Made by director Julien Temple, he of The Great Rock N Roll Swindle and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten fame, 2012's London: The Modern Babylon is made up primarily of archival footage culled from the massive vaults of the BBC and the BFI. Narrated by Michael Gambon, this is one of many documentary films that Temple has made over the last ten years or so, and while many of his past documentary features have focused on bands and musicians, this time around he puts the city he calls home under the microscope.
The movie moves in chronological order, beginning with some of the earliest filmed footage of London ever made way back in the 1890s. From there, it follows various events and important people related to the city's history to what is more or less the current day, right up to the beginning of the Olympic Games. Along the way we get glimpses of triumph and tragedy as pretty much every major event to affect the city in one way or another gets covered. We also get some face time with many of the denizens of the city, those people that give England's metropolis its life blood.
So that's what it is in a nutshell, a whole lot of archival footage from various sources and from various decades spliced together into one sprawling two hour and fifteen minute long socio-political history lesson. As all of this plays out, we get a visual sampler platter of the London that was and now is with maybe a little foreshadowing as to the London that might be down the road a few years. The documentary covers plenty of historical and political events, not the least of which are the two World Wars that the city suffered through, but also race riots and the rise of immigration and the subsequent effects on the city and events relating to the Royal Family as well. We see how the free love/hippy movement of the sixties hit the city that then segued into glam rock by way of David Bowie and then punk rock with a fair bit of focus on the Sex Pistols (including some great clips of the infamous boat performance that Temple filmed back in the seventies).
Temple being Temple and having such a prolific music related background, all of this is set to a pretty interesting soundtrack made up of London acts from throughout the years: The Pet Shop Boys, Bowie, X-Ray Specs, The Rolling Stones, T.Rex and the aforementioned Sex Pistols among many others. Temple times the music well, the songs chosen tending to compliment the events happening not just as to when and where they were recorded in terms of the city's time line but also in terms of what the lyrics mean in correlation to the events taking place on screen. We also get some interesting film clips, which technically provides the movie with cameos from the likes of Oliver Reed and Carl Boehm from The Party's Over and Peeping Tom respectively.
The archival footage keeps things interesting and the music makes it all feel fairly hip, but the heart of the piece really lies with the interview segments. It's here that we learn about the people who call the city home, learn of their personal experiences and getter understand what it is that they like (and often times don't like) about London. With input from everyone to artists and outcasts to seniors who have lived in the city for decades, we hear from those who have seen it all and lived to tell about it. The emphasis here is on the commoner rather than the wealthier type who live in the city for trendier reasons. This grounds the documentary on the human side of things and makes it more than just a serious of historical clips set to good music and lets the movie paint a broad and almost all encompassing portrait of the city and its people.
London: The Modern Babylon arrives on DVD in a transfer where, interestingly enough, aspect ratios shift a bit. The interview footage is framed at 1.78.1 while some of the other, mostly older archival footage is shown 1.33.1 as it was originally shot. This is nice to see when it's all too common for fullframe material to be cropped to fit the 1.78.1 frame with little regard for the original material's composition. With that said, video quality is generally very good here. Detail varies depending on the source, the new stuff looks nice and crisp and sharp whereas the older stock footage and archival inserts can be a bit rough around the edges. Overall though the video quality is fine and the movie looks quite nice on DVD.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. No problems with the audio here, though some of the same thoughts apply in that depending on the source you'll notice a difference in quality. All in all, however, the newly shot material is well balanced, clean and clear and the score used throughout the movie also sounds quite good.
The only extra of much substance on the disc is A Conversation With Julien Temple in which the director sits down in front of the camera in the back of a car to talk about working on this project for just under seven minutes. Aside from that, we get menus and chapter selection.
Julien Temple's London: The Modern Babylon is an interesting look at how one of the most important cities in the history of the world has evolved, devolved and changed in numerous ways over the centuries. The wealth of fascinating archival footage alone makes this worth a watch for anyone with an interest in history, while Temple's take on all of this gives it some welcome context. The Docurama DVD is short on extras but it looks good and sounds good and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.