Singin' in the Rain is probably the first movie that comes to mind when you picture 1920s Hollywood and the advent of talkies: A charming, lighthearted look at the tumult and ultimate triumph in Tinseltown as movies as we knew them were forever changed.
Enter Damien Chazelle's Babylon. The youngest person to win the Oscar for Best Director, the La La Land filmmaker was born in the '80s during the boom of high concept blockbusters, but his latest film focuses on the same era as Singin' in the Rain from a radically different perspective.
"We've just seen it so often in movies and shows that it felt like there was no point in adding to that lineage," Chazelle says. "If we were going to do something set in that time period, the only reason to do it would be to knock all those expectations against the wall and to really come at it from a totally different vantage point."
And so, Babylon is an epic, debauched look back at the filmmaking industry's pivot from the silent years to talking pictures, as movie stars and other Hollywood players suddenly faced an uncertain future — but kept partying into the abyss. The film follows Brad Pitt's faded legend, Margot Robbie's rising ingénue, and a wide-eyed newcomer (Diego Calva) as they chase after their respective Hollywood dreams, experiencing their own tragedies and triumph while imbibing in enough sex, drugs, and raucous pre-code bacchanal to make Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly blush.
Below, Chazelle shares five of the films that inspired Babylon and its approach to Old Hollywood.
Directed by: D.W. Griffith | Written by: D.W. Griffith and Hettie Grey Baker
Intolerance is the ideal of a maximalist epic. It's trying to push the limits of what a normal movie contains, and in some ways, it feels like the first real example of that in cinema history, and maybe still the best — certainly one of the all-time greats, I think. That was a big influence. It certainly helped inspire Babylon's title, and the making of it worked its way into some of the battlefield stuff in this movie.
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli
In all his movies but in that movie most specifically, it's the way Fellini captures the life cycle of a party and uses that to help structure a film — the way a party can slowly morph from the joyful innocence and exuberance of its beginning stages, to a moment where it starts to curdle to the sadness of its ending and the aftermath. Just the idea of sadness and desperation underneath the high life, that ultimately the reason people are partying is to escape something else, and this fear of real life coming in so they're trying to keep real life away.
Directed by: Marcel Carne | Written by: Jacques Prevert
A true epic, very much dealing with the behind the scenes of theater. I was trying to transpose some of the ideas that movie plays with — life and art interacting — but transplant them from 19th century theater in that movie to 1920s cinema.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin
It's the rock and roll energy. The feeling of freedom. The feeling of watching the movie and you don't know what's going to happen. The movie feels capable of anything at any moment. Like the characters, it sort of zigzags and speeds off in different directions, and it's just alive. You feel like you're watching a living thing when you project it.
Directed by: Dudley Murphy | Written by: Dudley Murphy
It's a short film using Duke Ellington's composition "Black and Tan Fantasy," and to me, it's a perfect synthesis of music and cinema — jazz and cinema in that case —so obviously, that's very much my cup of tea. It's a movie I'd loved since adolescence, but on Babylon, I was trying to work backwards to see, how exactly did a movie like that come to be? What were the circumstances in Hollywood at that moment in time that made the studios suddenly interested in doing these short films with jazz musicians of the era? It's like a musical before a musical, and it's like a music video before a music video.
It all has to do with the novelty of sound, and they were trying things that in many ways they stopped trying. You stopped seeing that experimental stuff once you get later into the '30s. But there was a magic little moment there at the end of the '20s where you see a lot of those really weird, wild short films, and that's one of the best of them.