A friend has slipped me a May 2019 draft of Damien Chazelle‘s Babylon, his theatrical follow-up to First Man. (Chazelle is currently working on The Eddy, an eight-episode Netflix series set in Paris.) Babylon is a late 1920s Hollywood tale about a huge sea-change in the nascent film industry (i.e., the advent of sound and the up-and-down fortunes that resulted) and about who got hurt and who didn’t.
A la Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Babylon (which may or may not be distributed by Paramount or Lionsgate) offers a blend of made-up characters and a few real-life Hollywood names of the time — Clara Bow, Anna May Wong. Paul Bern and an “obese” industry fellow who represents Fatty Arbuckle. (I’m presuming there are others.) I’ve only read about 40% of it, and I’m certainly not going to describe except in the most general of terms. It runs 184 pages, and that ain’t hay.
Most of Chazelle’s story (or the portion that I’ve read) is amusingly cynical and snappy, at other times mellow and humanist, and other times not so much. It takes place in the golden, gilded realms of Los Angeles during this convulsive, four or five-year period (roughly 1926 to 1931, maybe ’32) when movie dialogue tipped the scales and re-ordered the power structure. Everyone above the level of food catering had to re-assess, re-think, change their game.
It starts out with a long, bravura sequence that will probably impress critics and audiences in the same way La-La Land‘s opening freeway dance number did. Except Babylon is darker, raunchier. The first 26 or 27 pages acquaint us with the main characters (one of whom may be played by Emma Stone) while diving into the most bacchanalian Hollywood party you’ve ever attended or read about. Cocaine, booze, exhibitionist sex, an elephant, the singing of a lesbian torch song, heroin, blowjobs, and a certain inanimate…forget it.
Unless Chazelle embarks on a serious rewrite, the 27-minute opening of Babylon is going to seem like quite the envelope pusher. It’s basically Fellini Satyricon meets Day of the Locust meets the secret orgy sequence in Eyes Wide Shot meets the Copacabana entrance scene in Goodfellas. Plus Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby meets The Bad and the Beautiful meets Singin’ in the Rain meets The Big Knife…that’ll do for openers.
It seems to me that Chazelle wrote Babylon with a jaded, somewhat angry attitude. When a couple of scenes tip into near-porn you say to yourself, “Yeah, I get it — he’s showing this stuff in quotes…as commentary.” Laugh if you want but the audience will be attending this party in the company of a lot of self-obsessed, deluded or ruthless types. Anyway, that’s all.