After taking the film industry by storm with “La La Land,” it must have been a great challenge for filmmaker Damien Chazelle to transcend the subtle yet impactful vibe in another one of his works. With the 2022 drama-comedy movie “Babylon,” Chazelle has proven his versatility with music, shots, and the emotions that he is capable of imprinting on screen. With one of the most talented and skilled ensembles of stars, the movie captures the essence of the movie industry and presents the ups and downs of stardom. Moreover, the cast feels one with the respective characters they play as they embody their personalities completely. The movie is a window into the passionate and fervent world of films and entertainment. Chazelle proves his worth as a great director as he amalgamates the individual storylines of each character while carving out the overarching plot of the movie. Nothing seems left out, yet we don’t feel overwhelmed with stories and actions in various lives. It takes the work of an intricate storyteller to merge such a plethora of themes and arcs into one beautiful movie.
From chaos, sex, and action to ambition, spirit, and madness of all kinds, every emotion finds a place on screen with “Babylon.” On the whole, the movie narrates the rollercoaster journeys of decadent dreamers in one of the most impactful eras of Hollywood. Beginning in the 1920s, we are introduced to a film fanatic, a wild child with a dream to become an actor, an experienced yet love-craving industry star, and the most vital character of them all: the filmmaking industry itself. It is harsh, ruthless, and merciless. Nobody can stand in the way of its evolution, no matter how big a star they are. In all its poignant beauty, “Babylon” is a story of permanence in transience. Even if today’s biggest stars fade away tomorrow, they will have left a glimmer of spark in the world, which will be etched in the history of films for a long time to come.
To understand the unwavering glamor of Hollywood, we need to dive deeper into the central characters of the movie. By dissecting the emotions and actions of the exquisitely layered characters, we come closer to comprehending Chazelle’s vision and passion for the movie. Margot Robbie plays the leading lady in the movie, Nellie Leroy. She is smart, confident, and a bit eccentric. When it comes to her love for the movies, she knows no moderation. A fierce dreamer and a clever artist, her charm appeals to the few who can see her for her talent beyond her crazy, wild demeanor. They say an actor’s skill lies in changing emotions on command. An actor succeeds when they learn how to dance to the director’s tunes. And when the vision of the director blends well with the talent of the actor, magic happens. That’s exactly what we experience on screen when Nellie is discovered at the wildest of parties as she dances proactively atop a bar table. That one wild party is where it all begins and where everyone meets with their predestined fates, but we will get to the others in a while. As a studio executive mindlessly picks her from the crowd and invites her on set the next day, Nellie’s life turns upside down as her dream finally materializes into reality. On the set of the movie, her relentless charm takes over the whole location as everyone stops to see the new actress who can cry and even change the frequency of tears on command. Baffled and astonished, everyone is swayed by the Leroy charm, and the movie goes on to be a hit as well. Just as quickly as Nellie is discovered and carved into a good actor, she falls to her own defeat soon after. Drugs, debt, and debauchery take over, and Nellie’s life inches toward ruin. The character of Nellie Leroy is the perfect archetype of an actor who does not know how to sustain stardom. As passionate as they are to shine in the spotlight, their fame dims away with their “don’t care attitude.” While we loved her eccentricities, independence, and ferocity in the beginning, we soon realized how those same charming qualities could make her fall to her feet.
The second archetype is that of a loyal and dedicated grinder who will do anything to achieve his dreams. Manuel Torres, or Manny, knows hard work and connections are the way to make it big in the world of films. He is not afraid to do cheap jobs for famous people and climb his way to the top. While Manny’s fame and eventual downfall are not as radical or sudden as Nellie’s, he takes his time making a name for himself and carving a place in the industry. His can-do attitude appeals to people, especially directors and producers, who need someone who can put his money where his mouth is. From getting the movie extras in line to arranging for a camera before the sun loses its light, Manny impresses people with his resourcefulness. Soon, people take notice of his abilities, and he becomes a studio executive. With more power and influence in hand, he is able to make decisions more firmly and bring his vision for films to the big screen. However, nobody can remain untouched by the evils of the industry for too long. Manny’s morals and values take a hit when everything is done for the sake of the movie. He takes the phrase “the show must go on” extremely literally. The honest and sincere Manny becomes a full-blown studio executive when he asks Sidney Palmer, a black saxophone player, to put coal on his face so that his face can match those around him. That decision stems from his need to create more revenue and let the movie be a mass hit. Nonetheless, this does not act as an impediment to his career because once you’re in, it’s tough to avoid getting your hands dirty. The real problem arises when Manny thinks about his love for Nellie. His hopeless romanticism takes him down as he forgets about his dreams and focuses on Nellie’s well-being. Had he been more pragmatic than in love, he could have saved his career from becoming mush.
Next, we move to one of the most well-established stars, both in the movie and in the real world of cinema: Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad. His personality is as self-absorbed and arrogant as his name makes it out to be. Jack has been a movie star for far too long, and this shows in the way he lives. He needs drama and a great tragedy in every situation. He cannot get by without delivering a heartfelt monologue to express his innermost feelings. On top of that, Jack is a master manipulator who can influence people with his words and get what he needs from them. He had his time in the spotlight, but now it is time for him to make way for newer and younger talent. Ironically, his situation ends up being similar to the actress he manipulates into signing a movie for cheap. He baits her with a situation where a new face is being cast, which makes the actress want the role all the more badly. Jack realizes the error of his ways when his fame begins fading away into obscurity. His emotions don’t resonate with people; his tragedies don’t induce tears or sadness, and neither does the audience rejoice in his victory. Much like the real film industry, this marks a time in an actor’s life when they have to step away for their own good. But what about actors who know nothing but acting? People who live and breathe cinema have nowhere to go once their careers seem on the brink of collapse. While Jack’s vision to improve cinema and always have something glorious for his audiences is admirable, he ends up taking his own life after he witnesses a chink in his fandom.
Ultimately, the factor most common and prevalent in all these characters is their passionate ambition and the entertainment industry. These two facets keep them connected and grounded in reality despite their individual dreams to make it big. The madness of the industry takes the characters, as well as us, on an adventurous journey from the silent movie era to the talkies, which evoked deeper emotions and feelings in people. “Babylon” stands testament to the transience of both actors’ lives and the life of the industry itself. In addition to the central characters, we are also introduced to enthusiastic directors who want nothing less than perfection in every shot, no matter how many takes it takes. We also see a fading title artist whose job means nothing after the industry shifts from silent movies to talkies. Furthermore, the whole atmosphere of a film set, and the way films are made are altered so drastically that the two scenes seem eons apart. Such an advancement in the world of films can take movies to a whole other level. The ruckus of a film set, and studio is wonderfully captured in the scenes of “Babylon.”
Damien Chazelle is known for his whip-pan shots that magnify the intensity of the situation while aligning the scene with the foot-tapping jazz music. His brilliance in interspersing comedy in dramatic situations is unique. The end especially comes as a tribute to every milestone in the history of films. Scenes from famous movies with shots of Manny breaking down in tears show how every situation, real or imaginary, is just fodder for the film fraternity. Struggles or tribulations of today are bound to be the entertaining selling point of movies of tomorrow. Love stories, pain, tragedies, and deaths are part and parcel of life and movies alike. What stands out the most in “Babylon” is the underlying love story, not between Nellie and Manny but between every artist and their respective art. From producers, directors, and actors to sound technicians, cameramen, and musicians, everyone is so deeply in love with their passion that they escape real life and enter a trance to become one with their art.