Just when you thought you’d had enough of thinking about our city past, present and future, along comes Julien Temple’s epic film ‘London: The Modern Babylon’. It’s a rousing collage portrait, driven by music, of London from the birth of cinema to now. Its gentle but persuasive argument is that through the wars, struggles, diasporas and cultural upheavals of the twentieth century we’ve arrived at a city more global and diverse than ever – a fractured, frenetic, heaving place that may just be worth celebrating.
The director of ‘The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle’ and ‘Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten’ draws on clips of docs and features, new footage, new and old interviews and music – lots of music – to create a kinetic, overwhelming sense of where we’re coming from and where we’re going. It’s an archive project on an immense, immersive scale, and while such collections of footage can lean towards the nostalgic and the wistful, this film is as excited for the city we have as it is sad for the one we’ve lost.
The film takes a chronological tour from the 1890s to now. But its edits are quick and playful and it delights in juxtaposing old and new, dropping Underworld over the Edwardian era or the Sex Pistols over the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. There are voices known (Tony Benn, Ray Davies) and unknown (Hetty Bower, a radical 107-year-old from Hackney), but Temple reserves a central place for music, and his film reaches its height in terms of rhythm and ideas when it arrives at his own specialist patch: the seismic cultural shifts of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
‘London: The Modern Babylon’ is a film about ‘real Londoners’, and, if it concludes anything, it’s that there aren’t any and never were. They’re a myth. ‘It’s just a process, man,’ says Suggs of the waves of immigration, racial tension and assimilation that the city has experienced since the war. ‘The place keeps changing.’
Temple is not so simplistic as to assume an end point of 2012 (the Olympics are the mostly ignored excuse for the film) or even that we live in any kind of harmony. This is a portrait of cycles and change. But the mood of the film suggests that we should be impressed that this ever-growing, ever-changing city of ours is still chasing after new versions of the modern. There’s pride – but with infinite qualifications lining up to bash it. The last word goes to an ageing white Londoner: ‘Fuck the lot of ya!’ But you suspect even this old grumbler would miss the place if it was gone – riots, bombs, Boris, and all.