Judge P.S. Colbert needs directions to Liverpool.
"At the beginning of the 20th century, London is the capital city of the most extensive empire the world has ever seen."
Pop music has been very good to British filmmaker Julien Temple (The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle).
He got his first gig while a student at Cambridge in the mid-'70s, documenting early concert appearances by his friends, the Sex Pistols. Throughout the '80s and '90s, a flood of iconic videos, made with all manner of chart-topping acts, made him the man of the MTV generation, and after a brief, unsuccessful stab at features (Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy), Temple returned to form with a series of acclaimed documentaries (on Joe Strummer, the Glastonbury Festival, and those Pistols, again, to name a few), firmly establishing himself as the biographer's biographer in the 21st century.
London: The Modern Babylon sings a song of century and twelve pence—its narrative stretching roughly from the first days of the 20th century (which Temple corresponds with "the dawn of film") up to the eve of last year's Summer Olympics, held in England's crown jewel.
Intent on cramming 112 years into a bit over two hours, Temple is frequently seen manning a toggle stick at a control board that looks out at a wall made up of small TV screens stacked upon each other, with every one playing different footage. While this suggests that the director favors a mosaic presentational approach, what emerges is actually a multi-generational, multimedia mash-up, with images aural and pictorial seemingly blended in a cinematic Cuisinart.
The horse-drawn carriages transporting Nestlé's milk and Lipton tea over the city's cobblestone streets are accompanied by The Clash ("London Calling"), Ella Shields ("Burlington Bertie From Bow"), Underworld ("Born Slippy") and Max Bygraves ("Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be"), almost simultaneously.
The syrupy baritone of Michael Gambon (Quartet) voices Temple's semi-chronological text, with frequent interruptions from historical sound bites, contemporaneous interviews, royal processions, race riots, a pair of world wars, killer fog, Carnaby Street fashions, and quotations from T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Roald Dahl, Angela Carter, and Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (better known as Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex), among others.
How much one does or doesn't enjoy London: The Modern Babylon basically comes down to how appealing one finds the idea of having appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, dessert, after-dinner Brandy, and cigars, consolidated into soup and served over a bed of mix tapes—figuratively speaking, of course.
While I certainly appreciated the skill behind this Herculean effort (particularly by editor Caroline Richards), and I'd be the first to admit there's a treasure trove of interesting material herein, I was ultimately done in by the ceaseless audio-visual bombast. Well, how long do you like your music videos to last? Three minutes? Five? One hundred and twenty-five?!
In many cases, the apparent damage to both picture and sound are unavoidable—and indeed, actually lends charm, on occasion—but Docurama's DVD presentation is unimpeachably up to snuff. The lone extra is an interview with Temple, clocking in just under seven minutes. Ostensibly a look in at the process of putting the feature together, this rambling discourse manages to be little more than Julien Temple on the subject of Julien Temple. Meh.
Not guilty, but not necessarily innocent, either.
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