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Julian Temple's love letter to Britain's capital is rowdy, bizarre, and often surprisingly effective....
Docurama / 125 Minutes / 2012 / Unrated / Street Date: July 16, 2013
Music video pioneer Julien Temple has mixed feelings about London, and that’s what makes The Modern Babylon such a pleasingly slippery proposition. Playing like a longform MTV News profile, this mosaic moves at a ballsy, staccato pace that makes even its most mundane moments seem jaunty and skippy. As Temple directs us from the late 19th century into the present day, we’re introduced to suffragettes and singers, nobles and anarchists: this is London, baby!
Unfortunately, Temple’s skittish style lends The Modern Babylon a hit-and-miss syntax that is revelatory at times and numbingly familiar at others. I’d say that 50% of this London hits its mark square in the center, where the rest of it errs into frivolity and navel-gazing. Everything here feels very London-ish (take that Yankee-ism with as many grains of salt as need be), but this doc pretty much makes its point in its first twenty minutes, then continues on.
But even if there is a sense of repetition that London: The Modern Babylon inspires, there’s something about it that lends the doc a frequent spark. Like the city it documents, there are assets and liabilities to Temple’s vision, and perhaps that’s nobly appropriate. The Modern Babylon certainly doesn’t aim to be a squeaky-clean postcard of the seat of Mother England, but even if the end result is often slapshot, Temple makes a very viable case for this insane metropolis of his as one of Earth’s most lovingly idiosyncratic.