The trend for documentary portraits of individual cities assembled from archive footage continues with Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon, out now on Bfi DVD. Temple was the obvious choice of director, as a native of the city and creator of London films Absolute Beginners and Oil City Confidential, not to mention 2010’s superb Requiem for Detroit? for the BBC.
The film has been compared to Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (about Liverpool), though London lacks those works’ deeply personal perspective and strict avoidance of cliché: this is a film that opens to the sound of ‘London Calling’ and closes with ‘Waterloo Sunset’. That said, sometime video director Temple’s juxtaposition of image and music is often very effective — soundtracking footage of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 with the Sex Pistols is an inspired decision, and the sombre opening to Vaughan Williams’s ‘London Symphony’ makes a perfect accompaniment to the devastation of the Blitz.
If Temple’s history of London in the age of the moving image has a theme, it’s the steady process of immigration that created the multicultural metropolis of today. Immigrants didn’t come to Britain: they came to London. Perhaps the city is just too cosmopolitan to lend itself to anything other than a two-hour montage, more curated than directed.
Julien Temple addresses the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival on 17 November.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012