Editorial: In defense of “Babylon”: Chazelle’s poorly received masterpiece

Screenshot from "Babylon" trailer

Within the first five minutes of Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s new film, an elephant releases its bowels on Manny Torres, an immigrant with big-screen dreams played by Diego Calva. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, which I saw in theaters for a whopping three hours and nine minutes. It is a daringly funny, action-packed adventure that leaves nothing to the imagination.  

Babylon begins in 1926 Los Angeles. It stars Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, a charming film star who is perpetually on the verge of divorce and Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, a bold, self-described star who wishes to become an actual film star. Her dreams materialize as Manny also finds success at studio system Kinoscope.  

The film whisks us through Hollywood’s journey from silent films to sound and musical orchestras that was as dizzying to watch as it must’ve been to experience. Each character struggles to adapt in their own way, from Nellie’s frustrations at the demands of sound film to Manny’s failed attempts as her manager to polish her image. 

Distributed by Paramount Pictures with a jazzy soundtrack, Babylon was made for the big-screen. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren employs a variety of camera angles, vivid colours and wide shots that capture the scope of work and frenzy on a movie set. As a result, the scenes are incredibly satisfying to the eye. 

However, that seems to be all the critics noticed. Babylon received praise for its cast performances, score and cinematography. Conversely, it was criticized for its screenplay and plot.  

The Hollywood Reporter described the film as “overstuffed yet insubstantial”, while Vanity Fair attested that “Chazelle has no clear idea where all of this is going”. Similarly, Time critiqued the content to be “about dumb sensation”. 

I was surprised at the overwhelmingly negative reviews for a film that, by the end, had me frozen in awe in my seat. In my opinion, the critics missed the heart in Babylon, which shines through the chaos.  

The heartbeat of the film is the relationship between Manny and Nellie, who meet at a cocaine fueled party where they bond over their desire to “be part of something bigger”. After Nellie’s rise to fame, the two share a tense yet comical taxi ride back from visiting her institutionalized mother.  

Another heartfelt storyline is Jack’s inability to cope with his waning popularity. In a powerful scene, he confronts magazine writer Elinor (Jean Smart) about her cover story on his declining fame. Instead of a stereotypical scene about a veteran actor fading out, Babylon gives us a profound message about art’s lasting legacy with which creators of any kind can resonate.  

Also interesting is the film’s exploration of marginalized groups in Hollywood. Notably, black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Apedo) rises to fame yet his race remains the focal point. There’s missed opportunities to further explore Sidney’s story, as well as that of lesbian artist Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li).  

Don’t let the bad reviews fool you; Babylon may be a glitzy and glamorous film, but it’s really about Hollywood’s depravity, the ways people cope with it, and the value, however infrequent, of its outputs.

Cover image credit: Paramount Pictures UK. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MTLIxwhUr4.

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