In 1952, Singin’ in the Rain delivered an indelible celluloid portrait of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Released some 70 years later, but during the same tumultuous transition from silent pictures to the ‘Talkies’, Babylon is both a call and response to Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s masterpiece, beautifully speaking to the timeless allure of cinema. In a little over three hours, Damien Chazelle masterfully captures the wonder and eccentricities of stardom, and does so with such panache that it’s easy to see Babylon becoming an all-time classic.
The eyes and ears of the story belong to Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American film assistant who aspires to more. Yet Manny is not alone in his intoxication with cinema. Early on, he meets the effervescent Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), an actor hoping to find her way onto the silver screen. Their respective rises – Manny in the background, Nellie very much up front – are coloured by the contrasting fortunes of silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and gifted trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Yet Babylon’s cast is sweeping, from the magnetic allure of cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) to the simpering villainy of James McKay (Toby Maguire), Chazelle fills the narrative with characters which are larger than life.
It’s a narrative which is undeniably well worn. Singin’ in the Rain is referenced, both coyly and openly, throughout (a particular shout out to a genius expansion of the scene in which the actors navigate their microphones for the first time), but the story of diverting fortunes is a staple of Hollywood films, including every variation of A Star is Born. That, arguably, is the point. Chazelle knows his story isn’t new. Indeed, it is its very circularity and timelessness which stitches it into the fabric of Hollywood history.
Yet as it does unfold, the film unpacks a three-point view of stardom. Firstly, there is the fact that stardom is an objective reality, you know it when you see it; as showcased through Nellie and Jack’s ability to come alive the second their director calls action, or Sidney’s genius peering through an entire orchestra. To this first point, Robbie’s charisma radiates the film’s first hour, gifting Nellie with a confidence which is wholly earned the moment the camera starts rolling.
Yet the second point is that this objective reality is somehow transient. Stardom fades. A gorgeous scene with Jack and journalist Elinor St. John (a gossipy, wry Jean Smart) discusses this openly, and it is in the film’s final third that Brad Pitt’s superb performance truly glimmers. If Top Gun: Maverick allowed Tom Cruise to effectively survey his entire career through the lens of a character, then Babylon affords Pitt the same luxury. Pitt’s superstardom is interchangeable with Conrad’s, in a comparison which shows just how self-aware and meta Babylon aspires to be.
But Babylon’s final point on stardom is its transcendence. It gives actors the chance to ascend to a type of celluloid immortality, and audiences are granted a piece of this by simply watching movies. It’s this section of the film which has attracted some scepticism, but Chazelle’s apparent self-indulgence is wholly earned by the time he makes his grand statement on cinema. In fact, it’s a coda which echoes the dream sequence which so beautifully elevated La La Land.
And yet, breaking down Babylon into an esoteric discussion of stardom robs it of its raucous, madcap brilliance. Chazelle’s film is so much funnier and more outrageous than you may suspect, and doesn’t shy away from Hollywood’s demented, seedy underbelly. Even away from all this noise, there are a huge number of delicate creative choices which only add to the film’s rich texture; from the way Justin Hurwitz reinvents motifs from La La Land, imbuing them with a flavour of 1920s Americana, through to Linus Sandgren’s camerawork and deft framing of the closing shots for each main character.
Perhaps it’s the rumbling impact of Covid on Box Office receipts, or existential spectre of streaming which has caused a spate of films which laud the magic of cinema (The Fabelmans and Empire of Light included), but Babylon is remarkably bullish. Yes it’s an eccentric mix of sentimentality and how-the-sausage-is-made reality, but it proudly seeks to champion more than a century of film-making. Go to the largest screen possible and take in every coke-snorting, snake-fighting, rat-eating, assistant-director-sreaming, soul-lifting minute.