Babylon review: "Damien Chazelle's immersive vision of Hollywood's golden era"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

The style might cause whiplash, but it’s worth it for the thrilling momentum Chazelle brings to his revisionist filmdom fantasia.

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You might know the joke about the man in a bar who, when asked why he’s glum, reveals he spends his days sweeping elephant poop up at the circus. "Quit!" he is told. "And leave show business?" he replies.

One wonders if writer/director Damien Chazelle had that old gag in mind while filming a scene near the start of Babylon, where a poor lackey pushing a truck up a hill gets showered in pachyderm faeces. It’s a sequence that serves as a pungent visual metaphor for the film’s scabrous depiction of a ’20s Hollywood where the lowly quite literally get shat on. (The lofty get vomited and peed upon, but that’s another story.) Here and elsewhere, Babylon reveals the depths those seduced by Tinseltown will descend to, if only to get within touching distance of its siren-like glamour.

Over the course of three lurid, frenetic, and swirling hours, Chazelle follows three such moths drawn to the flame – wannabe starlet Nellie (Margot Robbie), gifted trumpeter Sidney (Jovan Adepo), and eager dreamer Manny (Diego Calva) – as well as a hedonistic film star (Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad) whose days are as numbered as the silent romances he appears in. Parties, premieres, and mishap-ridden shoots vividly conjure up an immersive vision of Hollywood’s golden era, albeit one just a coke-snort away from debauchery and degradation.

Crammed to the gills with epic crowd scenes, extended tracking shots and farcical set-pieces, the result is a big chunk of cinema that culminates in an extraordinary psychedelic montage on the moving image’s evolution. You can’t fault Chazelle for his ambition, though you might wish he would take a breather now and then; there really is no let-up here, with a Robbie performance at its centre of such wild abandon it makes Harley Quinn look comatose. (And that’s before she picks a fight with a rattlesnake.)

In a film of this length it’s both a shame and a troubling oversight that Adepo’s part seems so perfunctory; his role as a musician bullied into wearing degrading make-up deserves rather more than the scant screen-time he’s afforded. Thankfully, amid the chaos, there are heart-tugging notes of poignancy, with Manny’s doomed ardor for feckless Nellie and Jack’s realization that he’s surplus to requirements elevating the saga to La La Land levels of pathos. That’s a wrap…

Babylon is out December 23 in the US and January 20, 2023 in the UK. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.

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Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.