Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) Babylon is set against the early days of Hollywood and focuses on the cultural freedoms of decadence and depravity amongst Hollywood in the early days of the century. The film has received a variety of awards and nominations to date including a Golden Globe for best score for Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash; La La Land). The Interscope release will be available in a variety of formats and features 97 minutes of material.
Babylon’s score is a blend of the light-hearted coupled with a variety of quirky moments and incorporation of different musical styles. A jazzier “Welcome” moves us into a brief piano theme for Manny and Nellie (which has a thematic outline that seems like a variation on the chorus from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). It provides one of the recurring concepts in the score that often shows up on an out-of-tune piano (at one point it morphs into a song, “I Want A Man”). This is followed by a sort of choral chant jazz number in “King of the Circus.” Each of these opening tracks focuses on a small motivic cell that is then repeated over and over with some variation in color, but feels fairly monochrome. This unisonal style tends to be the focus with shifts. The music tends to be a riff in search of a thematic idea but one can admire the way Hurwitz has taken the sort of New Orleans Jazz style, filtered that through swing, and created a variety of musical combos that give the suggestion of period while maintaining a more current vibe. The title track is where some of that more macabre dissonance explodes briefly. Hurwitz also traverses through the sort of Palm Court musical genres as well. The first of these pops up in “Morning” with its slight tango rhythms and engaging thematic idea, and later in “Waikele Tango”. A variety of “Kinescope” tracks provide some faux silent film-era musical color and these will then appear blended into other tracks later. Other moments like “Gold Coast Sunset” feel like they were plucked from a long lost Jarre-Lean influenced by Richard Strauss, even if the music feels like it is for a sunrise with its long ascending line. “Hearst Party” is a nod to Ravel’s Bolero. It is a bit subtle and likely lost on most people engrossed in the film, but it adds its own unique overlay all the same. “Toad” is one of the more unusual tracks with its electronic sounds and percussion.
In the midst of these jazz improvisational ideas that are like faux swing music music sucked into the 1960s jazz concept style, there are a variety of songs that flirt with musical theater influence. Babylon as a score then is a blender filled with different musical styles and gestures that are thrown together in an endless shifting mix. Some of the orchestral cues are quite beautiful, the jazzier tracks all have a sameness to them after awhile though (perhaps not helped here in this extensive release of the score). To say the presentation is exhaustive would be an understatement. Hurwitz’s score changes gears a lot and as it moves through its eclectic sounds it begins to settle into an almost over-repetitive alternation of light-orchestral cues, swing, club music, and ragtime with a couple thematic ideas that get repeated in different dress. There are lots of interwoven musical references that might pop to an astute listener, but likely are lost within the film itself. It points to a smarter score than one might sense at first. In those moments, one can gain a greater appreciation for Hurwitz has done here even if it is a bit overmuch in this current release but for fans of the film, the score may last a bit beyond the day. For older film music fans it feels like a distant stepchild of Charles Strouse’s The Night The Raided Minsky’s (1968), another film set in a burlesque setting with an equally eclectic score. The film itself plays with the need for both diagetic and non-diagetic music and that also pushes the envelope for the different eclectic styles that appear throughout this unique score that eschews the BIG Hollywood sound.