From start to finish, for more than three hours, Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood roman à clef Babylon races at a breakneck pace. It’s a roller coaster ride with peaks and hair-raising turns. It’s also breathtakingly excessive.
Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) arrives at the opening party an unknown and leaves a star on the rise. Also in the crowd is Jack Conrad (CelebStoner Brad Pitt), a popular silent film actor. It’s 1926 and the movie industry has become a dominant force in Los Angeles.
The party is a rager of epic proportions and sets the tone for this movie about making movies. The debauchery knows no bounds as an orgy of sexual activity takes place openly. Cocaine is the drug of choice, especially Nellie’s. She's offered heroin, morphine and coke and settles on a huge mound of Bolivian powder that rivals Tony Montana’s in Scarface. It spurs Nellie to dance and talk fast with her out-of-place New Jersey accent.
Cocaine was banned federally in 1914 by the Harrison Narcotic Act. The “Cocaine History” posted at Narconon notes: “In the early days of silent films, with screen stars who had just weeks before been shop girls and stagehands, and big money deals for studios and stars, drugs and immorality were rampant. Opiates, alcohol and cocaine were usually the drugs mentioned... Many silent movies between 1910 and 1920 featured plots dealing with drug abuse, drug trafficking and drug enforcement activity.”
Actress Tallulah Bankhead, who got her start in silent films, famously joked: “Don’t tell me cocaine is habit-forming. I’ve been taking it for 17 years and I ought to know.”
By 1930, the new Motion Picture Code banned portraying illegal drug use in movies.
Babylon straddles the silent and sound eras in Hollywood. The big change came in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. A hilarious scene shows how difficult the transition was, with Nelly doing multiple takes as the assistant director screams hysterically whenever anyone as much as sneezes on the set.
Based on her show-off dancing at the party, Nellie is hired to shimmy on a movie set directed patiently by Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), who’s impressed with Nellie’s on-cue crying. “How do you do that?” Ruth asks. “I just think of home,” she says. Home is not quite where her heart is: Mom in a sanitarium and Dad (played by Eric Roberts) shows up to grab some of Nellie’s money when she gets successful.
It doesn’t last long. Nellie’s rise and fall is fast and furious, mostly due to her self-destructive nature, constant coke use and outrageous behavior and language that runs afoul of effete Hollywood society.
Jack has no such personality problems. He’s suave and cool and full of himself like most high-maintenance actors. He runs through wives and movies until the silent era ends and he’s unable to adjust to the new acting requirements. Gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) tears into him after writing a devastating PhotoPlay cover story. “Your time here is done,” she scowls. “It’s over.” Jack doesn’t take the criticism well.
"At its best, 'Babylon' chronicles a bygone era where high society took wild risks during the post-war Roaring Twenties."
Another key character, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) climbs up from lowly go-fer for studio honcho Bob Levine (Flea) - he hosted the party - to ambitious up-and-comer. He meets Nelly at the party and pines for her, but she’s not capable of accepting love.
Trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) has a important role as well. He leads the swinging jazz band at the party and plays in other scenes, including on movie sets. At one point, Manny convinces Sidney to darken his face with charcoal at the request of one of the studio execs.
That sort of ugliness and grotesqueness mar the movie. Shit, piss, semen, vomit, venom, an elephant and a live rat are all part of the story that barrels out of control at numerous points, especially during the ridiculous snake scene and the decadent tunnel party hosted by James McKay (Tobey Maguire).
At its best, Babylon chronicles a bygone era where high society took wild risks during the post-war Roaring Twenties. The jazz score is riveting; it holds things together even when the movie busts at its seams. Chazelle builds to a hallucinatory ending with a brilliant montage that springs forward six decades.
Robbie and Pitt chew up the scenery and might even generate Oscar nominations. But the overall downbeat story and extended length may keep audiences away from this gaudy spectacle. Unlike Chazelle’s equally jazzy but more romantic La La Land, Babylon ultimately hits the wrong notes.
Babylon is currently playing in theaters.