Music is the tether in short doc “Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion,” linking two cultures across time and location.

Before Guttenberg changed how we share stories with the birth of the printing press in 1450, it was the oral tradition which kept the past in the memories of our present. Even well after the emergence of printed word, the art of storytelling, whether by tangible formation or oral creation, remains culturally significant in just about every known community on Earth. In her short documentary Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion, director Jessica Gould explores the connection between two such cultures: that of the Italian Jews via composer Salamone Rossi (1570 – 1630) and the works of the African-American community from the time before and through the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a powerful thesis supported by musical renditions of past and present artists coming together in a powerful musical collage. More than the similarity it presents, Babylon is truly an appetizer of a tale, ending before truly satisfying, instilling a desire to go deeper and to learn more.


Title card for director Jessica Gould’s BABYLON: GHETTO, RENAISSANCE, AND MODERN OBLIVION,

Over the course of a brief 29-minute film, Gould takes the audience from Rossi’s Italian era to contemporary America with the connection between music, specifically, the way in which music uplifted some out of their ghettos and into a better life. The emphasis throughout is on the music itself with the majority of time spent listening to either historical recordings or live recordings from primarily either Gould herself or members of The Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble. This choice places the narrative focus on the songs themselves, something which the audience may be less familiar with and, therefore, the centering of them becomes the largest take away. Each rendition is, frankly, beautiful and moving with the first song, “Al Naharot Bavel (By the Waters of Babylon),” performed by four members of Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble and the second song, Rossi’s “Cor Mio,” performed by Gould and Lucas Harris transporting me to a place I haven’t thought of in years: Sabbath services. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I watched Babylon at the end of Yom Kippur, a holiday at the end of the Jewish High Holidays which is a time of reflection upon ourselves and our actions of the past year. These songs made me feel like I was a child again, albeit sitting impatiently for the service to be over, but delighted in the songs of the Cantor. I did not know the words themselves, but could feel the emotion intended by the lyrics and music and it felt heavenly. Years later, I’m more philosophical than religious in my practices, and these performances instilled a similar contemplation and spiritual connection that I didn’t realize I missed. In line with her thesis, I found myself coming to the realization of finding something that I didn’t realize was lost exemplifies the powerful nature of song and storytelling at the intersection of culture and global history. How else could songs from so long ago speak to me, and perhaps others, as if from the present?



Adding to the gravitas is actor Ezra Knight (Netflix’s Daredevil), clad in a black monk-like robe, narrating the details the audience needs to know before each song is played. The songs themselves are captivating enough, but his voice booms with a power reserved for the kind of hellfire sermons one might find pouring out the windows of an Antebellum South church. One can’t help but wonder if this is intentional on the part of Gould, given where the film goes regarding African-American musical history, as though to create a cultural tether between 16th century Italy and 20th century America, or if it’s merely a happy accident. Either way, one can’t help but pay attention whenever Knight speaks, his eyes staring straight into our own, even when he is nothing more than a disembodied voice educating us on contemporary performers like Ma Rainey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, singers whom too few know about despite their significant role in American culture.


A photo of a Ma Rainy performance shown in BABYLON: GHETTO, RENAISSANCE, AND MODERN OBLIVION,

Given my prior experience in the radio industry, as well as extensive research I’ve done for my Master’s thesis, there’s a great deal of detail I can attest to in its accuracy and presentation. Where the film is weakest, though, is that it spends more time on the performances than on digging into the details which would strengthen Gould’s incredibly authentic comparison between two cultures separated by time and country but which share a similarity in the way music shaped their lives. This is why I referred to the film as an appetizer before as Babylon could really be a longer, more in-depth affair, not just because it would allow the performances to not feel quiet as unwieldy compared to the explanations, but it would allow the audience to dive deeper into the histories themselves, creating an opportunity for enhanced understanding. For instance, not enough are aware how much Elvis Presley, beloved musical icon that he is, ripped off Thorpe with little to no credit given. She, like so many other musicians of the Black community, was the foundation of the music industry as race records were incredibly popular for in-home listening on the early phonographs. It was a way for people to listen to the songs of their community without having to travel and that novelty enabled many musicians the ability to extend their range of listenership. Of course, where there is money to be found, it is often distilled or changed for Caucasian audiences, thus songs recorded by popular Black artists would be re-recorded by others, with the originals never receiving the glory they earned. This is, of course, touched on by Gould where Thorpe is concerned, but not by the film as a whole. Again, this may be an issue with budgeting restricting length or it’s by design, but with so much attention given to the music, especially at the start, a deeper probe into the Rossi era, the contemporary era, and their relationship to each other would’ve been, well, divine.



After a lengthy stint on the festival circuit, with more performances scheduled, Babylon has amassed many laurels and is likely to continue to do so. Between Knight’s kinesthetic presence, the beautiful songs, and the unifying thesis of transgenerational/transcultural connection, the film is startling in many ways, awakening with you something like forgotten in the way only music can. Though it may not delve as deeply as might be preferred, it certainly sets the table for audience members to go forth with an idea of where to start their own research. While every documentarian has an ideal, a vision, a perspective for their story, what Gould does that not all consider is that she leaves the audience without a clear specific answer. That alone is worth applauding as encouragement is usually the antithesis of modern documentaries which tell you everything they think is important and that only their perspective matters. The question may be what inspired Gould to create this documentary and, in turn, this documentary may inspire others to question as well. From refrain to chorus and so on forever. Delightful.

Currently screening on the festival circuit.

For more information, head to the official Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion website.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.


Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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