‘Babylon’ Is a Future Classic … And Here’s Why

This sprawling, vulgar ode to Hollywood's early days deserves some respect

Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” has already inspired mountains of articles that declare it either a masterpiece or a foul disaster, which is all the proof I need that it will be discussed for years and, perhaps belatedly, be declared some kind of classic.

Let me jump ahead and say I’ll be among the admirers who loved it from day one.

BABYLON | Official Trailer (2022 Movie) – Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Tobey Maguire

“Babylon” begins in 1922, at an out of control, sex and drugs-fueled party that, obviously, is based on the tragic event that ruined the film career of the once beloved “Fatty” Arbuckle.

It’s shocking to witness how far Chazelle takes this, right from the start. After the introductory business with an elephant (in indication of how crass the movie is willing to go), we get an all-stops out depiction of a debaucheries Hollywood party and a recreation of the death that Arbuckle scandal and the events that swirled around it.

We meet our main characters:

  • Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a Clark Gable-like movie star who can’t overcome his B-movie status.
  • Manuel (Diego Calva), who will demonstrate how far he will go to get into the film industry.
  • Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who, like Manuel, crashes the party in a desperate effort to make a connection.
  • Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a musician who is sickened by the lack of art and true artists around him.
  • Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a performer with a carnal act and industry connections.
  • Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a Hollywood gossip columnist both engrossed and repelled by the industry.

It’s a lot for one movie, let alone a 3-hour epic with E.L. Doctorow-like ambitions and narrative goals. To Chazelle’s credit – he allows enough scenes for the supporting characters to explore how Hollywood marginalizes those lacking connections and/or victims to horrendous stereotyping.

I understand the perspective of those who hate it: indeed, it’s too long, really disgusting at times, not always willing to explore the confrontational topics it brings up and has at least seven supporting characters too many.

The detractors will tell you those complaints are just for starters. Fair enough, it’s not perfect (unlike Chazelle’s prior film, “First Man,” the best film of 2018). Nevertheless, as hard as the film is to recommend to most people (that R-rating is a joke – this is what the extinct NC-17 was made for), it’s one of my favorite films of the year and is a lot smarter than most seem to realize.

Adepo’s character is initially on the sidelines but becomes a key figure in exploring the issue of racism in early Hollywood films. The horrible indignity he eventually faces will likely become the film’s most discussed scene. The characters are shown at their most vulnerable, though Chazelle stops short at humanizing any of these opportunists.


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“Babylon” reminds me a lot of my favorite John Schlesinger film, the long out of print “The Day of the Locust” (1975), which matches this in its depiction of Hollywood being (almost literally) connected to Dante’s circles of hell and the trails of wreckage left by those who create movie magic.

There are also elements of “Singin’ in the Rain” (though Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly would likely have hated this movie) crossed with a MAD Magazine parody.

'Babylon' with Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz & more | Academy Conversations

Yes, “Babylon” is extremely vulgar, but it’s also really funny and has some of the best sequences about filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The madcap sequence of a crazed German director (a hilarious Spike Jonze) racing against a perfect sunset and a brilliantly edited set piece portraying a set failing to adapt to the sound era, are tour de forces (the latter has a De Palma-esque precision, complexity and sense of humor).

By the time the viewer arrives at the perverse Tobey Maguire section (which seems included to encourage audiences on the fence about walking out to leave immediately), I was taken by the bawdy spectacle, pulpy storytelling and suggestion that, as film art rises, the morals and self-control of those who make movies ascends into hell.

Chazelle often oversteps here, bombarding his audience with rancor and gross-out moments. You wouldn’t believe that the story could possibly distance itself from its grotesque opening, but it does; there are moving scenes and the central characters develop nicely.

When it comes to its bittersweet conclusion, full of visions from cinema history, Chazelle refrains from unabashed nostalgia. Instead, he seems to be saying that the magic of Hollywood is how art is made despite the monsters who make them.

Since “Babylon” is an elaborate period piece, it makes me wonder if Chazelle has seen something as a Hollywood insider while making “First Man” that inspired him to make this. Most share Chazelle’s fascination with Hollywood’s underworld and never-ending cess pool of sensational gossip and this element seems to have motivated the direction of the story.

Calling “Babylon” a love letter to the movies, however, is a stretch. The film is all the better for showing us how everyone working behind the camera is capable of maintaining a moral center but ignores it. Like “The Day of the Locust,” this is an ugly ode to Hollywood (and Chazelle is absolutely biting the hand that feeds him) but as a sad cautionary tale, it’s always engrossing.

2022 is already a year overloaded with films about moviemaking: the dour “Blonde,” the self-adoring “The Fabelmans,” “Bardo” (technically about documentary filmmaking but still), and “Nope.” Chazelle’s film, like his celebrated “La La Land,” finds wonder in the possibility of making great art but turns on its audience by showing us everything we dread about the main characters and their doomed trajectory.

As St. John explains, it’s a system that repeats itself, recycles mistakes, downgrades people and, somehow, leaves great film art (and, contrastly, dark film history) in its wake. If “La La Land” was romanticized and hopeful, this is cynical and mournful.


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In addition to the aforementioned “The Day of the Locust,” Chazelle’s film is also in the good company of “The Wild Party” (a much milder take on the Arbuckle tragedy), “Inside Daisy Clover” and, easily the most underrated film of the 1980’s, Blake Edwards’ “Sunset” (1988), which was doomed by a studio that improperly marketed it as a comedy; “Sunset” depicted Wyatt Earp’s days as a advisor on Tom Mix’s films, matches the portrait of sleaze and

Smart’s big, wonderful monologue with Pitt, where she explains to him how his image will spend eternity with “angels and ghosts,” is wonderful, as well as entirely true.

As Elinor St. John informs Conrad late in the film, being able to thread film of him through a sprocket is a means of connecting with an audience that has yet to be born. That’s as misty eyed as the film gets about Hollywood movie magic, period.

Otherwise, “Babylon” is bitter about film history, particularly about the sordid stories that have never ceased to dribble out of the entertainment industry. Although set in 1922, it easily could take place in 2022, as the grotesque excesses depicted are exactly what most suspect the rich and protected are doing in “The Big Nipple,” which was Bernardo Bertolucci’s nickname for Hollywood (and a fine alternate title for this movie).


Having seen the film twice, the ending is neither as sentimental nor tidy as I originally assumed. Yes, a character is watching a classic film and making a mental connection between his past experiences and the iconic movie he’s watching for the first time; however, the movie in question isn’t as saying one story inspired one another as much as Hollywood magic can alter how we perceive our pasts.

Also, the remarkable montage that follows, in which the cinema history is encapsulated into a few minutes, is less about the quality of art than the technical evolution of it.

As earlier scenes show intimate close ups of cameras being loaded and run, the closing footage demonstrates how the developing film technology has not simply progressed but how, in frames either chemical or pixelated, our past and present, both true and fabricated, are eternally preserved.

Three and a Half Stars

One Comment

  1. Why would anyone care about how sausage is made when the sausage is on the casting couch? It is so hypocritical to enjoy such a movie as Weinstein is on trial continuously to multiple crimes. This movie may be acceptable a decade ago, but the Woke era tainted it.

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