Review: ‘Babylon,’ a legendary look at South London’s reggae scene, finally gets a U.S. release
Like a speaker blast from a not-exactly-distant past, the 1980 British film “Babylon” is only now getting an inaugural American release, and its late arrival is a welcome one in this era of long-overdue, jump-started representation in cinema. Franco Rosso’s film, co-written with Martin Stellman (“Quadrophenia”) and starring Aswad frontman Brinsley Forde, is a raw, propulsive and authentically music-driven glimpse of South London black culture in the pressurized hot zone of Thatcherite England. (It has frequently been called the U.K.’s own “The Harder They Come.”)
Forde plays Blue, a reggae deejay in a sound system crew of similarly crafty, ambitious young Brixton-ites set to face legendary dub star Jah Shaka (as himself) in an upcoming club night battle. Baked into that contest story line, though, is a thumping bass line of tension-filled humanity that lays bare black immigrants’ struggle living under a National Front-emboldened cloud of racism and dispossession. Assertive and ebullient, “Babylon” is as alive as a movie can be to the everyday mesh of liberating art, humorous camaraderie and hazardous political reality. It also feels like a corrective now in this time of “Green Book”-tinted nostalgia. (Nothing about watching “Babylon” today feels like a time machine, save maybe certain clothes.)
The cast’s rumble and spark are draw enough, but there’s also Chris Menges’ textured urban cinematography and Rosso’s empathetic direction, like neorealism rewired and amplified. Even the subtitles for the slang-riddled Jamaican patois (considered too thick originally for moviegoers) are a cultural statement: They educate as they translate. Dennis Bovell’s reggae soundtrack, however, is a master class of mood — a sonic heartbeat full of joy, pain and fury, the needle drops like matches struck and the music an insistent, scented flame you hear, see and feel.
In English and Jamaican patois with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Glendale; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica
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