The Modern Babylon – film reviewLondon: The Modern Babylon (Cert 15)
Director: Julien Temple
Writer: Julien Temple
Stars: Michael Gambon, Hetty Bower and Miss Marsh

Released 29th October 2012.

Recently screened in cinemas and shown on the BBC, Julien Temple’s 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 ‘N’ Roll Swindle (1980), The Filth And The Fury (2000) – certainly demands and deserves frequent viewings that the DVD format offers, telling the story of London’s 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 ‘permissive’ 1960’s, 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 Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom (1960), Tony Hancock’s comedy The Rebel (1961), and John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) – photos, graffiti and paintings, poetry extracts (TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, London by William Blake), prose (Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, Julian MacClaren-Ross’ 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 ‘20s, Super 8mm in the ‘50s and ‘60s, VHS in the ‘80s, 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. The ‘London mob’, 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 Mosley’s 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.  Though not celebrating or condoning violence, Temple’s 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 – including producers Amanda Temple, Stephen Malit, Rosa Bosch and George Hencken, cinematographer Stephen Organ and editor Caroline Richards – have obviously tackled a prodigious number of hours of archive material from over a thousand different sources. With freshly shot footage, Temple’s 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 Temple’s 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 ‘ordinary’ people of London from all walks of life.

Building on Temple’s 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.  These tracks, covering every conceivable genre of music, range from the Sex Pistols (Holidays In the Sun’), The Clash, (‘London Calling’) The Small Faces (‘Whatcha Gonna Do ‘Bout It’), The Fall (‘Leave The Capital’), X-Ray Spex (‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’), Pink Floyd (Interstellar Overdrive’), Roxy Music (‘Do The Strand’), The Kinks (‘Waterloo Sunset’), Sonny Boy Williamson (‘I’m Trying To Make London My Home’), Bowie (Golden Years’), calypsonian Lord Kitchener (‘London Is The Place For Me’), The Stones (‘Street Fighting Man’), Linton Kwesi Johnson (‘Inglan Is A Bitch’)  and Bob Marley (‘Get Up Stand Up’) through to Tommy Trinder (‘Champagne Charlie’), Max Bygraves (the wonderful ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be’), Vera Lynn (‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square’), Lonnie Donnegan (‘the evergreen My Old Man’s A Dustman’), Murray Johnson, Rolf Harris (‘Sun Arise’) 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 film’s 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 (Temple’s 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.  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.

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