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Film review: Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis'

Aaron S. Bayley

About ten minutes into Austrian director Baz Luhrmann's highly anticipated Elvis Presley biopic, a sarcastic voice in my head said, "The worst thing to happen to Elvis wasn't Colonel Parker. It's Baz Luhrmann."

That harsh opinion softened as the film progressed, but it was not a promising start. The film begins with an ominous tone, narrated by an older version of Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), who reminisces about the Elvis phenomenon like an "evil genius" caricature boasting of his past machinations. Parker, the Dutch manager and promoter largely responsible for cultivating Elvis' image and making him a household name, was a carnival barker styled after P.T. Barnum before his fateful meeting with the singer in 1955. But despite his influence and importance to Elvis' career, it's an odd stylistic choice to begin the film with the recollections of a crusty conman and villain.

The opening scenes are classic Luhrmann in their theatricality and extravagance, oscillating between flashbacks of Elvis performing on stage and Parker roaming carnival grounds and a Vegas casino. The colourful, fast-paced cuts have a surreal and disorienting effect that will likely turn off older viewers expecting a more linear narrative and appeal to the Instagram crowd. This, however, might be by design; throughout the film, Luhrmann blends late 1950s and '60s settings with Elvis' songs set to hip-hop, perhaps a nod to the cultural re-appropriation of Elvis' black-inspired music by black artists. Black gospel and rhythm and blues in 1950s America was not commercially viable unless performed by a white artist; though Elvis was genuinely touched by southern gospel music, he also benefitted from being white and devilishly handsome. Elvis' black contemporaries and predecessors—like B.B. King, Little Richard, and Big Mama Thornton (who originally recorded a version of "Hound Dog" in 1952), are shown in the film, if only as a way of authenticating Elvis, locating him within the black music scene in Memphis, and making him appear a genuine creator of boundary-breaking, black-inspired popular music. In one clichéd scene, a young Elvis is seen peeking curiously through a crack in an old ramshackle shanty, titillated by the dancing and ecstatic writhing of a black couple as the band played blues. Thus, Elvis is moved by and baptized in the spirit of black gospel music, and all of his later pelvic thrusts can be traced back to that fateful day.

Austin Butler gives the performance of a lifetime as Elvis Presley. if you can get past the fact that Butler is not a spitting image of Elvis and lacks his boyish, chiseled features, there is not much to critique about his portrayal. He admirably captures Elvis' vernacular and vulnerability, and his vocal inflections as he moves through the years. The costumes (magnificently designed by Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin), from the pink and black suit to the black leather '68 Comeback Special outfit to the Vegas jumpsuits, look great on Butler and allow him to embody Elvis' persona and style without inhibition. The first time we see Butler on stage as Elvis is when he performs "That's All Right", and it's apparent from the first swivel of his hips that Butler has the moves down. But it's later in the film, when he performs "Suspicious Minds" and "Polk Salad Annie" at the International Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Butler truly shines. Elvis' live performances in Vegas with the high-energy TCB Band were physically gruelling, and Butler, with sweat dripping down his face, executed the karate poses and wild arm gyrations and gesticulations perfectly. If you squinted, it was Elvis.

A fault of the film is that Luhrmann spends too much time in the 1970s and not enough time in the late '50s, where he would hardly have been blamed for milking the nostalgia a bit more. After all, it's the Elvis who wore pink socks and drank Pepsi-Colas and sang "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up" that endeared him to the masses and made him a cultural icon, not the bloated, drugged out Elvis of the '70s. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, was the first record producer to record Elvis, and yet there are no memorable scenes of Elvis in the fabled recording studio.

The relationships Elvis had with those close to him were complicated and often parasitic. The scenes between Elvis and his mother Gladys (played by Helen Thomson) illustrate Elvis' unconditional love for her but border on incestuous. Her death in 1958 at age 46 left Elvis inconsolable and haunted him for the rest of his life. The intimate scenes between Elvis and Priscilla (played convincingly by Olivia DeJonge) in his last years of life are touching and heartbreaking. The interactions between Elvis and Parker are designed to show Parker's ability to manipulate his protégé. Whenever Elvis aspires to fire Parker for some indiscretion, the grizzled conman concocts some plot or talks his way back into Elvis' good graces, and all is forgiven.

Fans of Peter Guralnick's meticulous two-volume biography of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) might take umbrage with Luhrmann's glossing over details. The film clocks in at two hours and 39 minutes, but doesn't feel long enough. Luhrmann, in his haste to show Elvis under the bright lights of Las Vegas with all the surrounding glitz and glamour, goes from 1950's rockabilly Elvis' to his overseas stint in the army to 1968 in the blink of an eye, packing in events that could use more unpacking. The film often lurches from one place to another like a whirlwind, appearing disjointed but also punctuated by poignant scenes. Disappointingly, Elvis' death in 1977 is treated like a footnote: it is announced via a newspaper headline. Given the sensationalist nature surrounding Elvis' demise, Luhrmann may have wanted to preserve his dignity, but the scene could have been filmed in a noninvasive way that certainly would have ben more dramatic.

In the film's coda, the real-life Elvis is seated at the piano, bloated, sweating, and past his prime, performing a heart-rending rendition of "Unchained Melody." Weeks later he would be dead. It is the emotional climax of a film that doesn't always succeed at illustrating what precisely made Elvis Presley a larger-than-life cultural icon (aside from making teenage girls weak at the knees), but reminds us of the impossible price of fame. A modern American teen sensation, Billie Eilish, sings in "Getting Older": Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now." Elvis' last years saw him going through the motions to meet contractual obligations, living through a haze of drugs and paranoia and surrounded by hangers-on and sycophants. The people who truly loved him were all gone. That, surely, was enough to prevent his heart from going on.



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