“The Sound of Cinema” examines how music contributes to the filmmaking experience. Columnist Anthony Martinez Rosales dives into the musical qualities of films and how they help shape a film’s message, characters and immersive experience.
Content warning: This article includes references to suicide.
I never realized the power that a trumpet can have until I heard its beautiful cry in “Babylon” (2022).
Its tune burrows itself into your mind, luring you to the screen. But it’s not just the trumpet’s call that is mind-blowing — really, the entire composition elevates the story to elicit heartfelt emotions in the viewer.
Music has become one of the most important parts of filmmaking since its integration in the late 1920s, and Justin Hurwitz’s score in “Babylon” is a great example of its indispensability. Directed by Damien Chazelle, “Babylon” is a gem of the big screen, but it is this orchestration that ignites a fire of life into the film.
The first song in the score is “Welcome,” a sensory overload experience that immediately invests you into the world of “Babylon.” During a monumentally lavish party with a lot going on — from drugs to intimacy, dancing and even an elephant — waves of sound are emitted from around ten different speakers in the theater.
The sound is largely composed of drums, double bass, saxophones, clarinets and human shouts. However, the trumpets are the star of the show, capturing the spotlight of the piece even amid the crafted chaos. About two minutes into “Welcome,” I found myself in awe of the brass instrument’s energizing solo.
There is no other way to describe this song than pure havoc, culminating to the point where every single instrument is trying to break through the noise to be individually heard. “Welcome” truly mirrors the Hollywood aesthetic and environment that the film aims to show, with so many different instruments fighting for a chance under the spotlight.
My friend called this song “circus music.” Although I immediately argued that “Welcome” was so much more than that, perhaps the stylistic comparison holds some truth after all. The film explores what Hollywood was back in the 1920s: a circus of people willing to do anything and everything to become famous. “Welcome” serves as a great introduction to the chaotic events that unfold from this dynamic.
Along with these expository functions, “Babylon” uses music to depict journeys of character development. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is an adored silent movie actor known for throwing a plethora of parties. As the story progresses, we witness Conrad’s downfall: he gives up on trying to be relevant as he has grown tired of being in lifeless acting roles that don’t get him the same acclaim as before.
“Gold Coast Rhythm (Jack’s Party)” serves as the conclusion to Conrad’s story, the solemn piano chords playing while he is walking up to his room to commit suicide. This was one of the most impactful scenes in the film, and it brought me to tears. The song manages to compile Conrad’s feelings of solitude and defeat through its reliance on only two instruments and slow tempo — a stark contrast to the many frenzied songs on the soundtrack. This change of pace from the rest of the songs marks a pivot point in the film and creates the sense that something is off. The uniquely melancholic tune braces the audience for the sorrow that lays ahead.
In this scene, “Gold Coast Rhythm (Jack’s Party)” begins only as the mere whisper of a piano. As Jack Conrad climbs the stairs, the song continues to bleed in until it takes over as the main source of audio.
Neither the piano nor its accompanying trumpet ever completely take over the song or fight for a solo. They duet in harmony, waltzing together. Eventually the trumpet part fizzles out, and the music halts at the sound of a gun going off — then, complete silence. The camera lens remain frozen on an open door, mirroring this stillness.
We never see the aftermath of Conrad’s suicide; instead, “Babylon” utilizes the lack of sound to engrave Conrad’s deafening departure into the mind of the viewer.
All in all, I was in awe of “Babylon’s” mesmerizing visuals and even more struck by its music. When I feel overwhelmed or need to feel energized, I sit down at the piano and play the soundtrack.
I often like to describe this movie as a realistic version of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). It does not look at old Hollywood through rose-colored glasses and does not shy away from the bad aspects — the drugs, racism and sexism.
Despite its box-office bomb, subpar critical acclaim and lack of Oscar wins, I truly believe that “Babylon” is a classic that will only grow more beloved as it ages. Chazelle created a compelling display of the often-overlooked reality of Hollywood. It was through Hurwitz’s score that the sadness explored in the film sticks with audiences, Hollywood fans and critics alike.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.