Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a gloriously excessive pop epic that both invites and earns comparison with masterpieces of the form like “Boogie Nights” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s 188 minutes but races by like a rocket, moving nimbly from outrageous comedy to devastating tragedy and every tone in between as sex, drugs, ambition, and anxiety propel the characters through one audacious set piece after another. Yet even with all its disparate tones and an enormous ensemble that contains around 100 speaking parts, “Babylon” leaves the spiraling out of control to its teeming masses of silent-era stars, movers, shakers, and hangers-on.
All due credit to the carefully controlled chaos of Chazelle’s script and Tom Cross’ expertly calibrated editing, but what really holds “Bablyon” together and adds an entirely new dimension of excitement to the piece is composer Justin Hurwitz’s extraordinary score. The aggressively percussive compositions, filled with exhilarating (and sometimes unnerving) horns, not only tie the various storylines together and drive the narrative forward but pull off something miraculous: they’re technically faithful to the period in which most of the movie takes place, yet feel completely modern.
This was part of Hurwitz and Chazelle’s design from the beginning. “Right off the bat we talked about trying not to sound like ’20s jazz,” Hurwitz told IndieWire. “There are a lot of movies with that sound, and it’s very quaint and tame, and this movie is anything but that.” In order to avoid repeating that sound while still creating music that could technically exist in the 1920s, Hurwitz turned to some unlikely influences. “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,” Hurwitz continued. “The rush of house and EDM that you get from risers and bass drops but again, using the instrumentation of the period.” Hurwitz and Chazelle took a deep dive into the music of the era and learned that it was much broader in its influences and cross-cultural pollination than they had thought, but that much of the underground music of the period hadn’t survived — what we typically think of as 1920’s music is really just a small sliver based on what was recorded and preserved. The exuberant score that resulted from Hurwitz’s research gives a taste of what we’re missing.
The complete integration of the score with the narrative is no surprise, given the way of working that Hurwitz and Chazelle have developed since collaborating on Chazelle’s feature debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Hurwitz is brought on early in the process, talking and thinking about music as soon as Chazelle has a script. “We dive in and immediately start marking up the script, figuring out where there will be music and how the music will function,” Hurwitz said. That task was made more complicated than usual by the abundance of live performances and ostensible source music (most of which was composed by Hurwitz), all of which had to be carefully charted out and structured so that Hurwitz could create demos. “There was so much back and forth between source and score, so that all had to be figured out, and for any performances you have to record or at least demo that music before you shoot,” Hurwitz said.
To make sure the music would perfectly fit the visual structure Chazelle had in mind, he shared storyboards with Hurwitz in pre-production and even adapted those boards to the score. “He’s cutting storyboards with music. I’m changing lengths to fit the storyboards, and he’s changing storyboards to fit the music. We’re going back and forth and back and forth until it all fits, and then you shoot the movie.” Hurwitz was on set for much of the shoot, assisting with the many jazz performance scenes, and then in post-production for a year. “At this point I’m doing what a film composer normally does, watching the scenes and responding to what I’m seeing.”
In keeping with a tradition begun on “La La Land” and “First Man,” Hurwitz had a room next door to Cross’ editing bay, so there was constant communication. “Damien and I would be editing scenes with Justin’s music,” Cross told IndieWire. “I’m never temping with any other soundtracks. I’m always temping not only with Justin’s music, but with Justin’s demos for this movie — it’s not even from past projects. When I’m editing, we’ll make adjustments and then we pass it back to Justin. Then Justin will make further improvements and refinements and pass it back to us. And often those refinements come with enough changes that we then change picture and then I pass it back to Justin again and this sort of rinse, repeat cycle continues.”
Hurwitz added that there’s not only an efficiency from working this way – “as opposed to me being off in a studio somewhere sending music off and waiting for feedback” — but a synthesis of intention that seeps into the finished film. “You have lunch with the second assistant editor and hear about what they’re working on, and there’s just this osmosis that makes the movie come together in a different way.”