether you’re a critic, producer, director, actor, or personal assistant, it all matters on the grand scale of the Hollywood scope. This a film that will slowly grow on you as it progresses because you stay with the characters for a while. They all morph into versions of themselves to fuel the Hollywood fire. Chazelle subtly crafts the characters to have longevity during the silent film era to use those moments memorably at the end. This was the definition of learning from the past to make something unique that will last. The final scene with Diego Calva in the movie theatre and the crescendo of the score by Justin Hurwitz ties everything together quite nicely, and it will hit audiences with the truth; everyone lives through movies.