Kishore Karanam archive  

Babylon: Damien Chazelle and Perfection

December 23, 2022.


The people in Chazelle's movies, who go to great efforts to perfect their craft, have a certain allure. Whether it's a young drummer who is bleeding but still practices drumming to impress his rude professor, a talented charming couple who are willing to put their feelings aside for a career in jazz, or now, in Babylon, a senior actor not able to cope up with acting in commercial films that aren't art, or a successful film executive who will do anything to help a woman he loves succeed as an actress, Chazelle always makes these characters who want to become great artists and create great art. And with this film, I believe he is one of them and yes, he is a great artist.

Babylon follows the stories of four people. An esteemed but fading star actor named Jack Conrad (played endearingly by Brad Pitt), a new jersey rebel and want-to-be star Nellie LaRoy (played astoundingly well by Margot Robbie), who already sees herself as one, a would-be film executive Manny Torres (Diego Calva), and an extremely gifted but unrecognized trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Despite the fact that none of these characters are directly linked but do know one another, they all share the same trait: ambition.

A stirring spectacle takes place in a huge field where silent movies are being filmed. Nellie discovers she can cry on order while dancing in a saloon scene, where she receives her big break. In a historical war movie, Jack drags his inebriated self into a titanic battle. Also, here Manny gets the attention of film execs as he manages to save the day by bringing the camera for the shooting just before the sunset. This entire sequence is shown simultaneously as the camera dazzles between all three. The Nellie sequence was one of the best scenes of the movie as it was perfectly blended with stunning music, brilliant acting, insane bursts of anger, and ecstatic humor. It's very well written by Damien Chazelle. This whole scene almost makes you believe that you're watching a masterpiece, but turns out we're not even halfway through the movie.

Now, we see Manny rise through the Hollywood business and become a producer by putting up Sidney Palmer in the spotlight. Also, we get to see Nellie becoming a controversial star whereas Jack's career meanders down the line. As the story progresses, the script seems to dry up a bit before it turns into something very wild with Nellie fighting a snake. One of the things to note is apart from these main characters, we can find other interesting ones, but sadly Chazelle's screenplay doesn't give them much time to blossom. One such character is Lady Fay Zhu (played by Li Jun Li), a cabaret singer with a talent for creating silent movie title cards. She is the one that saves Nellie from the snake by sucking the poison off her neck and spitting it out in a very wild sequence. With Chazelle wanting so desperately to show the sleazy dark side of Hollywood he gets a little extra with it. Noting that the extravagantly deprived party and an insanely wicked snake fight aren't quite enough, he brings an utterly creepy Toby Maguire to take Manny forcefully to a multi-level S&M sex dungeon that's filled with all kinds of absurd stuff with an alligator and sideshow performers! Though this scene was a little intriguing while happening, at the end you can't help but feel like you just watched a poor American Horror Story episode!

Overall, Babylon is one of a kind movie, especially the kind you don't expect from Damien Chazelle. The performances were quite extraordinary with Margot Robbie topping the chart. She just took the portrayal to next level with her devil-may-care charm and Harly Quinn's insanity. Brad Pitt is perfect as a fading star making it look almost personal at times. To my surprise, Diego Calva was too good. Though at times he looks very calm and observant, his character in a way represents us, the audience. We get to see all the hard work, love, pain, and debauchery that goes into making a film through Manny's eyes. There are some parts that could've been expanded like the love story between Nellie and Manny, but I believe Chazelle wanted this to be a love story between the audience and the cinema, so I let that go. I loved that though Chazelle showed how cold he is towards the cinema at times, his passion for it never faded and the battle between these two contractions came out high.

Apart from the characters having insane love for art, there is one more thing common in Chazelle's films, Jazz music. Jazz music is something you see in his movies at times elevating a sequence or quite literally progressing one. And Babylon has it too. Justin Hurwitz somehow produces his best work when he works with Chazelle, as I believe Babylon is the soundtrack of the year. The music is just so spell-bindingly energetic that it just makes you want to rip off your clothes and fight with a snake!

Damien Chazelle had made very decent movies in the past, though you can slide over-the-top insults from Whiplash, he sticks to a certain decency which he threw away in this movie completely. It is so great to see him blend different kinds of characters and scenes. I truly believe he can be among the best ones if he continues to experiment like this.