Lovable, despicable? Possibly, bucketsful of both. Undebatable, it is electrifying, mesmerizing, hypnotically addictive for every second of its three plus hours. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (“LaLa Land”,”Whiplash”) gifts a glorious, energetic, oftentimes inordinate paean to Hollywood’s embryonic bygone era. Commencing in 1926 silent movies are at their peak and idolized leading man “Jack Conrad” (Brad Pitt, with age exponentially swells, imbuing sacrality to his every role) gorges on his popularity; offscreen his persona is bombastically sacrilegious: booze, babes, cocaine, outlandishly, hedonistically depraved parties; into one of these lawless, interminable evenings crashes soused, drug-addled “Nellie LaRoy”, (Margot Robbie, stupendously talented, “thousand ship” face, guaranteed to give Cate Blanchett, Olivia Coleman and Michelle Williams stiff Award competition) with a dance sequence of voluptuous enormity, dexterity, awe-inspiring adulation; as she sinks, we root for her and love her as does “Manny Torres” (cataclysmic, Diego Calva) a star struck Mexican who would sell his soul to be part of the Hollywood mystique. Manny’s worship and eventual disillusionment pulsates at the core of “Babylon”.
“Babylon” soars as “sound” replaces “silent” ignited by Al Jolson’s 1927 “The Jazz Singer” heralding the demise of a myriad of actors (Vilma Bánky, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks); nascent filmmaker’s frustrations, vexations are caught in a dizzying, hilarious scene. Chazelle gives panegyrics to those pioneers who preceded, inspired his epic production: Irving Thalberg, Anna May Wong, Marion Davies; the credits at the conclusion depict the historical evolution of film: Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès but it is “Singing in the Rain” (written by Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown, in 1929), a metaphor for the transformative magic, its ageless appeal, power to heal, that throbs at the heart of this dynamic, at times degenerative movie.
Babylon was destroyed by God because of its wickedness but Damien Chazelle’s homage, vision reveals the fictional and realistic, of a never to be duplicated, but eternally revered, realm.