February 3, 2023
Babylon (2022) Review

“Incredible performances from Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva, some brilliant humor, some uncomfortable scenes, and a killer soundtrack makes Babylon a terrific start to cinema 2023.” We review Damien Chazelle’s Babylon.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to review Damien Chazelle’s latest epic Babylon. With what the film contains, it is incredibly hard. To be frank, the film is almost like a fever dream or something you’d see in a drug-fuelled haze (none of which I have experience in but you understand the reference). With scenes of bacchanal (orgy, cocaine, phallic-shaped pogo stick), urology, drug taking, nudity, rats being eaten, and a song that you’d never expect the lyrics to, it’s something you’d never expect. At the end of the day, the film needs to be seen instead of described. It needs to be experienced firsthand instead of being written about.

But despite the scenes that will shock the easily offended, or the faint of heart, the film is something that is grand in scale, totally engrossing, highly entertaining, and contains a killer soundtrack that will have you reaching for your handheld device to download it as soon as you leave the cinema. To put it simply, it is a movie of epic proportions from a master filmmaker. And contains some acting performances that will blow the audience away.

THE SYNOPSIS

From Damien Chazelle, BABYLON is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

INITIAL THOUGHTS

Where do I start? The opening of the film contains the original Paramount Logo in monochrome, giving the film an authentic feel. The first two minutes set the scene in a small way as to what is to come. But then, we get hit with what the film contains during its three hours and nine-minute runtime full bore in the face. All I shall reveal is that it concerns an elephant that is on its way to a raucous party held at a movie studio’s estate. From this point on, we are thrown headlong into an orgy sequence that lasts for over twenty-five minutes. And the debauchery that is on display will shock and amuse viewers. And this is before we even see the film’s title.

After this, we follow the main meat of the story, the decadence of late 1920s Hollywood. The main characters are already in place after we have met them at the orgy. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a silent movie star whose fame has never been stronger. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring actress who has a drug habit. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a jazz trumpet player. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican-American film assistant who longs for a larger role in the film industry. Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is a sensationalist journalist, and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a Chinese-American singer who also writes intertitles for movies. These are the main characters we will follow throughout.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

THE LOOK OF THE FILM

The production design, sets, and look of the film are almost perfect. The look of what we see up there on the screen is breathtaking at times. The look of the sets brings us back to the classic golden days of Hollywood. One sequence even has an early rendition of Singin’ In The Rain but not in the way you’d expect. And another sequence that is performed is recreated and shown from the actual film it came from. This attention to detail and the look of the period pieces are exemplary. From the cars of the period, the insides of Hollywood’s finest mansions, the detail afforded to the interior shots of hotels, and the exteriors of old Hollywood are spot on.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has a terrific eye for even the smallest of details here. His direction is assured from the outset and never lets up until the final credits. The look of the film isn’t what you expect. For a modern movie, the picture quality is a replica of the era the film is set in. At times, the picture looks grainy and not up to modern standards. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to look this way. No HDR here, this is an old-school Hollywood-looking film. And it works wonders. And it doesn’t take the viewer out of the film at all. Instead, it draws us in until we hardly notice it.

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

THE SOUNDTRACK

The soundtrack to the film by Justin Hurwitz is a score to die for. It won a Golden Globe award recently. And it is totally deserved. The soundtrack is one of the biggest pieces that the film has fitted in perfectly. Two tracks from the score, Call Me Manny, and Voodoo Mama are present almost all the way through. And both stick in the mind long after the end credits have rolled and finished. I guarantee that you will be humming at least one of them on the trip home. Most of it is jazz-inspired and completely rocks. From the smallest piece of music right up to the big pieces that punctuate the film, it is a score that is one of the best in recent years.

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

BRAD PITT

Although he top-lines the film and has a large majority of things that happen, Brad Pitt really isn’t the main focus. His character of Jack Conrad is a huge part of the Hollywood establishment and his behavior reflects this fact. But deep down, Jack does have feelings outside of his onscreen persona. Several events happen to him in his life that throw everything into perspective. Pitt plays the character brilliantly. One minute all charm, suave and sophisticated, the next, a drunken buffoon.

One scene from the trailer is played up even more in the full movie, leading us to laugh out loud at the outcome. But as we move towards the climax of the movie, we see that his time is over. His style of acting doesn’t fit in with the new innovation of talking pictures. We can guess where his journey will lead him. And it’s all down to Pitt’s performance.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

MARGOT ROBBIE

There isn’t anything I can say about Margot Robbie’s acting that hasn’t been said before. Quite simply, she is superb. We follow the character of Nellie LaRoy as she rises up the ranks of Hollywood, her excesses and vices, and her spiral back down the Hollywood ladder once again. On her rise, Nellie doesn’t care who she steps on to get what she wants. But from the start, we can see her downfall is going to be a painful, torturous experience for both the character and the audience itself.

We can’t help but fall in love with Nellie, and can’t help but feel for her. But she is, in essence, the orchestrator of her own demise. Margot Robbie plays Nellie to perfection, both on her rise up the ranks of Hollywood and her spiral back down again. It is a wonderful performance once again. And one I hope leads to another deserved Oscar nomination.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

JOVAN ADEPO AND LI JUN LI

Jovan Adepo gives a restrained but compelling performance as jazz musician Sidney Palmer. He plays him in a performance that will surprise and astound the audience from the start. Sidney will suffer the prejudices of the time as you would expect. One scene is especially astounding and heartbreaking when he is asked to darken his skin to look more Southern to audiences on film. It is totally unnecessary, wrong, and demeaning. But know that this actually happened in Hollywood for real, making us sick to our stomachs. Adepo is yet another vital cog in the story as it moves forward. And his eventual fate makes us sad but also happy at the same time. We know that this is where he is happiest.

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu is another part of the wheel of the film that is vital to the whole. Lady Fay is introduced to us during the orgy scene where she performs a song whose lyrics will have audiences gasping. Lady Fay is a lesbian in a time when such activities were frowned upon, in public at least. But behind closed doors, in the company of her fellow filmmakers, it is actively encouraged.

But she comes into her own during a sequence where Nellie, drunk and high on drugs, fights a rattlesnake, only for it to sink its fangs into her neck and not let go (as I hate snakes, I found my shoes extremely interesting during this scene). Fay comes to her rescue by sucking out the poison, saving Nellie’s life. But after this, Fay is gradually shunned by Hollywood, thanks to her ‘friendship’ with Nellie. Li Jun Li plays Fay expertly.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

DIEGO CALVA

But the real star of the film is Diego Calva as Manny. We meet him right at the beginning of the film and follow him right to the end credits. Manny is the character that holds the whole film together, and Calva is the real MVP here. We are with Manny every step of the way throughout and he is the only character that we can honestly say is clean and innocent during the majority of the film. His love for Nellie knows no bounds, even though Nellie doesn’t know who or what she really wants. But he is always there for her, through thick and thin. And will do almost anything for her.

Our hearts break for him. We can see where his love for Nellie will leave him by the climax but hope that we are wrong. Diego Calva is the real heartbeat of the film. Manny is the one person who is pure of heart, wanting to get into Hollywood and climb the ladder the right way. It is a bumpy ride along the way, that’s for sure. But by the end of the film, where we discover Manny’s fate, we are both saddened and happy for him at the same time. Almost every character will see their fortunes decline throughout the film. But Manny’s fate is perhaps the kindest of them all. And for that, we are thankful.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Babylon is the perfect way to open the moviegoing year. With incredible performances from Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva, some brilliant humor, some uncomfortable scenes, and a killer soundtrack, Babylon makes for a terrific start to cinema 2023 without a doubt. It will certainly have its critics and will divide the audience as to its quality. But if we look under the surface of the film, we can see the seedy underbelly of 1920s Hollywood. And at its heart is a morality tale, one that we can understand and enjoy. Well, once you get some of the more shocking scenes out of our minds, at least.

Tobey Maguire plays James McKay in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

As I said before, attempting to describe the film will never do it justice. It is something that is epic in scope, storytelling, and performance wise. While some scenes have the capacity to turn our stomachs and to make us feel revolted, it also serves the purpose of describing events that did actually occur during the period. And for that reason, the film is a powerhouse. And one that is deserving of acclaim and award recognition. Prepare to have your minds blown by what is up on the screen. A trip to Babylon is an uncomfortable one at times, but one that is worthy of taking.

Babylon is released in the UK and Ireland on Friday, January 20th by Paramount Pictures.

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