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Film / Babylon (2022)

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"You know what we have to do? We have to redefine the form, map those dreams, and print them into history. Look up and say: Eureka! I am not alone."
Jack Conrad

Babylon (2022) is an epic period dramedy film about the early days of Hollywood. It was directed and written by Damien Chazelle and features an ensemble cast.

The film begins at a debaucherous party in 1926 Hollywood and follows the lives of several attendees over the subsequent years as the industry transitions to sound films: aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is abruptly shoved in the spotlight and struggles to maintain her fame; aging movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) wonders if his days of relevance are over; and spunky Mexican-American assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva) rises through the studio system.

The eccentric supporting cast includes Jean Smart as gossip columnist Elinor St. John; Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a talented jazz trumpeter; Li Jun Li as Fay Zhu, an openly gay cabaret singer; and Tobey Maguire (also an executive producer) as mob boss James McKay.

Babylon had its world premiere on December 15th in Los Angeles and was released on December 23rd, 2022.

Previews: Trailer 1 (uncensored), Featurette, Trailer 2

Babylon contains examples of:

  • The '50s: The last minutes of the film take place in 1952, where Manny watches Singin' in the Rain.
  • Actor Allusion: Jack attempts to speak Italian, with an emphasis on attempt, much like a certain Nazi-killing lieutenant.
  • Almost Kiss: While performing at a party, Fay chooses Nellie, whom she's developed an attraction to, as her partner for the night and is about to kiss her when they're interrupted by a random guy cannonballing into the pool. Fay is clearly disappointed about this, though they do kiss later in the night after she saves Nellie from a rattlesnake bite.
  • Alternate History: Downplayed compared to, say, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but Jack's time at MGM has some shades of this, particularly a scene implying he was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Manny tells Nellie over and over that he loves her and that he always has after she expresses doubts over his plan for them to run away to Mexico, get married, and start a new life together. This gets her to calm down and agree to marry him, though she ends up leaving him that very night.
  • Ass Shove: During the first party, a woman is shown shoving a champagne bottle up a man's posterior.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: During the second party, Jack explains to Estelle about the art of Hollywood filmmaking, which includes this exchange:
    Jack: I think what we have here in Hollywood is high art, it's...
    [cut to Nellie, hoisted on top of a group of people and holding a pair of sparklers]
  • Author Appeal: Damien Chazelle once again shows off how much he loves jazz by having one of the characters be a jazz player, as well as the trailer being scored to a jazz piece.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: While at a bathroom at the party, Nellie overhears some men insulting her about her struggles with adjusting to sound films and her "wild child" persona, which is enough to bring her to tears, but she forces herself to regain to composure and not have a breakdown in public.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: During one of the parties, Nellie's dad, Robert, talks to a girl about supposedly fighting a snake. Nellie ends up asking the party members if they want to see her dad "fight a fucking snake". Most of them are apprehensive about this until Jack yells out "Fuck yeah!" The next shot is of the partygoers driving late at night to find a snake. Once they do, Robert drunkenly tries to demonstrate how to fight a rattlesnake before passing out. Nellie ends up taking the opportunity to fight the rattlesnake. It doesn't end well where she actually gets bit by it and its teeth are stuck in her neck for a rather long time.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: The medieval epic that Jack stars in contains a scene where Jack's character kisses a girl set to a grandiose score as the sun sets and a Big Badass Battle Sequence and explosions go on in the background. And if that's not enough for an epic scene, a butterfly happens to land on Jack's shoulder while they're filming the take, adding another amount of beauty to it.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Manny's Spanish is not always subtitled.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The main characters find themselves falling out of stardom: Jack commits suicide after realizing that his career is pretty much over, Nellie falls into obscurity and dies at the age of thirty-four, either due to her gambling debts catching up to her or from her own self-destructive tendencies, Sidney quits the film industry after he's asked to do Blackface, and Fay gets fired from Kinoscope after news breaks out of an alleged affair she had with Nellie and moves to Europe after having been offered a job there. Sidney does get at least one gig that we see at a much smaller venue where he seems genuinely happy. Hollywood moves on to the next big stars and trends, forgetting about all the people who reached for fame in the past. But Manny is able to move on, setting up a successful business in New York and raising a family, and eventually achieves some catharsis after watching Singin' in the Rain at a theater in 1952. Not to mention that Jack and Nellie and all of the other stars after them that'll fall victim to the Hollywood Hype Machine will be immortalized and live on forever through their movies.
  • Blackface: Manny forces Sidney to don blackface for a role, claiming that it's needed for the lighting and to match the other (also black faced) actors. Sidney is mortified and quits immediately after the shoot ends.
  • Blipvert: The final sequence of the movie includes a montage that along with Manny's reminiscences on his years working in Hollywood there is a quick history of cinema (including movies made after 1952) and some colorful liquids reminiscent of film processing.
  • Bowdlerise: There are two versions of the first trailer: the official uncensored one, which is linked above, and a censored version shown in theaters and social media that cuts back slightly on the risque content:
    • A shot of someone snorting cocaine off a naked woman is changed to a shot of Nellie winking at the camera in the censored trailer.
    • The uncensored trailer contains a character with "fuck you" painted on his body in giant red letters; this is edited out in the censored trailer.
    • The Stinger, in which Nellie asks a crowd of partygoers if they want to see her fight a snake has its dialogue changed in the censored trailer:
      • The original dialogue:
        Nellie: Listen up, all you big-dicked Mr. Men! Who wants to see me fight a fucking snake?
        Jack: Fuck yeah!
      • The censored version:
        Nellie: Listen up! Who wants to see me fight a snake?
        Jack: Hell yeah!
    • James McKay's "What the fuck?!" line gets cut short and becomes "what the-" in the censored trailer.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Manny pees his pants when held at gunpoint by McKay's hitman. The pathetic sight spurs the hitman to take pity on him.
  • The Cameo: Olivia Wilde appears in the beginning for barely a minute as Jack's first onscreen wife Ina, who demands a divorce after she gets fed up with him.
  • Casting Gag: Constance Moore, one of Nellie's rival actresses, is played by Samara Weaving, who has been often said to bear a strong resemblance to Margot Robbie.
  • Cat Fight: Zig-Zagged. The women cage fighting in McKay's club are dressed in skimpy outfits more appropriate for dancers, clearly meant to titillate the crowd. But they're also beating each other bloody and, given the depravity of the club in general, might literally be fighting to the death.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Practically everyone in Babylon swears. Nellie in particular tends to drop f bombs a lot.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Much of stardom comes from sheer luck and being in the right place at the right time: Nellie lands a starring role after an actress overdoses at a party and she's found to be a suitable replacement for her, while Manny is randomly assigned to wrangle a drunk Jack, leading to Jack befriending him and helping him get a job as an assistant at Kinoscope out of gratitude.
  • Cultural Cringe: The Mexican-American Manuel goes by Manny and claims to be from Spain to make himself more palatable to Hollywood.
  • Dance of Romance: Manny and Nellie share a slow dance at a small party that she spots when they're planning to escape Los Angeles after their meeting with James goes awry — a deliberate contrast to the giant depraved party where they first met and Nellie's erratic dancing at said party.
  • Dark Reprise: A lot of the songs from the soundtrack to Chazelle's previous film about Hollywood, La La Land, are reprised in a darker and more serious key, usually minor, to reflect the darker and more pessimistic view of young men and women trying to break into Hollywood stardom.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film shows that early (1920s-30s) Hollywood ran on much looser rules than modern-day Hollywood.
    • A child is seen buying 'peanuts' (actually drugs) from an onset dealer.
    • Sets are very loose with health and safety — several extras are hurt (and at least one is killed) while shooting a Big Badass Battle Sequence; a cameraman dies of heatstroke when filming from a box (an attempt to minimize sound during the transition to talkies). Asbestos are also a prop used with little concern for health.
    • Sidney is forced to darken his skin so he doesn't look white onscreen — if he looks white with a black backing band, the production will be deemed 'mixed' and unsellable in the then-segregated South.
    • Fay is officially fired from Kinoscope because her official job (writing intertitles) is obsolete with the advent of sound films, but unofficially because of rumors of a lesbian relationship between her and the studio's leading lady Nellie (especially since the early 30s are when the Hays Code first began to take root).
    • Many people, including people he considers his friends, make comments about Manny's Mexican heritage that would be considered pretty tasteless today.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Manny and Nellie do not end up getting together, with her leaving him before they can carry out their plan to run away to Mexico together. He never sees her again and she dies a few years later.
  • Distant Finale: The epilogue is set two decades later in the 50's, where Manny, now a New York-based husband/father and business owner, visits his old place of work.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Jack has a moment of this where after Nellie's rattlesnake fight goes wrong, he calmly stands amongst the chaos and stares off into the distance, even cracking a little smile. It isn't until Estelle screams at him to do something he snaps out of his trance. He also gets randomly hit by a car before he even gets to help Nellie.
  • Dramatic Irony: In the final act, the audience, Manny, and the Count all know that the money they're handing to the mob to pay off Nellie's debts is Stage Money. Tension keeps building as McKay keeps spending more time with them. The audience is left waiting for the other shoe to drop and for McKay to find out he's being duped.
  • Driven to Suicide: George Munn, a friend of Jack's, commits suicide as the film industry starts transitioning to the talkies. Much later in the film, Jack commits suicide in his hotel room.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Nellie and Manny spend one night together at a wild party, at which point Manny tells her in Spanish that he's in love with her. Though they presumably spend time together on the movie that they both work on, they are not seen interacting, but Manny still goes through hell to try and help Nellie, risking his career (and ultimately his life) to help her and rescue her numerous times.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Manny, Fay and Sidney all go through hardships and turmoil but by the end of the film, all of them lead more fulfilling lives. Manny has a family and establishes himself in New York, while Sidney plays in smaller music clubs and Fay moves to Europe to pursue more opportunities.
  • Epic Movie: It's a three hour movie that even showcases examples of this in the silent era.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • The film opens on Manny using all kinds of persuasive tactics and physical tasks to transport an elephant to his boss's party, showing that he'll do whatever it takes to get on a film set.
    • Nellie crashes a car into a statue, gets out of the car, and immediately asks for drugs, showing her to be a careless but eyecatching hedonist.
    • Jack is shown arguing with his wife (who demands a divorce) before being swarmed by adoring women. He flirts with the waitress serving his table, showing him to be a popular and charismatic star.
  • Fanservice Extra: To show the raucous hedonism of the opening party, several people are in various states of undress (and in some cases are openly having sex) on the dance floor and in the background. In interviews, several of the actors noted that the extras in the opening party scene were basically instructed to go crazy and do whatever they wanted.
  • Fight Clubbing: James McKay runs an underground club that features two women fighting bare-knuckle in a steel cage. It's very brutal, to the point one of them is briefly shown covered in blood.
  • The Great Depression: The plot progresses in the 30s, showing how talkies progress from a cutting-edge innovation to industry standard and the cast deal with the growing influence of Moral Guardians over Hollywood and the establishment of The Hays Code.
  • Groin Attack: A rare example that is both directed at a woman and Played for Drama — James McKay threatens to pour acid on Nellie's genitals if she doesn't make good on her gambling debts.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Jack shoots himself in his hotel room but the blood splatter is only seen on the wall.
  • Gratuitous Italian: Jack Conrad's first moment onscreen has him rambling to his wife Ina in Italian for some reason. This gets on Ina's nerves, as he's not Italian and she's trying to have a serious conversation about their marriage, even threatening to divorce him if he says one more word in Italian. He responds by speaking in German.
  • The Hedonist: Nellie tells Manny that she would like if everyone just partied all the time and that she would spend all her money on fun things, instead of "boring things, like taxes," all while doing coke. She's shown throughout the film to be a very enthusiastic participant of the various wild parties that are the norm in Hollywood.
  • Historical Domain Character: Real early-Hollywood figures who appear in the film include producer Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), actress Marion Davies (Chloe Fineman), and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper).
  • Hookers and Blow: The first party shows someone holding a nearly naked woman across his lap and snorting cocaine off one of her bare breasts. The woman has three additional lines of coke on her chest.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The medieval epic that Conrad is filming features a wide variety of different time periods costumes. The leading starlet is notably showing more flesh than she should.
  • Hollywood Hype Machine: In-Universe. Nellie nigh-immediately becomes one of Hollywood's hottest new starlets but has difficulty sustaining her fame after the transition to sound films.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Invoked; the studio shoots a Big Badass Battle Sequence that consists of two opposing armies running at each other in an empty field.
  • Horrible Hollywood: Early Hollywood is opulent and glamorous, but hedonistic, loose with morals, and exploitative with a criminal underbelly. The characters either die when their time in the spotlight is up (Jack, Nellie) or leave it for what are implied to be more peaceful and fulfilling lives (Sidney, Fay, Manny). However, Hollywood's ability to create works of art that leave lasting impressions despite all its foibles is also upheld as one of its strengths.
  • Insistent Terminology: Manny isn't a "movie producer", he's a "studio executive".
  • Inspiration Nod: As if Jack being brought to a test of sound pictures that consists of a filmed performance of "Singin' in the Rain" isn't enough, the final sequence of the movie is downright Manny watching Singin' in the Rain in the theater, crying whenever the film hits close to what he witnessed firsthand.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • "You either are [a star] or you aren't" is first said by Nellie at the opening party of the film, as a defiant proclamation of her future rise to stardom. It's repeated by James at the grotesque rave he forces Manny and the Count to attend as they watch a giant consume a live rat. The mirrored circumstances emphasize that ultimately, people want spectacle, and a famous movie star is only one way this desire manifests.
    • "It's the most magical place in the world" is first said by Jack when he learns that Manny's never been on a movie set, back when he's still one of the most popular movie stars in the business. Much later on when his popularity has declined significantly, Jack says it to Fay in a far more wistful tone than earlier, showing his disillusionment with Hollywood and the nature of stardom.
    • When she finds out she got a part on a film set, Nellie excitedly yells to Manny, "Ain't life grand?"Much later on, Nellie says it to herself far less excitedly while waiting outside for Manny near the Count's apartment and ultimately deciding not to go with him to Mexico. It ends up being her final onscreen line before she dances off into the night, never to be seen again apart from flashbacks.
  • Killed Offscreen: A newspaper during the ending Montage reveals that Nellie died at the age of 34. Another newspaper also reveals Elinor died at the age of 76.
  • Language Fluency Denial: When Manny runs into Elinor St. John, she asks him about the "upstairs powder room" (where the drugs are kept). Don asks Manny to act like he doesn't speak English. When Manny runs into Elinor again, he tells her in Spanish that he doesn't speak English and leaves.
  • Large Ham: There is a lot of acting in this movie. Nellie is the most prominent example, with Margot Robbie ripping into every scene with gusto, but even those who appear for just one sequence, like Spike Jonze's German director or the unhinged AD on the medieval shoot, are delightfully intense.
  • Logo Joke: In the trailer, the stars in the Paramount logo are snorted off as if they're cocaine. The film itself starts and ends with the 1920s Paramount logo.
  • Love at First Sight: Manny is clearly smitten with Nellie the moment he meets her at the party and pretends that she was an invited guest so that he can talk to her, and outright tells her in Spanish that he thinks he's in love with her the next morning after he's spent some time and befriended her.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Nellie is a brash Joisey girl with a troubled backstory who becomes extremely famous and is constantly upbeat and friendly after meeting Manny on one whirlwind night. Though there are some parts where she looks like a deconstruction (such as her abandoning Manny at the end when he wants to go to Mexico), she still remains a major source of obsession and love for him.
  • Meta Casting:
    • Jack is a movie star whose popularity is declining and feels like he's losing relevance in a rapidly-changing industry. His actor Brad Pitt has expressed similar concerns and has talked several times about how he's considering retirement in order to avoid being phased out; one can easily imagine Elinor's monologue to Jack about how he'll be immortalized on film to be directed at Pitt just as much as it is to his character.
    • Flipped between Samara Weaving and Margot Robbie. Weaving plays the older actress than Nellie (Robbie) who loses her career to Robbie. In real life, Robbie is older than Weaving (though only by two years) and broke out first.
    • Manny is a newcomer to Hollywood, much like Diego Calva.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • When Nellie is finally able to execute a perfect take on a sound film she's working on after much struggle, the mood on set is one of triumph and relief, which quickly turns to anguish and shock once it's revealed that the cameraman died of heatstroke in the cramped, non-air conditioned box he was filming in.
    • George's attempts to commit suicide over repeated romantic rejections from girls he had short-lived relationships with is played for Black Comedy at first, but turns into being devastating when he actually commits suicide, which causes Jack to have a big Heroic BSoD and become much more cynical and hardened when he learns about his friend's death.
    • As Manny and the Count narrowly escape from getting shot dead by James McKay's associates, the next scene abruptly becomes calm with Jack attending a party with relaxing music playing.
  • Narm: In-Universe. Jack sneaks into a screening of a film where he gives what is supposed to be a dramatic and romantic Love Confession... but for one reason or another, the scene draws raucous laughter from the audience instead. That audiences don't take him seriously anymore means that his fame is waning.
  • Never Trust a Trailer:
    • In the first trailer, Nellie asks the partygoers if they want to see her "fight a fucking snake". In the actual film, she actually asks if they want to see her dad fight a snake — although, since her dad is much too drunk, she ends up fighting it anyway.
    • In the second trailer, Jack and Fay share a conversation about a girl that seemingly refers to Nellie — the actual movie reveals that the girl they're talking about is Jack's new wife Rebecca.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Orville Pickwick is a stand-in for Fatty Arbuckle. Both are obese, silent-era Hollywood denizens who are involved with a Disposable Sex Worker who dies at a raucous party. While Pickwick has his situation cleaned up for him, Arbuckle's career was ruined after he was unfairly blamed in the media for the death.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Used in-universe. Nellie's first scene in a talkie has her state that she's from a small town in Ohio while speaking in her thick, Joisey accent. Her accent and nasal voice go on to cause further problems for her career.
  • Odd Friendship: Jack, a middle-aged white guy and a very popular film star with a multitude of eccentricities and who's also a notorious Chick Magnet, and Fay, a Chinese-American lesbian cabaret singer/intertitle writer with a serious and composed demeanor, are both very different people, but they nonetheless have a close friendship, something made obvious in the two scenes they share together.
  • Oh, Crap!: Manny has this reaction when he sees the premiere of The Jazz Singer and realizes the state of the motion picture industry is about to change forever. He runs out of the theater with a shocked expression while everyone else is cheering and calls Jack on the phone.
    Manny: Jack? It's me again... Everything's about to change.
  • The Oner: The notorious opening party sequence begins with a take that flows through the entire chaotic scene that lasts a little less than two minutes.
  • Playing Drunk: After the first party, Manny is assigned to drive a passed-out Jack home. Jack seems to be completely out of it after a night of drug- and drink-fueled partying... until he startles Manny by grabbing him and laughing before sprinting up the front steps.
  • Popularity Cycle: This is shown to be the nature of Hollywood and of relationships in general. Jack always has a new wife (or girlfriend), and Nellie replaces another actress who is never spoken of again, before being replaced herself.
  • Pygmalion Snap Back: The studio tries to reform Nellie into a respectable actress, which includes dressing her in more conservative and opulent outfits and teaching her how to speak poshly. But when this is tested at a bourgeois party, Nellie rejects the judgements of the upperclass and makes a defiant and messy scene (including throwing food onto the floor and on her dress and prominently vomiting on a rich attendee), tanking her chances at respectability.
  • Race Against the Clock: On his first day on a movie set, Manny gets tasked to find a new camera so that the crew can film a big scene with Jack before the sun sets, as all the other cameras have broken, and only has a few hours to do so before nightfall. He's able to get it done, but only after waiting a long time to rent out a new camera and stealing a nearby ambulance to bypass the Los Angeles traffic.
  • Rage Breaking Point: While filming Nellie's first talkie, the repeated takes due to technical issues make everyone cross this, with every flub being followed by one or more angry tirades.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: The first trailer shows Jack Conrad shooting a revolver indoors, one-handed, while keeping his eyes covered until the moment he fires. This seems conspicuously missing from the film.
  • Red Filter of Doom:
    • The interior of McKay's underground club, which features various depravities, is bathed throughout in orange and sometimes fully red light; it feels consistently ominous regardless of the actual color.
    • Also used earlier in the film when Nellie's first film is premiered — in retrospect suggesting her first descent into the inferno.
  • The Roaring '20s: The film's time period first starts in 1926, first during the silent film era and transitioning to the 'talkies'.
  • Run for the Border: Late in the film Manny concludes that the only way to escape the mob is to flee Los Angeles for Mexico. He tries to take Nellie with him but she ditches him just as the mob's hitman arrives. Manny is allowed to leave with his life as long as he leaves LA; by the epilogue he's made a life for himself in New York.
  • Ship Tease: Manny falls in love with Nellie the moment he meets her and as they develop a friendship, the film teases the possibility that they might get together. They don't.
  • Show Within a Show: Being centred around filmmaking, the first hour showcases Jack Conrad filming a medieval film and the chaos of it including extras getting hurt, Manny trying to find another camera after the six main cameras get wrecked and Jack drinking so much he stumbles (although he manages to finish his take perfectly). The process of Nellie and Constance Moore filming Maid's Off is also shown, with Nellie stealing the show from Constance.
  • Single Tear: Invoked. Astonished that Nellie can cry on cue, the director Ruth Adler does take after take of the crying scene with her and eventually settles on a take where a single tear drops slowly from Nellie's eye. Ruth gushes about the emotion conveyed by this shot.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Jack's dialogue with his third onscreen wife Estelle is primarily about how she (an esteemed Broadway actress) finds his silent film acting populist and lowbrow. Jack retorts that the film's populism means it has value, as it brings joy to exponentially more people than the stage does.
  • Smooch of Victory: Nellie gives one to Fay for saving her life.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To La La Land, Damien Chazelle's previous throwback to vintage Hollywood about people trying to make it in the film business. While that film was set in the present day and its classic influences came through its Genre Throwback to old movie musicals, this film is a Period Piece with a lot of more contemporary stylistic elements. Furthermore, while both films had a streak of cynicism about "the industry" to them, La La Land used it in service of a lighthearted (if bittersweet) Romantic Comedy story that was rated PG-13, while this film takes every tale of Hollywood depravity past and present and mashes them into an extremely adult, R-rated story in which the main characters' dreams end in disaster.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: The characters all frequently light cigarettes in accordance with the film's old Hollywood glamour.
  • Stage Money: The money Manny procures to get Nellie out of her gambling debts turns out to be prop money. The mob boss is furious when he realizes it and Manny only narrowly escapes with his life.
  • Star-Making Role: In-Universe. Nellie LaRoy gets her start by starring in the silent film Maid's Off.
  • Suck Out the Poison: During an ill-fated party shenanigan Nellie is bitten by a rattlesnake in the neck. The attendees spend multiple minutes panicking before Lady Fay drops her cigarette, takes out a knife, coolly beheads the snake, sucks out the poison from Nellie's neck, and washes her mouth with alcohol. Everyone involved lives to see another day.
  • Theatre Is True Acting: Jack is a big silent film star, while his third onscreen wife Estelle is an acclaimed Broadway actress. They have a Slobs vs. Snobs dynamic in their opinions about their respective crafts: Estelle finds Jack's movies lowbrow and uncouth, while he argues that their popularity means they can touch more minds than her ivory tower acting can.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Nellie projectile vomiting on a carpet and on a guest at a high-class party is shown in graphic and nauseating detail.
  • War Drums: Downplayed. The fighting cage in McKay's club has several men playing taikos right next to it.

"And now, y'all ready for something different?"