London The Modern Babylon is a new documentary that draws on thousands of hours of archive footage and hundreds of cool songs to create a thrilling portrait of the city over the past 100 years. Dan Frost talks to director Julien Temple
Of all the briefs that a filmmaker might receive, being asked to cram the last 100 years of London history into a two hour documentary has to be one of the most difficult and daunting.
But that’s precisely what was asked of Julien Temple. Two years ago, the London-born director signed on to make a film that told the story of our city through the thousands of hours of archive footage that have been racked up since the dawn of film. All of the capital’s archive libraries were opened to him, with a delivery date of summer 2012 (for obvious reasons).
It was a gargantuan undertaking. He might not have had to deal with actors or do much actual filming, but the enormity of the subject and the volume of footage at his disposal more than made up for that. And that’s before you consider the pressure he must have felt in being asked to helm such a prestigious project.
“It probably was the hardest job I’ve ever done. It really meant a lot to me,” he tells Scout London. “It’s quite an honour to be asked to make a film about London at this time – it’s a one-off opportunity – so I really felt the pressure.”
Scout has been lucky enough to catch an advance screening of the film, and can happily confirm that the 58-year-old director pulled it off – and then some.
London The Modern Babylon is two joyous hours of the capital on film; an exciting and absorbing portrait that is by turns funny, moving, poignant and topical.
It eschews more conventional documentary techniques – there’s rarely anyone to tell you exactly what you’re looking at, and the sparingly-used voiceover favours poetry over factual narration. But in doing so, the film manages some quite remarkable feats: namely to convey the feel of London – that marvelous sense of ordered chaos; and to draw a convincing sense of unity among Londoners of all eras. Rather than a disparate bunch of cultures and creeds that just happen to have walked the same streets, the film finds accord in the one thing that defines us all: the city itself.
“I tried to edit it in places so that people in 1900 were turning and looking at someone today, so you get that sense of a relationship between then and now,” explains Temple.
And yet, when he first started wading through the potential footage – all 6,000 hours of it – he had little idea how the finished film would look.
“I don’t think you should have too much of a plan,” he says. “You want the archive to start talking to you, letting it guide you. You develop a very strange relationship with the footage, and there’s a kind of alchemy in taking old pieces of film and cutting them together with footage they were never intended to be connected to. You can create a strange third meaning.”
Temple is perhaps most famous for his music video work, as well as a series of music-focussed documentaries, including The Filth And The Fury, about The Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, and a feature-length film about Glastonbury festival. Little surprise, then, that music plays a very prominent role in London The Modern Babylon. From George Formby to Lily Allen, via The Stones, The Clash, Bowie and so much more, it’s perhaps the best soundtrack in the history of film.
“London is one of the great music cities in the history of popular music,” he says. “I think the music of a culture offers a wonderful way of understanding it. The music here is, in a way, the film’s narrator.”
It’s a good way of looking at it, and hints at the wonderful cohesion Temple has managed to find among diverse sources, from diverse times. He has created an evocative mosaic of footage and song, which, like London itself, is so much more than the sum of its parts.
London The Modern Babylon, at Hackney Picturehouse, Rio Dalston, Gate Notting Hill, Ritzy Brixton and BFI Southbank from today.