Released 29th October 2012.
Recently screened in cinemas and shown on the BBC, Julien Templeâs rapturously acclaimed London: The Modern Babylon is now deservedly released on DVD by the BFI. Ian Johnston reviews it for us.
Narrated through a century of terrific music and dazzling, vast film archive resources, this exceedingly poignant and persuasive film by the renowned Sex Pistols director – The Great Rock âNâ Roll Swindle (1980), The Filth And The Fury (2000) – certainly demands and deserves frequent viewings that the DVD format offers, telling the story of Londonâs marathon voyage through 100 years of great cultural turmoil and major reinvention, from the birth of the 20th century (and film), through two World Wars, one World Cup, two Great Depressions, huge social upheaval, the âpermissiveâ 1960âs, punk, the Thatcher 80s, to this year in which the capital city has been on display to the world as host of the 2012 Olympic Games.
London: The Modern Babylon (the term coined by Benjamin Disraeli) is a kaleidoscope of television and film clips – including Hitchcockâs Blackmail (1929), Charles Crichtonâs The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Michael Powellâs âPeeping Tom (1960), Tony Hancockâs comedy The Rebel (1961), and John Mackenzieâs The Long Good Friday (1980) – photos, graffiti and paintings, poetry extracts (TS Eliotâs The Waste Land, London by William Blake), prose (Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, Julian MacClaren-Rossâ Memoirs of the Forties), ironic advertising images and album covers, even some home movies contributed by the public. These have been skillfully assembled in layers, to mirror the similar fashion in which London has been endlessly layered over by new immigrants arrivals, bringing their new influences with them in the past hundred years. From 1890s hand cranked black and white 35mm, through early 16mm home movies in the late â20s, Super 8mm in the â50s and â60s, VHS in the â80s, Mini DV in the 90s to today’s Hi Def, each photographic format evokes the period in which it was shot, with Temple spectacularly foregrounding how the old, monochrome London has erupted into vibrant multicultural colour.Â The âLondon mobâ, the uncontrolled force of rioters and protestors that have marked key moments during the last 100 years of London (the 1936 Battle Of Cable Street against Oswald Mosleyâs Blackshirts, the Govener Square anti war demonstration of the 1968, the Brixton riots of 1981, the 1990 Poll Tax riot, the 2003 Anti Iraq War march and last years insurrection) are also heavily featured.Â Though not celebrating or condoning violence, Templeâs film makes clear that these events and people have left their mark on the capital and its history, to the same degree as those in power whom they were railing against.
With archive producer Miriam Walsh, Julien Temple and his team â including producers Amanda Temple, Stephen Malit, Rosa Bosch and George Hencken, cinematographer Stephen Organ and editor Caroline Richards â have obviously tackled a prodigious number of hours of archive material from over a thousand different sources. With freshly shot footage, Templeâs assembly of a rich collage is fastened together by interviews with contemporary London characters, including poet / painter Molly Parkin, effortlessly cool West Indian musician Syco Gordon and the remarkable anti war demonstrator 106 year old Hetty Bower, whose life spans that of Templeâs film. Among the line-up of well-known faces are David Bowie, Ray Davies, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, Tony Benn, Malcolm McLaren, the Royal Family, various Prime Ministers of the last century as well as the âordinaryâ people of London from all walks of life.
Building on Templeâs long experience in making music videos, together with his superb musical documentary films about Joe Strummer (The Future Is Unwritten) and Dr. Feelgood (Oil City Confidential), the film is energized by an extraordinary soundtrack spanning 100 years of London music.Â These tracks, covering every conceivable genre of music, range from the Sex Pistols (Holidays In the Sunâ), The Clash, (âLondon Callingâ) The Small Faces (âWhatcha Gonna Do âBout Itâ), The Fall (âLeave The Capitalâ), X-Ray Spex (âOh Bondage Up Yoursâ), Pink Floyd (Interstellar Overdriveâ), Roxy Music (âDo The Strandâ), The Kinks (âWaterloo Sunsetâ), Sonny Boy Williamson (âIâm Trying To Make London My Homeâ), Bowie (Golden Yearsâ), calypsonian Lord Kitchener (âLondon Is The Place For Meâ), The Stones (âStreet Fighting Manâ), Linton Kwesi Johnson (âInglan Is A Bitchâ)Â and Bob Marley (âGet Up Stand Upâ) through to Tommy Trinder (âChampagne Charlieâ), Max Bygraves (the wonderful âFings Ainât Wot They Used To Beâ), Vera Lynn (âA Nightingale Sang In Berkley Squareâ), Lonnie Donnegan (âthe evergreen My Old Manâs A Dustmanâ), Murray Johnson, Rolf Harris (âSun Ariseâ) and Robert Burns, plus many more. There is enough music to warrant a triple disc soundtrack album to accompany the DVD, or issued with it as a special edition.
Traveling back and forth-in time and celluloid texture, the filmâs main themes resonate throughout the last century – repression and anguish, partition and rebellion, adjustment and amalgamation. London has witnessed these configurations repeat with minor alterations over and over again, and each time the city materializes a little improved into a fresh epoch of societal transformation. The only constant presence is The River Thames following through this Modern Babylon (Templeâs documentary views London from every perspective that the phrase, and those who have used it, invokes), but that is a state of continuous flux too.
Despite the fact that there are few special features – a brief interview with Julien Temple (there should have been a full documentary about the making of the film), the original trailer and an Illustrated booklet with contributions from the incisive film critic Jonathan Romney and John Wyver – London: The Modern Babylon DVD is a hypnotic and fervently anti-nostalgic vision of the metropolis which will be watched again and again.Â Best of all, Temple realizes that his film cannot be definitive, merely a selective impression from a pop culture imbued, street level perspective of a city that was once the centre of the British Empire, that has for the past 100 years had to deal with the consequences of the post-colonial age.
A herculean cinematic achievement.
All words by Ian Johnston. More Louder Than War articles by Ian can be read here.