“Babylon” is Damien Chazelle’s salute to the movies, following on the heels of Sam Mendes’ similar homage to film in “Empire of Light.”
I’ve never met Sam Mendes, although I admire his work. But I have met Damian Chazelle, when he came to Chicago for the premiere of “La La Land” at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival on October 13, 2016. Damien Chazelle is a genuine, personable, interesting young man. He has again partnered with longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz, (who also did the music for “La La Land” and “Whiplash”). The score was very reminiscent of the music from “La La Land.”
The film attempts to depict what Hollywood might have been like back when the silent movie era was giving way to talkies. It is both an homage to those chaotic times, beginning in 1926, and a criticism of the excesses of Hollywood. The opening 20 minutes, depicting an elephant being transported to an orgy-like party hosted by someone seemingly based on Fatty Arbuckle, goes a long way towards showing those excesses. It’s way over-the-top. You could say that about the entire film.
One of the things that amazes about this $80 million-dollar stroll down memory lane, is the cast. In addition to Brad Pitt as the male lead and Margot Robbie as the female lead, there are bit parts for a myriad of actors, both known and unknown. Who were these masked men (and women)?
Flea has a part. Eric Roberts—who I interviewed on my WeeklyWilson podcast during the pandemic—plays Margot Robbie’s father. Lukas Haas who played the small boy in “Witness” when he was nine years old in the seventies, plays George, Brad Pitt’s best friend. Tobey Maguire, listed as an executive producer, has a truly hero-destroying role as a gangster. Spike Jonze plays Otto. Michael Dukakis has an uncredited part as a soldier. Anna Chazelle has an uncredited part as Bobbie Hart. Kaia Gerber, look-alike daughter of Cindy Crawford, has a bit part as a starlet. Jovan Adepo plays jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer. Jean Smart (“Hacks”) plays a composite character based on columnists like Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons, Elinor O’Toole. Max Minghella (“The Handmaid’s Tale’s Nick Blaine) plays Irving Thalberg. Comedian/actor Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) plays Don Wallach, Ethan Suplee (“Remember the Titans” 2000) plays Wilson and spends most of his time onscreen spitting grossly, Manny Liotta plays a P.A. (Production Assistant). This is a very partial list of the surprisingly elaborate cast list. (Hard to stage an orgy without a crowd, I guess.)
But the lead as Manny Torres is relative unknown Mexican actor Diego Calva, who comes to the screen in a major part as a relative unknown to U.S. audiences. Calva played a drug lord on Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” but, if you missed that, you missed him. He came to his star-making part in much the same way as the fictional Manny Torres: by doing whatever anyone in the movie business wanted/needed done. He reminded me of the “fixer” characters played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction” or by Leiv Schreiber in “Ray Donovan.”
During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night television show, Calva shared some behind-the-scenes insights into the film and into his own background. Golden Globe nominated for “Babylon,” Diego learned to speak English specifically for “Babylon.” He said he learned English from playing “Pokemon” video games in Mexico. He confirmed that the chicken in the orgy scene was a great actor. He also confirmed that they used a chicken puppet for some takes. Diego admitted he was most excited to meet Tobey Maguire, since he had been a “Spiderman” fan from a young age.
Among other comments the young actor made was this one about the opening orgy scene: “It was so crazy. I’ve never been surrounded by so many naked people before.” Of his co-star and love interest in the film, Margot Robbie, Diego said: “She’s always going to do the unexpected. She’s a fearless actress, just full on energy. When you’re so tired, she can play it 100 times more.”Diego studied at the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica in Mexico. He is a talent to watch.
The thing that resonated with me—especially since it was quite similar to Sam Mendes’ musings on the movies—were the lines that pin down Chazelle’s feelings about film. It’s not unique amongst creative types, whether filmmakers, writers, song writers, or painters that the work we leave behind gives us a feelingof a little bit of immortality. Ideally, whatever we have created has been good. It will be around long after we are gone.Immortality.
Chazelle scripted one scene, in particular, between Jean Smart and Brad Pitt where she tells the fading screen star “Your time has run out. There is no why. Film is bigger than you. No one asks to be left behind.” Telling him how he will live forever on celluloid, the columnist says, “You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful.” And Pitt’s character, in an earlier scene, states, “What I do means something to millions of people. For real people, on the ground, it means something.” He tells Olivia Wilde’s character (Ina) to spare him the pretentious notes on his reading of a script, expressing some disgust at those who try to characterize film as “a low art” and, instead, enshrine Ibsen and Strindberg and the theater.
The general critical consensus has been bad for the film among both critics and audiences. I understand that, as so many of the scenes are well over-the-top and, I’m sure, offensive to many. The opening scene with the elephant and elephant dung is but one example. There is a later one involving Margot Robbie at a party rejecting the urgings to be “elegant” and become more like the group at the party with whom she is associating. She tries, but fails, to “act” respectable, since her original nickname was “the wild child.” Now, she is to eschew her Jersey roots and act well-behaved, but she rejects that advice in a way that goes beyond the norm. She literally smears food all over her face, insults everyone at the party, and, ultimately, projectile vomits both outside the house and inside on a newly-purchased expensiv rug. It’s a bit much. The orgy scenes and naked bodies may have been necessary (although the golden shower scene with a Fatty Arbuckle type was a bit much) and the descent into the depths of depravity in L.A. that Tobey Maguire insists Manny and companion take with him was overkill.
The film cost a lot ($80 million) and when you see the voluminous cast list, it isn’t surprising. Not only does it have two of the biggest current stars in Hollywood (Pitt and Robbie) but it seems to have everyone else who might have been hanging around. My favorite small part was the inclusion of Eric Roberts. Roberts undoubtedly holds the record for most American movie appearances ever.
A lot of the scenes screamed gross—like the vomiting one and dung-spewing elephant. You get the feeling that the creative license to try new things led to throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall.
Another thing that swelled the film’s length from a normal hour and a half to over three hours was the emphasis on the music. Chazelle has highlighted the music of his collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. Although trumpet player character Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) admitted that he did not really play the trumpet, the film focuses on the band and its performances. I don’t have an exact count of how many minutes this occupies, but it was substantial.
Another source pointed out that the film’s release in competition against “Avatar” was not great marketing.
Outside the door of the Alama Drafthouse Theater the day I saw it was a warning that the final scenes, paying tribute to many other movies that have gone before, might cause viewers to have seizures, if they were vulnerable.
I salute the effort to capture Hollywood magic of the 1920-1930 in a bottle, but it just didn’t work.