From the suffragettes to Occupy London and from early 20th century social divide to, well, early 21st century social divide, Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon tells a story of London as not only a city, but a character, through archive footage, music and audio creating, what comes across as, a very genuine portrayal of the place.
Starting out with extracts of an interview with 106 year old Hetty Bower we see a London moving out of Victorian times into a period of social change that never ends.
This change is depicted in cycles as the city’s population develops, almost wave-like, and we hear from people from most sides of this truly epic story all told in Temple’s unique style with Bower popping up from time to time adding context to things and establishing a human heart to the story that is at times very surprising.
Temple’s style involves a form of almost extreme montage that, at first, seems random but coalesces into what I can only describe as genuine art in film, telling the story he is discovering through the production and editing process.
The first moment this becomes truly evident is one of the most sublime moments of the film as footage of the aforementioned suffragettes, pre-dating the First World War, is shown soundtracked by X-Ray Spex’ Oh Bondage Up Yours!
This same tactic of modern music accompanying comparatively ancient archive footage is used several times during the first half of the film and serves excellently to bring what we are seeing up to date and show how these events that, through silent, scratchy, black and white film footage can appear so distant, were at the time just as immediate and important as the Brixton and Poll Tax riots of the 1980s or the riots of summer 2011.
It’s not all disorder and disarray though as alongside this we see the coming together of nations and peoples from all over the world and, while the film certainly doesn’t hide from racism and xenophobia, the result it comes to time and again, first with an influx of Central European Jews, followed by Irish, West Indians and more, is that, after a period of adjustment, London adds their idiosyncrasies to the cultural mix to evolve further becoming a city that is depicted here as standing alone from the nation it is capital of.
This may sound like a very rose-tinted view of history, but Temple does approach the story showing both sides and, while it is clear, both here and in his past work, that he has his own political agenda, this story is, ultimately, one that for all the differences and perceived divisions is very positive.
The cynic in me says this positivity is because it was made around the time of the 2012 Olympics, when it seemed for a brief time, all was perfect in the UK, but, being familiar with Temple’s other work, I’m inclined to believe this is not the case and it simply is the resulting view from what we see and, from what Temple found through his extensive trawl of archive footage and it comes together to create a fascinating and genuinely artistic portrait of a city that is, in many ways, one of the most spectacular and diverse in the world.