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BABYLON – Justin Hurwitz

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The first half hour of Babylon, director Damien Chazelle’s epic look at the excesses of early Hollywood in the 1920s, is a sensory overload that feels like too much of everything. It’s a literal orgy of sex, drugs, and debauchery, drinking and dancing and music and good times blended with the sort of bacchanalian overkill that would make even the most hardened party goer question their judgement. Within the opening few minutes we are treated to scenes of, among other things, a grossly overweight man receiving a golden shower, someone snorting a literal mountain of cocaine, dwarves on phallus-shaped pogo sticks ‘ejaculating’ onto a crowd, a lounge singer crooning about playing with ‘her girl’s pussy’, and an elephant with the worst case of diarrhea you have ever seen. But, somehow, out of this initially overwhelming celebration of Pasolini-esque depravity, a compelling story emerges focusing on three main characters: silent film matinee idol actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), ambitious but damaged starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and idealistic Mexican immigrant Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who just wants to work in the movies.

As I said, I initially thought, during that first half hour, that Babylon was going to be too much, in all the ways that films can be too much. But gradually the story drew me in with its multi-layered ambition. First of all, it’s a love letter to the power and magic of the cinema, and how the allure of the silver screen can change lives and make dreams come true. It’s also a look at one of the most important eras in entertainment history – the transition from silent films to talkies – and the difficulty many people had in making that change. The film’s intentional parallels, both obvious and subtle, to Singin’ in the Rain – one of my all-time favorite films – made me very happy here, and likely contributed to my eventual affection for the whole thing.

However, Babylon also has a more serious and thoughtful side. It’s an exploration of the nature of fame, how fleeing and fickle it can be, and how seeking and desiring it can lead to self-destruction. It’s an examination of identity and acceptance, about how people present façades to the world to hide who they really are, and how people suppress their pasts and where they came from in order to fit in – whether that is adopting a faux English accent and pretending not to be from New Jersey, subtly hiding your Mexican heritage, or making your face darker with makeup in order to embody a white man’s view of what it is to be a negro in racist Hollywood. It features an array of exceptional performances, not only from Pitt and Robbie and Calva as the leading trio, but also from Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, and Jean Smart in supporting roles. Smart in particular delivers a monologue about fame, immortality, and an actor’s legacy in the movies that I found exceptionally moving. I hope they, and the movie overall, receive a ton of awards love.

Music plays a massive role in Babylon. The music for the film was written by Chazelle’s long-time collaborator Justin Hurwitz, who won a pair of Oscars for the score for La La Land in 2016, and also worked on Chazelle’s films Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, and First Man. Hurwitz worked on the music for Babylon for nearly three years, and eventually wrote a score which functions both as diegetic music and dramatic underscore, and blurs the lines between the two. Initially, and most prominently, it is the focal point of many of the film’s party scenes, and in these scenes it adopts a style that blends African-American jazz with the roots of what would eventually become the massively popular big band swing sound of the 1940s. One of the film’s key sub-plots revolves around the life of Adepo’s character Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpeter with regular gigs at the parties, who eventually becomes a pioneering African-American movie star in his own right, making jazz shorts for black audiences. A lot of the early scenes show him and his band playing this music on-screen.

Purists will complain that the film’s raucous big band sound is anachronistic and didn’t exist in that way in the 1920s, and technically that’s true, but to focus on that is nit-picking of the highest degree. The array of pulsating original jazz tunes that Hurwitz wrote for the party scenes are sensational, a festival of roaring trumpets, luscious shrieking saxophones, and thundering Gene Krupa-style drums, that give a boisterous life and chaotic energy boost to the whole thing. In an interview with Jim Hemphill for Indiewire, Hurwitz explains; “Right off the bat we talked about trying not to sound like 1920s jazz. There are a lot of movies with that sound, and it’s very quaint and tame, and this movie is anything but that. We started listening to stuff outside of the period and talked about how we could take the feeling of rock ‘n’ roll riffs – things that could be played on a distorted guitar – and ask, how do we have horns play that kind of material? We wanted the instrumentation of a 20s jazz band – brass and drums and bass – but needed to push it to be quite a bit more aggressive and unhinged, like so much of this movie is. I also wanted to get the feeling of modern dance music, the rush of house and EDM that you get from risers and bass drops but, again, using the instrumentation of the period.”

The end result of all this is that the soundtrack is littered with a plethora of killer jazz tunes. From the opening “Welcome,” which resounds to whoops of joy and vocal harmonies from the musicians, to the jungle drums and unique vocals of “King of the Circus,” and on through toe-tapping riffs like “Jub Jub,” and the space age psychedelia of “Miss Idaho,” the whole thing just explodes with vitality. “Coke Room,” “Herman’s Hustle,” “Call Me Manny,” “All Figured Out” and the “Finale” all feature the theme that appeared prominently in the film’s trailer – a sick, slick, saxophone vibe with a throaty, seductive growl which appears to represent the hustle and tenaciousness of Manny’s character – while the trumpet-laden “Voodoo Mama” is the piece that Nellie dances to in one of the film’s most iconic party moments.

Later, pieces like “Red Devil,” “Gimme,” the groovy “Pharoah John,” the anarchic and aggressive “Damascus Thump,” and the Latin-esque pair “Levántate” and “Señor Avocado” build on the jazz style to excellent effect – “Señor Avocado” features a notably scorching trumpet solo. On the other hand, “Toad” and “Blockhouse” are curios; they accompany Manny as he is forced to explore the darker and more dangerous underworld of Tobey Maguire’s character, gangster James McKay; the former feels more like something from a contemporary dance club, all wailing synthesizers and heavy processed beats, while the latter is a peculiar piece of experimental electronica combined with eerie, unsettling medieval plainsong. Also worth mentioning is “My Girl’s Pussy,” an actual song from the period by British bandleader Harry Roy, which has hilariously scandalous lyrics, and is performed seductively on screen by actress Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu, a character based on Anna May Wong.

However, what’s interesting about the soundtrack is how all this high life jazz cross-pollenates into the non-diegetic underscore. The emotional anchor of the score proper is the recurring theme for the relationship between Manny and Nellie, which is first introduced in the second cue, “Manny and Nellie’s Theme”. People familiar with Hurwitz’s career will immediately notice the compositional similarities between it and the music for La La Land, especially Mia & Sebastian’s Theme and the ’City of Stars’ song. Chalk it up to Hurwitz’s personal style. The theme is initially a laid back, languid melody for a honky-tonk piano and finger snaps, but as the movie develops and the fates of Manny and Nellie intertwine, the theme changes too. “Ain’t Life Grand” and “New York” are peppy and optimistic, and “See You Back in LA” and “Meet Miss LaRoy” have a hint of melancholy, while “Te Amo Nellie” and the conclusive “Manny and Nellie’s Theme (Reprise) “ are pretty but wistful. There’s even a vocal version of the melody, “I Want A Man,” which has hilarious lyrics performed by Prince Bernard in a style that sort of combines early delta blues with hints of reggae and calypso.

Elsewhere there’s a more languid and introspective piece called the “Gold Coast Rhythm” which features in several cues, after initially being heard in the aftermath of the Wallach Party. This theme appears to a represent the ‘fallout,’ the post-party headaches and hangovers, and the regrets the revelers have when they wake up in the cold light of morning and remember at least some of what the hell they did the night before. There’s an unexpected French vibe to some of these cues, manly from the use of an accordion in the instrumental mix, as well as more stylistic references to the more low-key parts of La La Land. “Orientally Yours” is one of several cues to feature a gorgeous erhu solo, performed by Karen Han, ostensibly to represent Lady Fay Zhu. Interestingly for La La Land fans, the vivacious “Champagne” and the aforementioned “Señor Avocado” are clearly based on an unused idea for the song “Another Day of Sun” from that movie, and contain a lovely, romantic groove.

There are several classical music references throughout the score too – likely an intentional in-joke due to the fact that they often accompany scenes that take place on movie sets, and silent movies often incorporated existing classical music into their performance exhibition repertoire. The waltz-like “Morning” is one of several cues based on the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2. The soaring “Gold Coast Sunset,” which underscores the triumphant scene in which a film crew celebrates getting a shot from Conrad’s latest film finished in failing light, is inspired by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, blended with a variation on Manny and Nellie’s Theme. The excerpt from Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” is actually performed on-screen by an on-set orchestra as a way to inspire the extras filming an epic battle scene. Later, “Hearst Party” features the famous rhythmic riff from Ravel’s Bolero, which was actually a brand new piece when the film was set, having been written by the Frenchman in 1928, and it is used to comic effect in context.

The way Hurwitz balances the massive, powerful, anarchic jazz pieces with the more intimate and introspective theme for Manny and Nellie is clever, and allows the two competing ideas in the film to co-exist. The film’s depiction of Hollywood in the 1920s as a drink-and-drug fueled hedonistic playground for the wealthy and powerful is repulsive and seductive in equal measure – I’m sure there are many who would have loved to have lived in that world, when the movies were new, when the people making them were pioneers, and when the industry was filled with beautiful, sexy people throwing off every moral shackle of taste and decorum. But then, of course, there’s the flip side. That life destroys people – morally, physically, emotionally – and for every successful actor or actress making it big in the movies there are countless others who have maybe one moment in the spotlight before it all comes crashing down, a victim of the pressure and the excess. Babylon brilliantly explores all that, and while Justin Hurwitz’s music enhances the magnificent extravagance of that life and that time, it makes sure it doesn’t overlook the pain and the pathos either.

Buy the Babylon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Welcome (4:00)
  • Manny and Nellie’s Theme (0:53)
  • King of the Circus (2:28)
  • Jub Jub (0:56)
  • Coke Room (2:31)
  • My Girl’s Pussy (written by Harry Roy, performed by Li Jun Li) (2:29)
  • Idaho (0:55)
  • Voodoo Mama (3:59)
  • Gold Coast Rhythm (Wallach Party) (1:41)
  • Ain’t Life Grand (1:38)
  • Babylon (0:30)
  • Morning (2:00)
  • Kinescope Ragtime Piano (0:35)
  • Kinescope Erhu (Orientally Yours) (1:28)
  • Kinescope Carnival Music (0:49)
  • Kinescope Organ Music (0:45)
  • Night on Bald Mountain (written by Modest Mussorgsky) (2:08)
  • Herman’s Hustle (2:02)
  • Gold Coast Sunset (2:00)
  • Champagne (2:55)
  • Wild Child (3:03)
  • New York (2:02)
  • See You Back in LA (0:48)
  • Red Devil (1:56)
  • I Want a Man (written by Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle, performed by Prince Bernard) (2:02)
  • Orientally Yours (2:11)
  • Gimme (1:32)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed) (1:22)
  • Pharoah John (0:39)
  • Meet Miss LaRoy (0:39)
  • Call Me Manny (3:37)
  • Hearst Party (6:41)
  • Damascus Thump (2:10)
  • All Figured Out (0:55)
  • Nea Smyrni (2:03)
  • Waikele Tango (3:38)
  • Toad (2:01)
  • Blockhouse (2:10)
  • Jack’s Party Band (1:34)
  • Gold Coast Rhythm (Jack’s Party) (1:42)
  • Levántate (0:34)
  • Señor Avocado (2:23)
  • Heyo (3:00)
  • Gold Coast Rhythm (Juan Bonilla) (2:56)
  • Te Amo Nellie (1:31)
  • Gold Coast Rhythm (Sidney’s Solo) (2:47)
  • Manny and Nellie’s Theme (Reprise) (0:45)
  • Finale (3:51)

Running Time: 97 minutes 15 seconds

Interscope Records (2022)

Music composed by Justin Hurwitz. Conducted by Justin Hurwitz. Orchestrations by Justin Hurwitz. Featured musical soloists Sean Jones, Ludovic Louis, Dontae Winslow, Jacob Scesney and Leo Pellegrino. Recorded and mixed by Nick Baxter, Noah Hubbell, Scott Michael Smith, Chandler Harrod and Johnny Morgan. Edited by Jason Ruder. Album produced by Justin Hurwitz.

  1. January 7, 2023 at 12:42 am

    “Jub jub”

    Sounds like a good title for a dog, not a song

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