Type search terms and hit "Enter"
From Hell.com

Babylon 4K

by Glenn Erickson Mar 18, 2023

Is it a train wreck or an unrecognized masterpiece?  Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt topline this enormous, enormously profane epic of silent-era Hollywood — that immediately earned the scorn of critics decrying it as a gross distortion of historical reality. Word Of Mouth focused on the film’s blizzard of gross bodily functions, which surely inspired walkouts in the very first scene. You’ll never again approach your local zoo’s elephant enclosure with confidence. Director Chazelle pitches almost everything over the top, and the actors certainly get in the spirit of orgiastic decadence: Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart and Tobey Maguire.

4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital
Paramount Home Entertainment
2022 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 188 min. / Steelbook / Street Date March 21, 2023 / Available from Amazon / 44.99
Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Eric Roberts, Lukas Haas.
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Production Designer: Florencia Martin
Art Directors: Erick Sundahl, Ace Eure, Anthony D. Parrillo, Jason Perrine
Film Editor: Tom Cross
Music by: Justin Hurwitz
Produced by Olivia Hamilton, Mark Platt, Matthew Piouffe
(+ 2 co-producers, 1 associate producer, 7 executive producers, 1 co-executive producer)
Written and Directed by
Damien Chazelle

Many of the critical comments on the historical relevance of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon read like this, with apologies to Woody Allen and Mickey Rose:

“l object, Your Honor. This trial movie is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of two mockeries of a sham.”

Well, as much as we’re prone to overstate our arguments, Babylon is not that bad, just close. Staying level-minded is difficult when watching the expensive, three-hour epic . . . the only good strategy is to regroup and repeat the magic word, ‘restraint.’  I’ve seen writer-director Chazelle talk on camera, and he sounds both sane and thoughtful.

This is an overlong essay, so we begin with a Quickie Review Paragraph: Babylon lives up to the crazy reports that accompanied its theatrical release last December — it’s a spectacular Hollywood history movie that ignores Hollywood history in favor of exaggerated orgies and drug use, as if Kenneth Anger’s bad gossip were just the tip of the scandal iceberg. In entertainment terms it’s a 3-hour gross-out that wants to be shocking but is mainly unpleasant. Anachronistic profanity is non-stop, but the dealbreaker comes in the very first scene with an enormous, diarrhetic elephant whose bodily eliminations rival Noah’s Flood. Margot Robbie is a dynamo and Brad Pitt as charming as ever, but the movie overall is ideal only for the curious and the masochistic.

The big, colorful and noisy Babylon is oppressively off-putting, and no deep thought is required to explain why it wasn’t a hit. Word of mouth likely did the job, as most audiences would find it unpleasant at best and at worst intolerable. Personal tastes vary, but I know nobody who would think the movie’s excesses were entertaining. If I were to take a date to this picture, within three minutes I’d be telling the person, ‘it’s perfectly okay if you want to walk out right now.’ As for myself, I’m terminally curious. Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are favorites. Babylon may do much better on disc and streaming than it did in theaters — a lot of moviegoers out there are just as curious as we are.

We were as disappointed by Babylon as anybody, but trying to nail down why that was so makes me doubt my own judgment. Was I too narrow-minded with edgy material?  The first comments I read from critics-reviewers I respect didn’t engage very deeply, as if they felt aesthetically pole-axed too. It’s not the kind of movie that invites one to take a stand Pro or Con. It instead makes one recall Susan Sontag’s articulate, Cassandra-like 1996 essay The Decay of Cinema (paywall, sorry).

Aw, but the end of movies has been predicted for decades. I will just try to tell the truth.


An Era of Unbridled Decadence and Depravity in Early Hollywood!

Babylon is a wild, unexpurgated exposé of Hollywood excess. It begins before the introduction of sound and ends with a 1952 epilogue, when several of its main players have left the glory, the wealth and the legends behind. In 1926 silent movies are by day a punishing, safety-challenged industry, and by night a non-stop drug & sex orgy. Mexican-American production assistant Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calva) makes himself useful on the dangerous sets and at the debauched parties. His efficiency and discretion earns him a promotion to executive assistant and eventually a studio producership. Early on, Manny serves as a driver for Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a too-drunk-to-function matinee idol. Basically a good guy, Jack doesn’t realize that his fame is a bubble that can pop at any time. Manny witnesses the ‘night life debut’ of the ambitious, dangerously reckless and terminally slutty starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). She crashes the wild party, and wins a chance at a movie role via another starlet’s fatal drug overdose. Nellie becomes a sensation with behavior that’s excessive even by Hollywood standards — but she’s also a remarkably talented silent movie actress.

Everything is out of control. Nellie seizes on the role of Star, flamboyantly revelling in the lavish lifestyle that Jack Conrad takes for granted. As the toast of the town she’s the wildest celebrant at the no-limits debauched parties. People die on movie sets and at the parties, but no law touches the studio executives, who can manage both the police and the press. Nellie runs amuck while Jack worries that his movies are not being taken seriously. Manny is sent to New York to check out the premiere of Warner Bros’ big experiment on a sound feature, The Jazz Singer.

The coming of sound changes everything. Nellie’s improvisational acting magic is dulled by the difficulties of recording audio with crude equipment. The studio keeps putting Jack Conrad into costume dramas with lame dialogue. Gossip maven Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) turns on Conrad, using her widely read column to brand him as a ‘casualty’ of the changeover to talkies. But sound makes African-American jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) into a movie musical star when Manny talks his studio into investing in ‘colored’ musicals.

Nellie finally encounters bad press when her name is tabloid-linked to that of the Chinese ‘exotic’ star Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a flamboyant lesbian introduced singing an obscene cabaret song. Sidney Palmer’s success is rewarded with a mansion and a fabulous car, but he finds Hollywood’s racist double standard far too soul-crushing. Jack Conrad talks about ‘developing his art’ but has no emotional defense against Elinor St. John’s pronouncement that his career is over. Nellie’s manic lifestyle is obliterated when she runs up a monstrous gambling debt with the beyond-perverse gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire). Manny tries to save her, only to fall into the same trap. The show then moves forward to an epilogue in 1952.

That synopsis doesn’t include the most important elements of Babylon — the writer-director has gone to uncommon lengths to make it gross and offensive. Without waxing hysterical, in the first three minutes of the first scene audiences are treated to the spectacle of an enormous elephant’s traumatic episode of diarrhea, up close and personal. If it’s supposed to be funny, I can imagine Paul Verhoeven having a rollicking good time, but hardly anyone else. How did preview audiences react?  What does a point-blank blizzard of pachyderm s___ have to do with a sensationalized, sexy epic of early Hollywood?  The equivalent of horse manure at a formal dinner, this opening scene really invites the interpretation that the director wants to shock his audience … with an expression of contempt.

The film has an ‘R’ rating, and the roughest it gets is some flashes of simulated sex at the orgies. Random breasts are flashed in mastershots so crowded with action that we don’t know where to look or what’s important.

Far more brutal is the film’s constant profanity. It is wince-inducingly ugly, specializing in anatomical overkill, often mixed with racist and bigoted tirades. Every conflict or frustration ends with people screaming expletives at each other — directors, assistant directors, executives, and especially Nellie LaRoy. We’ve all heard stories of studio heads that brutalized their employees with profane, abusive tirades. Babylon clobbers its audience with the same in every other scene. Almost none of it is remotely funny or suggests that the writer has a point to make. It’s just more Audience Abuse.


Challenging the Very Definition of Anachronism!

We suspect that it can be proven that every blue word spoken in Babylon predates the 20th century, but we can’t say that we care. It sounds far too much like 2023, as if the dialogue script had been written by an A.I. text generator fed hours of shock jock talk and raunchy standup routines. The elegance of early Hollywood may have been partly an illusion, but nobody who reads or studies film would accept this version of movie history.

Critics feel safer protesting the film’s historical inaccuracies and distortions. We agree that a movie set in the historical past shouldn’t have to stick 100% to documented fact. Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice are good examples.

But Babylon’s fantasy abuses facts both general and specific, in the service of a false image of an entire era. Damien Chazelle takes his cue from Kenneth Anger, who printed salacious half-legends; Chazelle trashes all of Hollywood culture, and in the last reel pretends to have something profound to say. Was the Babylon screenplay written from Wikipedia?  It incorporates Anger’s unsubstantiated claim that Clara Bow had sex with the entire USC football team.

I’d hate to think what Hollywood history authority Kevin Brownlow would have to say about Babylon — I should think he’d have been tipped off to steer clear of it.

Just plain wrong:

• Movies are shown being filmed using sunlight for illumination, on canvas-covered open-air stages, a technique that by 1926 had been long abandoned. Even the crowded, multi-set silent shoots in Singin’ in the Rain are filmed on big interior stages.

• A full orchestra plays accompaniment on location for a giant battle scene?  Who could hear them?  Silent directors often used a few musicians to provide intimate moods for dramatic scenes.

•  By the mid ’20s a fairly well-policed ‘extras casting’ system was in place for group and crowd scenes. The battle extras’ revolt isn’t impossible, but seeing as this is a high-end studio film, abusing the extras like that is highly unlikely. Having Manny Torres use a gun to drive them about like cattle may be funny, but he’d likely get himself beaten to death.

• Nellie’s costumes are wildly oversexualized. She attends a Hollywood premiere dressed as in the top photo — in 1929 or so. Louise Brooks might wear a daring beaded dress, but it wouldn’t be so abbreviated, and she’d have a fur coat over it most of the time.    Many of the costumes, including Nellie’s red outfit for the orgy at the castle house, belong in Barbarella or Flash Gordon.

Gross Exaggeration and Distortion:

• Babylon seemingly decided that its Decadence Quotient needed to top films like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Drug use was in no way an Open Season with No Rules. The chaos we see here visualizes the tabloid accusation that Hollywood had become Sodom and Gomorrah, and needed to be destroyed. After the William Desmond Taylor scandal celebrity drug use became even more discreet. The heaps of cocaine piled on tabletops would seem directly inspired by Tony Montana, not Hollywood history.

• No-limits sex parties on the scale of a Three-Ring Circus?   After the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, what wasn’t suppressed was strenuously hushed up by the studios. Is the drug overdose death at the castle house meant to remind us of the Arbuckle case?  It’s been proven that the studios covered up various crimes by top stars and executives, and there was a notorious 1937 rape incident that makes more debaucheries seem possible. A lot of casting behavior qualifies as rape. But they can’t have been killing starlets as a business routine. The movie uses deaths on film sets as an unfunny running joke.

All Potty-Mouth, All the Time

• In almost every scene with conflict someone screams non-stop expletives. The overkill factor kicks in after just a few minutes. We’re no judge of how profane Hollywood was in the ’20s, and there’s plenty of testimony saying that some directors were abusively profane, and that some moguls brutalized employees with ugly tirades. Just the same, Babylon’s nonstop over-the-top profanity feels 100% anachronistic — and desperate.

Hollywood Archetypes, Collect ‘Em All:

The main characters in this overhyped fantasy are ‘adapted’ from recognizable historical models, with an eye toward racial diversity.

• Nellie LaRoy would seem to be an exaggeration of Clara Bow, ‘The It Girl.’ Bow was reportedly a free spirit but not a completely untethered libertine. Nellie’s first bar-room performance, seducing a roomful of miners with striptease gyrations, is far too explicit for a 1926 picture. From the very first, Nellie is too unpredictably vulgar to be allowed anywhere near a Hearst-Davies get-together.

Margot Robbie holds nothing back in Babylon. Her sheer energy is almost scary. Nellie LaRoy is an amoral dynamo willing to do anything to become a star. Proof that Nellie is a Great Actress comes via the cliché of being able to cry on cue, right down to the number of tears requested. When embracing debauched excess Nellie’s cocaine-fueled grin makes her look like a shark, or one of Robbie’s feral comic book characters.

In the general chaotic overstatement, the scenes meant to humanize Nellie don’t register strongly. Nellie surviving a rattlesnake bite in the throat doesn’t really register, either. That’s what happens with ‘reality’ is so flexible: will some critic claim that Babylon is really a subjective fantasy?

• Jack Conrad is a fairly decent place-holder for John Gilbert, the matinee idol most noted as a casualty of the transition from silents to talkies. Brad Pitt also channels the charm and reasonable good manners of Clark Gable. Conrad’s character arc feels lifted from movies in which big stars plummet from the heavens — especially various versions of A Star Is Born. Babylon feels ‘inspired’ by a very shallow reading of Hollywood lore.

Jack Conrad condiders himself Hollywood royalty yet retains some humility and decency — while leading a chaotic sex life and grinding through many failed marriages. But he’s also an oasis of relative normalcy in this runaway elephant of a movie. Jack doesn’t participate in the profane screaming matches. When drunk he’s used for light slapstick duty. The script gives him a nagging desire for artistic respectability, mainly through weak speeches about ‘doing something important.’ But Jack doesn’t seem weak enough to be so vulnerable to Elinor St. John’s verdict against his career. Just the same, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie project a lot of movie star personality, and are the main reason to sit through all of Babylon.

• Diego Calva’s assistant-become-producer Manny Torres gives the film a Royal Flush in Diversity. Manny is used as a Jack of all Trades, constantly changing functions. One of his scenes with the black musicial star Sidney Palmer is genuinely insightful as to the real kinds of indignities suffered by minorities in Hollywood. For a musical number, Torres must entreat Palmer to don blackface makeup, to make his lighter skin tone match the darker band members around him. They all must look uniformly black, to satisfy racist Southern censors. Manny pleads with the reasoning that too many people will be put out of work if Sidney doesn’t comply.

For once, the issue at stake doesn’t seem exaggerated. Chazelle’s direction is spot-on. Palmer does NOT make a scene or scream obscenities. His silent, seething acceptance of the humiliation is handled with subtlety and restraint. It’s powerful material.

• Does Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer character align with any particular historical personality?  He’s briefly established as a big, established film star. Famous black performers Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway mostly appeared in musical short subjects, and as guest stars in features. Did any black personality command the long-term perks Sidney Palmer gets for signing a contract?  We know that Lincoln Perry (‘Stepin Fetchit’) had a lucrative contract with Fox for several years, but he would not seem comparable to the fictional Sidney Palmer.

• Silent star Lady Fay Zhu is a cipher for Anna May Wong, who from the early ’20s on was Hollywood’s most prominent Chinese-American actress. As played by Li Jun Li, Lady Fay has a side job writing silent intertitles, but Babylon exploits her mostly for ‘exotic color’ and lesbian appeal. Her nightclub act appropriates a classic Marlene Dietrich scene (from Morocco), kissing a female audience member on the mouth. Li also sings the obscene Harry Roy song My Girl’s Pussy. The song is real but was written several years later.

Lady Fay is presented as a canny survivor, much like Anna May Wong, who was working in Europe before the talkies arrived. Wong wasn’t unemployable because of sexual preference, but was instead in pursuit of opportunities where her talent was better appreciated. The issue of ‘Mixing races’ onscreen was likely an issue with Anna May Wong’s casting problems. We’re told that at least in a few instances, Southern theaters enforced strict miscegenation taboos against integrated casts — a white actor in yellowface might not be allowed to play against an actual Asian actress.

And how about that Director?

We weren’t big fans of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. It certainly didn’t offend, but the characters were not particularly likable and the attempt to revive old-fashioned romantic musical numbers felt superficial. The stars had poise and charm, but not the needed dancing ability. For Babylon Chazelle is in epic mode. His direction is slightly less frantic than that of Baz Luhrmann, but like Luhrmann he uses Art Direction overkill to keep his shots busy. His crowd scenes still feel unfocused, with the camera swooping through chaotic action, always for Effect, not Purpose. He has some strange habits. We stopped counting shots in which Chazelle’s camera trucks rapidly into Sidney Palmer’s trumpet, or any other handy musical instrument.

Witness accounts of the shoot would be fun to read — did the show employ ‘intimacy consultants,’ and if so, how many?  Chazelle indeed fills the screen with frantic orgy action, all of which goes by in blur. It would be fun to read the censors’ scene breakdown notes, tabulating how many breasts are visible and how prominent they are. What were the rating negotiations like to receive an ‘R’ rating card?  Forget the sex, the movie rates an ‘X’ for animal body functions.


The Elephant in the Room … and splattering half of Bel-Air.

We almost don’t know how to react Chazelle’s more ‘explosive’ anatomical gross-outs, or how to understand what he wants to achieve. The elephant sequence and the vomiting sequence are pretty intolerable. That first four minutes of elephant slime play like an Audience Test, as if Chazelle were daring people to walk out. Nellie’s projectile vomit on Hearst’s rug far outdoes that of Linda Blair. What fun!  Hooray for Hollywood!  *

We always admire the storytelling judgment of good directors. Chazelle dials everything up as high as he can, but our minds wander just as much when we’re overdosed as when we’re bored. We also stop feeling for the characters onscreen. What people say and do, and what indignities the director forces on them make a difference. We certainly don’t blame the actors, who are doing their best to give the director what he wants.

“But I can’t make love to a bush!”

An extended sequence shows Nellie and an entire crew becoming exasperated trying to film a sync sound scene, with microphone problems, camera-in-a-booth problems, etc.. It’s an unimaginative replay of an equivalent scene in Singin’ in the Rain. Yet again Chazelle’s method is to push everything way Over the Top, with everyone screaming, an anti-Semitic tirade, etc. And the punch line is another corpse!  We lose the scene’s most important point, that the technical chaos robs Nellie LeRoy of her extemporaneous acting brilliance.

Far more obscure / bizarre is a big musical number, an impressive recreation of the final scene of the all-talkie musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Every MGM star on the lot dons a raincoat to sing Singin’ in the Rain. The old musical number was filmed in 2-Color Technicolor, prints of which have a weirdly distinctive color scheme. Damien Chazelle’s art directors match the original look perfectly, right down to the sickly greens and yellows. But Chazelle makes the colors look weird to the naked eye, on the sound stage, when the primitive color scheme only showed up on the early Technicolor prints. It’s more Hollywood lore thrown into the meat grinder.

Babylon’s running time is longer than Spartacus, with no intermission. Bloating the third act is a near-literal Journey into Hell that feels like a new movie has begun, one directed by David Lynch. Tobey Maguire’s psycho gangster insists that Manny Torres meet a ‘future star’ by descending into a subterranean warren complete with a chained alligator guarding a passageway. It’s an extra helping of self-indulgent unpleasantness for its own sake.

It isn’t enough for Manny to be in a tight spot — he has to suffer a flaky Classical Allusion to Orpheus or Dante’s Inferno. With this episode, Babylon really could be the subjective nightmare of a scandalized censor, tortured by hallucinatory visions of Hollywood as Sodom and Gomorrah.

Ain’t Hollywood Grand?

But after 2.5 hours of scatalogical thoughtlessness, Babylon instead waxes sentimental, profound. The film’s final ten minutes are mind-bogglingly infuriating. Spoiler. Manny Torres wanders into a theater, and there beholds moments from Singin’ in the Rain — quite a few moments, actually. Manny realizes he lived the transition-to-sound period shown in the Gene Kelly musical, and experiences a transcendental vision: he was once part of something wonderful. O-kayyy, except that we’ve just spent three hours wading in a movieland sewer.

There follows a graphics-heavy ‘visionary’ montage that sweeps from silents to movies made in the 1990s, as if poor Manny has been possessed by the evil spirit of Chuck Workman. Interspersed among the film clips of Nellie, Lady Fay, Sidney and Jack are abstract images, flash frames, and other Euro-hip mishegoss, like shots of colored paint clouding up water.

Manny is clearly moved beyond tears. We feel like someone’s thrown a pie in our faces. The real movie we just saw is about people screaming m_____f______ and f____, with the only message being that Hollywood is s___.



Paramount Home Entertainment’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital of Babylon looks splendid — the home theater experience must be as good as top-level theatrical projection — better, if we count the fact that we won’t have to endure three hours without a bathroom break. After all the negative comments, it’s possible that a lot of home video fans will have the same curiosity about Babylon that I did. How many will bail after the Elephant scene?  How many will declare it an unrecognized masterpiece?

The 4K picture does look sensationally good, giving us a solid appreciation of the film’s art direction, costumes, etc.. Were told that certain theatrical presentations were blown up to 70mm. The audio is also merciful — Mr. Chazelle does not subscribe to the ‘clogged track’ idea of making dialogue difficult to hear. Every screamed epithet comes through loud and clear.

The Steelbook release presents Babylon on three discs. The feature alone is on a 4K Ultra HD disc and a second Blu-ray. The third disc is a Blu-ray with the extras. The main video extra is a half-hour making-of piece that allows the director to have his say. On camera Mr. Chazelle is reasonable, intelligent and friendly. He assures us that early Hollywood was ‘the Wild West’ in every way possible. The clips chosen highlight Chazelle’s dynamic camera direction, which includes a lot of very good hand-held Stedicam-type shots.

The other two featurettes are very short. Three minutes are devoted to the costumes, 7,000 of them, we are told. Just 90 seconds are given to the film score. Ten minutes of deleted scenes flesh out a few narrative points; the only one I think would add is Manny Torres’s assertion that he fired Lady Fay Zhu, not that she quit.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Movie: I pass.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: A half-hour Behind the Scenes featurette; short featurettes on costumes and the music score.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
March 10, 2023

*  This year’s Oscar Broadcast missed a great opportunity — a fun montage of ‘great elephant moments’ in cinema history:  Tarzan, Sabu in Elephant Boy,  Dumbo and his animated mom, Elsa Martinelli taking a Baby Elephant Walk in Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, Claudine Longet painting an elephant in Blake Edwards’ The Party, and, and — Babylon’s pachyderm with its aggravated stomach complaint.


Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.