Movie review: Elvis
I guess filmmaker Baz Luhrmann isn’t a big fan of Coco Chanel. The designer suggested looking in the mirror and pulling out an accessory. Luhrmann is all about adding stuff – more colors, more music, more elaborate sets, more show girls (often literally)! Are his films corny? Coco would certainly think so.
As you may have noticed, I’m not the biggest Luhrmann fan. Even his most beloved film, red Mill, was not my cup of absinthe. (I found the insertion of all the pop songs irritating and fan-servicey and thought that Nicole Kidman, an actress I normally like, was a little too cool and stylish to play a bombshell.) And her last, Elvis, has all the hallmarks of a Luhrmann film. Virtually every scene – and I’m not exaggerating here – is a montage, often overlapping Elvis onstage with a scene from his youth, where he was transfixed by black gospel music in a revivalist tent, with a glimpse of a nightclub. unrelated blues and a press conference where a sinister politician condemns Elvis’ rampant debauchery. Each of these scenes is shot with a different filter, of course. And they repeat themselves often. (In case you missed young Elvis reaching nirvana in this revival tent – never fear, he’ll be back many times.) There are spectacular fades – from a ferris wheel to a spinning record, for example. There’s a lot of wonderful, era-appropriate music — blues, rock, and gospel — but there’s also hip-hop, because, well, Luhrmann.
And yet, despite this, almost surprisingly, I liked Elvis. Part of my appreciation simply has to do with Austin Butler’s all-in performance. Elvis is, of course, a dream role for a young actor, but it’s also a trap. There are so many Elvis impersonators out there, how do you break through the mimicry, distinguish yourself from the lips curling masses? Butler did it by taking a full method and posting some pretty impressive singing (and swinging hip) chops along the way. Clearly, the young actor has bought into Baz’s whirlwind, sweaty, maximalist vision – and his commitment to the role is astonishing. He’s got the voice (multiple voices, actually – Elvis’ voice got hoarser and deeper as he got older), the looks, the moves, and even Elvis’ sly, winking smile. I didn’t think the slim, handsome actor would be able to pull off “Fat Elvis,” so to speak, but with lots of makeup and wardrobe help (and buckets of artificial sweat, apparently), he is surprisingly successful.
Tom Hanks, of all people, is less successful than Colonel Tom Parker, the Svengali-type Dutch con man/entrepreneur who ran Elvis and exploited the Memphis singer until his dying day. Hanks almost never gave a bad performance – and while this one isn’t that bad (goodness knows Hanks swings for the fences), it isn’t exactly good either. It doesn’t help that her Parker is buried under pounds of makeup and prosthetics or that Hanks’ Dutch accent, which might be correct for all I know, sounds odd coming from her lips. But the real problem lies with Luhrmann. He sees Parker as such an unambiguous villain – a racist, a liar, an almost repulsive vulgar – that Hanks is unable to bring much of his patented humanity to the role. I mean, maybe we’re supposed to believe that, despite lying to him, stealing from him, feeding him drugs and locking him in a golden Vegas cage, Parker actually loved Elvis like a son. But it is more suggested that he used the boy for his own gain.
Luhrmann describes Elvis’ life as a tragedy – how could you not? He died of a drug-related heart attack at the age of 42. But he sees Parker as the driving force behind this tragedy and envisions this story as a journey into Parker’s debauched underworld. Elvis, on the other hand, is considered a naïve in the manner of Orpheus. A mild-mannered country boy who loved rock ‘n roll, his mom and his wife, Priscilla, and who was unwittingly dragged into Parker’s Hell.
Elvis is too long, too melodramatic, too everything. But it’s also often very entertaining – the performance scenes, busy as they are, are amazing feats of mimicry. There’s young Elvis pushing his pelvis in a pink suit, making the teenage girls in the audience feel things they’ve never felt. There’s older Elvis, with mutton chops, in a studded leather jacket and cape. There’s Vegas Elvis doing an updated arrangement of his debut hit, “That’s All Right” — grooving around the stage, barking riffs at musicians, adding horn and backing vocals and a drum solo. It’s fascinating.
When you leave the theatre, you are a bit exhausted. You know you’ve seen the hagiography of Elvis – and the demonization of Parker – not the reality. But you can never say you didn’t get what you paid for. sometimes more is After.