Whiplash, La La Land, First Man — each one directed by Damien Chazelle, two of three written by him, and each one (love or hate them) makes a declarative statement regarding its subject. It shouldn’t surprise that the Oscar winner (Best Director for 2017’s La La Land) would be similarly divisive with his latest project, a historical fiction set in the Old Hollywood period of the late ‘20s to early ‘50s that shook its audiences due to its gratuitousness and profanity. So mixed was the theatrical reception that any hope of critical attention fizzled out like Lina Lamont’s (Singin’ in the Rain) future in talkies. Now, however, curious home viewing audiences have an opportunity to give Chazelle’s challenging dramedy a watch as it hits shelves, with a few bonus features to enlighten the interested.
Babylon follows the paths of several individuals seeking to achieve or trying to hold onto glory in the moving pictures business between 1926 and 1952. Whether they’re an established actor like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a waiting-to-be-discovered star like Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), someone searching for just one chance to work on a set like Manny Torres (Diego Calva), or one of many others, each is drawn to the magic of cinema and wants to leave their mark. Except fame is fleeting and notoriously vicious, especially when being sought-after comes with an expiration date.
In Episode 77 of The Cine-Men, I discussed with show co-host Darryl Mansel my feelings on Babylon, summing it up by saying that while I didn’t enjoy it, it compelled me. Chazelle’s exploration of the filmmaking industry as something that’s entirely about commodification and how it only values what it can sell is unsurprising for someone who watches films as I do. As someone with a little knowledge of cinema history pre-Hayes Code, a self-imposed form of censorship by the Motion Picture Industry that removed things like drinking, smoking, fornication, violence, and other aspects of popular storytelling at the time, seeing a film portray the late ‘20s as a period wherein these things were not only common off-screen but on-screen, again, not a shocker. Unfortunately, if you grew up on Singin’ in the Rain, you might think otherwise. Each generation has a tendency to look back on their lives via media and give it a good scrubbing, as though the grandparents and great-grandparents of now didn’t get down with the get down back in the day. (TMI: But my paternal grandparents literally got married so they could sleep together, so the story my grandfather would tell goes.) The point is that what Chazelle captures on camera, extraordinarily heightened as it may be, is fairly accurate. There were extravagant parties, the sets were death traps, stars and starlets were made, broken, and tossed aside when new ones were found. This is not altogether different from now and one need only to hear the stories from recent Oscar winners Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Brendan Fraser (The Whale) for evidence.
For all that is great and grand in its use of history, the film is long and you can feel it, a problem when making an epic. Chazelle wants audiences to be taken for a ride, in this case one that literally starts with you being shat upon, and whose troubles end after a journey through the bowels of a metaphorical hell, so we know it’s going to be rough from the jump, we just don’t realize how much so. The issue, from my perspective, is the number of characters and the imbalance in how they share the narrative load. Conrad and LaRoy’s respective stories are almost opposites despite conveying a similar narrative by film’s end; whereas Torres, as the audience surrogate, is not only able to get out of the industry, but retain some semblance of his humanity and love of the industry. Except, by focusing on their arcs, we lose greater depth with Jovan Adepo’s jazz musician Sidney Palmer, Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu, and Jean Smart’s author/critic Elinor St. John. As the first three have their real-world counterparts, so do these three and yet each are given the short shrift in order to further the arcs of the others. Between the jumps from party to party (each one significant and representing the growing changes with each character), these three get lost to the point that one almost forgets they are part of the film. Of them, only Smart’s St. John is likely to be remembered because of the significance of a scene toward the end of the film with Conrad, a scene which many take as the crux of the film itself. Filmmaking is a hard industry for those who make movies, yet it can feel harder for audiences when they watch something that (a) they are not prepared to engage with, (b) doesn’t always justify its length with its choices, and (c) doesn’t use its characters to their fullest potentials.
As far as the special features go, it’s a mix of in-depth and surface-level that mirror the same struggles with the film. There are two brief featurettes that allow the audience an opportunity to learn a little more about the background of the film, specifically the costumes and music. The first, “The Costumes of Babylon,” runs just under three minutes, while the second, “Scoring Babylon,” is just under two minutes. The odd thing is that both of these could’ve (and should’ve) been longer as they, along with other aspects like production design, set design, and cinematography are departments worthy of more focus. Strangely, it appears that all these areas of the film, plus casting and storytelling, are explored in the 30-minute “A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon” featurette. I say “strangely” because some aspects of the other two featurettes appear nearly word-for-word in the “Canvas,” making the inclusion of the other two redundant. No matter what one thinks of the film, it’s clear that a great deal of work went into capturing the tone and feel for the large swath of time in Hollywood, yet we don’t get anywhere near as much information on how they did it.
As a matter of personal interest, I would’ve loved more about the score, specifically from composer and frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz who used many riffs from his La La Land score in the one for Babylon. Where the former is a love letter to movie-making, Babylon is a cautionary tale, thereby making the reuse of the score very intentional. Unfortunately, none of this is discussed in the bonus features, making them feel like another missed opportunity.
Be advised that if you’re a fan of the film and looking to nab a physical copy, it comes in a few flavors: standard definition, high definition, ultrahigh definition, and ultrahigh steelbook. Considering the opulence on display in many of the sequences (visual and auditory), the high or ultrahigh definition versus are the way to get the best picture and sound. But keep this in mind, format fans, Paramount is releasing each format with a digital only unless you pick up the limited edition steelbook, which contains both the 4K UHD edition *and* Blu-ray two-disc edition plus digital code. Personally, I always like having more than one format as my house doesn’t have 4K UHD accessibility in every room, so the steelbook would be the way to go for people who don’t want to wait for a sale to buy a different format separately.
Speaking of the steelbook, the design is in line with some of the ideas of the early portions of the film, but isn’t entirely creative or inspired. The cover uses the overused kaleidoscope technique to display central characters Nellie, Jack, Manny, Lady Jun Li, St. John, and Palmer on the front and an image of a champagne glass being shot displayed on the back cover. With the exception of Nellie and Palmer, the characters are essentially copy-and-pasted from the regular release cover which is just a different mock-up of the theatrical poster. As for the interior, both portions make up one image of the first party, depicting specifically the moment were LeRoy is picked up and carried as she lay semi-prone.
Considering the pedigree involved in the making of the film, that the home release edition is sparse is distressing. The film is undeniably polarizing, somewhat for the liberties it takes with cinema history and somewhat because people don’t have a wider understanding of cinema history, yet it deserves more than it got. Unfortunately, if you’re going to spend three-hours at the theater, something like Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) is going to be a bigger hit due to the spectacle and escape it offers versus the gross-out, profane-laced, historical fiction that is Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Yet, one who enjoys (perhaps that should be in quotes) Babylon will find the lack of investigative materials on the home release frustrating as the production design, costumes, and music deserve their own deep dives. Heck, offering concrete examples of the places Chazelle drew inspiration would go a long way in making the home release of Babylon grow into the audience it missed out on.
Ultimately, I still don’t love Babylon, yet I can’t help but want to revisit sections of it — not just LaRoy shooting her first sound picture (a sequence which is darkly hilarious and worth the revisit due to staging, editing, and scripting), but LaRoy’s first day and seeing all the concurrently shot films the fictional Kinescope Pictures is making. Or the scene in which drunken LaRoy fights a rattlesnake (a far better detour than anything in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021), the ending when Torres visits a theater at the end of the film, a lovely capper that only solidifies St. John’s comments regarding the legacy of actors and creatives long after they’ve stopped working.
I don’t always like it, but it compels me. That feeling alone implies there’s something worth revisiting.
Babylon Special Features:
- A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon — The cast and crew discuss the inspiration and motivation behind the original story and development of this epic, 15 years in the making. (30:51)
- The Costumes of Babylon — Discover how costume design was fundamental to character development and the challenges that went into creating over 7,000 costumes for the film. (2:51)
- Scoring Babylon — Take a peek into Justin Hurwitz’s musical process to understand the artistry behind composing an iconic score that further elevates the film. (1:51)
- Six (6) Deleted & Extended Scenes
Available on VOD and digital January 31st, 2023.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD March 21st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Babylon website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.