Blu-ray Review: Babylon | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, May 28th, 2020  


Studio: Kino Lorber

Aug 20, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Babylon is many things: a movie, a time capsule, a wholly unique experience. That isn’t to say that the film has subjects that have never been explored in other projects, nor is it the only film of its attitude and tenacity to come out of that era of British filmmaking, shaking its fist at systemic cancers. Combining scripted sequences, improvisation, professionals and non-actors, and the real streets of London, this gonzo rough-and-tumble drama manages to capture a vibrancy and soul of a time and place that films seldom manage. Before Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood, there was Franco Rosso’s Babylon.

Blue (Brinsley Forde) is a youth spending his days at a Deptford automobile garage and dealing ganja, but fully funneling his passion into spinning reggae. Smoke-filled warehouses converted into dance halls set the scene for backroom gambling and weed-dealing against booming bass and treble. After he refuses to capitulate to his boss (Mel Smith), and gets fired, Blue soon spirals increasingly faster down a vortex plagued by false charges and racist anger, desperately trying to save the sound he treasures. Flanked by his cohort of friends, Blue’s journey explores the racial and economic divides of London in the late 70s, as well as the highly influential reggae youth culture that came to influence numerous aspects of modern British music.

For all the minimalist production design, and fly by night filmmaking that had to be constantly adapted to meet imposing exterior forces, this film has such a refined edge, smoothness of camerawork, and crispness of sound design that it's easy to mistake it for a bigger budget film. Possessed by an editorial sense highly emblematic of the reggae filling your ears throughout the runtime, Babylon resonates through its hazy focus and staggered pacing - it manages to have a coherent plot at the same moment it is entirely a slice-of-life experience. The tribulations of Blue may feel heightened to near exaggeration for some, though they equally impress as completely realistic - much like Mean Streets, this is an unflinching look into a subculture and the compassion and conflicts that help define it. However, it takes its strength a significant step further with its approach to interacial inequalities and intraracial antagonism - there is a starkness to its treatment of every character, and no single person is resistant to reproach.

Babylon released first in the United Kingdom in late 1980 and also screened at the 1981 Toronto International Film Festival, but did not receive any theatrical or home release in the United States until March of this year. Immediately notable for its inclusion of many premier reggae acts and tracks, including Aswad and Michael Prophet, the film also manages to seamlessly integrate Jamaican Patois and slang, while providing well-translated subtitles for those not too familiar with the language and its vernacular. While first brought to Blu-ray in 2008 by Icon Home Entertainment for the UK, its Region 1 debut has come by way of Kino Lorber.

Led by a highly amusing and rose-tinted commentary by Rosso, Forde, co-screenwriter Martin Stellman, and producer Gavrik Losey, this Blu-ray is heavily stacked with supplemental features; far more than a typical Kino home release. I found this commentary so illuminating and entertaining, I listened to it twice in a row - that’s a first for me, ever. The anecdotes and chemistry between the filmmakers make the decisions in the film all the more endearing and impressive, when contextualized properly. The commentary is buttressed by fresh interviews with Forde and composer Dennis Bovell, a featurette documenting the process of restoring the feature for Blu-ray, a 2008 recording of a cast and crew Q&A session, and Dread Beat and Blood, a short 1979 documentary by Rosso on the Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. The disc is rounded out by the film’s theatrical and teaser trailers, and the music video for Vivien Goldman’s song “Launderette.” The case is decked out with a reversible jacket blessed with two unique pieces of cover art, and an insert containing a fantastic and well-researched essay by music journalist Mike Rubin, a small note on the unique subtitles, and the film’s credits.

Overall the film is spectacular; rich with personality and piercing sociocultural awareness, made all the more potent by its powerful cast of characters, and evident hunger of the filmmakers to tell a compelling story. The home release does the efforts of the cast and crew justice through the calculated curation of these extra elements, and presents them concisely and respectfully - all wrapped up in a pleasing and clever aesthetic. Babylon is a powerhouse of moviemaking, a snapshot of multifaceted London society, and an irreplaceable part of cinema history that has continued to influence filmmakers to the present day - absolutely astounding.



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