Babylon (1980; Franco Rosso)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
Released for the first time in the United States, Italian-born, English-raised director Franco Rosso’s Babylon follows the Jamaican-born, English-raised members of fictional sound system group Ital Lion.
Fronted by the conflicted and beleaguered Blue (Brinsley Forde, leader of the real-life reggae band Aswad), Ital Lion includes predictable archetypes like a hothead named Beefy and a tinkerer named Scientist.
From the Trainspotting-style opening images to the revolution-minded finale, Babylon is shockingly vital and relevant cinema. This shot of energy combines a proto-stoner comedy, a gritty musical and a nihilistic call-to-arms into an excoriation of Thatcher-era racism and poverty.
Racist bosses, racist neighbors, racist cops and even random racist pedestrians beset Blue and his young, spliff-smoking bandmates throughout the film. However, the violence doesn’t stop when they get home. Despite the bleak milieu, the film still allows for pulsating club scenes, light moments like the hilariously awkward engagement party sequence and even a few spiritual rays of hope. It all adds up to an apocalyptic vision of the beginnings of hip-hop.
Cinematographer Chris Menges supervised the restoration of Babylon, which includes occasional subtitles for the pervasive Jamaican patois and thick British accents. Later in the decade, Menges won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission. Still, I’ll take his vigorous work here over anything in those stuffy award-grovelers.