Movie review: ‚Babylon‘ energizes screen with kinetic debauchery


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Brad Pitt plays movie star Jack Conrad in "Babylon." Photo courtesy of Paramount

Brad Pitt plays movie star Jack Conrad in „Babylon.“ Photo courtesy of Paramount

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 16 (UPI) — Writer-director Damien Chazelle loves music and movies, but he also sees the price both cost artists. Babylon, in theaters Dec. 23, is his epic expose of classic Hollywood, and the audience reaps the benefit of the artists‘ sacrifices.

Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) comes to Hollywood to make it as an actor. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a movie star who cycles through lovers as fast as movie scripts.

Manny Torres (Diego Calva) meets them both while working a studio party. From 1926 to 1932, the trio indulged in decadence both on the studio lot and off.

Babylon opens with a sex party that shows more on-screen coupling than most R-rated movies attempt these days. It also tops the most elaborate dance number from La La Land as Nellie dances sensually inside an orgy of bodies gyrating and carrying her.

The Kinoscope studio lot is just as chaotic. Since these are silent films, they have multiple productions going at the same time, creating a cacophony of overlapping scenes, directors shouting orders, sound effects and live orchestral music.

Actual silent films didn’t hire orchestras to play the score on the set. They would save the music for post-production, but it contributes to the heightened, dizzying world of Babylon.

Staging multiple film shoots on a backlot is ambitious enough, but Chazelle adds a mob of striking production assistants and a battlefield full of extras.

The stakes of these productions are palpable. One production needs a new camera before sunset, and it’s Manny’s job to get to the camera shop and back.

For all the effort put into elaborate sequences, it’s unfortunate that not as much went into sound design. The sound mix is not clear and certainly does not prioritize dialogue.

Perhaps the point is that the party overshadows the dialogue, but if Pitt and Robbie are talking, we want to hear them. Babylon screened in a Dolby theater, so that’s the best sound any audience is likely to hear, and it’s still problematic.

By 1927, sound comes to Hollywood. This is where Babylon acknowledges some of the messier soundscapes of its earlier sequences.

Coping with talkies is a familiar Hollywood story, from Singing in the Rain to Downton Abbey: A New Era. Chazelle acknowledges the connection to Singing in the Rain, but this is definitely a new take on it.

Recording sound proves just as stressful and chaotic as the silent film productions, but in the other extreme. Crews have to keep sets so quiet to record the dialogue that any careless misstep ruins the entire scene.

Sound recordists also have to scrutinize every line of dialogue Nellie speaks, and they have to endure brutal heat because an air conditioner would make too much noise. The tension to pull off a single take of a dialogue scene could induce panic attacks.

Robbie is giving her most bravura performance. Between her party animal bravado and Nellie’s volatile on set behavior, Nellie is more ferocious than even Harley Quinn, but costars are matching her intensity.

Director Ruth (Olivia Hamilton) and her assistant, Max (P.J. Byrne), for example, are the main characters in their own screwball comedy about trying to quell all the technical hiccups.

Music remains a vital component of Babylon. The music that occurs live in party scenes and the background score drives the intensity.

Some of composer Justin Hurwitz’s tracks pay homage to his „Someone in the Crowd“ from La La Land. It gives those cues a more anxious, sinister vibe, and other new instrumentals contribute to that tone.

Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) goes from backing band to featured player who experiences some of the unsavory ways Hollywood treated Black performers.

Chazelle is not nostalgic for this kind of Hollywood excess. Self-destructive people can only be enabled for so long, and Babylon follows them to their inevitable downfalls.

What keeps Babylon from feeling too tragic is that all of the characters leave something behind. Chazelle acknowledges the impact the movies, even the fictional ones of Conrad and LaRoy, have on audiences.

Babylon itself is an exhilarating thrill to watch, though nobody should envy participating in what it depicts. The lifestyle is unsustainable, and even three hours of living it vicariously is exhausting, though rewarding, from the safety of the theater.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.