A swooning, punch-drunk love letter to one of the world’s greatest cities, “London: The Modern Babylon” unspools a magnificent collage of vintage and original material, offering a rousing unofficial history of Blighty’s capitol. Having found his groove as a documaker after a patchy career in features, helmer and local boy Julien Temple goes ape in the archives to illustrate a loose-limbed thesis about London’s vitality, diversity and irrepressible energy from the early 20th century to the present. Pic enjoyed a brief theatrical release to sync with the Olympics before its Beeb broadcast on Aug. 11.
“London: The Modern Babylon” screened at the Toronto fest, and looks likely to globetrot around the fest circuit; the pic should do well with offshore distribs, as its breathtaking catalogue of music clips has thankfully been cleared for worldwide export. The soundtrack encompasses tunes from music-hall favorites, through the Kinks and the Clash (“Waterloo Sunset” and “London Calling,” natch), right up to the latest hip-hoppers, a soundscape that thoroughly enhances the pic’s whirligig of imagery. That said, the editing sometimes matches sounds to visuals a bit too literally.
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Much like Temple’s earlier montage-driven salute to music fest “Glastonbury,” the docu eschews use of a traditional narrator. Literary quotations read by thesps including Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton, excerpted from authors ranging from William Blake to Colin McInnes, add ballast. For the most part, Temple lets the images and interviewees speak for themselves, an apt strategy given the pic’s emphasis on spontaneously evolving political movements, mob riots and dissent. Feisty nonagenarian Cockney Hetty Bower, still sharp as a tack, reps the most memorable interviewee of many as she recollects the good/bad old days, from WWI to the anti-Fascist Cable Street riot and beyond.
Other Londoners, from regular folk to more famous names including pop impresario Malcolm McLaren and left-wing politician Tony Benn, reflect on the city’s changing demographics over the years, as waves of immigrants arrived and integrated into the community, and how redevelopment changed the landscape, especially after the Blitz during WWII. Although not strictly chronological in its progression, the material duly includes recent events such as the bombings of July 7, 2005, the street riots of 2012, and London’s version of the Occupy movement.
Archival material covers an extraordinary spectrum of sources, from silent footage dating back to the turn of the 20th century, through newsreels, TV footage, musicvideos and film clips, including excerpts from such key London pics as “Performance” (1970) and “The Long Good Friday” (1980). Auds are advised to stay until the end of the credits for an amusing excerpt that pays wry homage to the many researchers who must have slaved over Steenbecks and other playback devices for days to achieve the finished result.
For the record, the pic’s onscreen title is simply “London Babylon,” although it has been referred to in publicity materials, fest catalogues and the press as “London: The Modern Babylon.”