By Don Simpson | August 4, 2013
Director: Julien Temple
My favorite deejays tend to be the ones who do not abide by the stereotypical conventions of genres or eras of music. By democratically mixing and matching songs, the order of the deejay’s playlist suggests relationships between the last, current and next tracks. With London – The Modern Babylon, director Julien Temple essentially plays the role of a documentary deejay, spinning a cultural history that is far from linear. The past, present and future fluidly and seamlessly intersect. What goes around comes around as history repeats itself like a skipping record. Temple illustrates the relationships between different eras by mashing up images and music that typically do not share the same chapter of history, establishing connections and juxtapositions that few people have probably ever noticed.
Temple seems to be the most fascinated with the underlying frictions between London’s various socioeconomic and ethnic classes throughout modern history (beginning with the end of Victorian England). Focusing on the disenfranchised, Temple notes the way that immigrants and bohemians have influenced and shaped London over the last century. London – The Modern Babylon seems to come the most alive whenever an unruly mob rises up to keep the rich and powerful in check; and thus the Siege of Sidney Street, the Battle of Cable Street, the Brixton Riots, the Poll Tax Riots and the August 2011 riots serve as some of the key moments of the film. Similar in a way to the premise of Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, the rebellious and reactionary punk ethos seems to have always existed in modern London.
The backbone of London – The Modern Babylon is the teaming of a highly imaginative soundtrack and an impressively curated collage of archive footage, fiction films and interviews. Of course since the film covers approximately 100 years of history in just over two hours, Temple eschews any resemblance of starchy academic thoroughness; instead, London – The Modern Babylon is a cursorily composed whirlwind tour of modern London, rarely covering any single event for more than a minute or two. But as Temple would probably be the first to admit, London – The Modern Babylon is not a traditional example of non-fiction filmmaking. This is a purposefully sculpted and manicured piece of cinema that is more akin to experimental and fiction films. Temple has an ever-present agenda and he does a masterful job of choosing the images and sounds that best communicate his cultural philosophy.