Biopic Gleefully Distorts Singer’s Life and Career

Can we admit that if Baz Luhrmann were Elvis, he would be the Elvis of Las Vegas? Not the skinny and wild Early Elvis, or the boring Movie Elvis, or the slow and bloated Late Elvis. He would be that early Las Vegas Elvis, sequined and prone to excess, but also capable of being damn exciting. “If I Can Dream”, “Burning Love” and the epochal “Suspicious Minds”: it would be that elvis

The problem with Luhrmann, though, is one that sometimes rubs off on Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” which opens Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival: The Australian director also has a lot of Colonel Tom Parker in him. Parker was a showman, to be sure, a former pitchman who managed Elvis and led him down a path where profit always took precedence over art. And as Colonel Parker (who appropriately wasn’t a colonel and wasn’t born with the name Parker) says many times during “Elvis,” “All artists are snowmen.”

The Colonel was talking about himself and, to a lesser extent, Elvis, but Luhrmann knows that snowshoes fit him well and wears them with pride. The film is in part a spirited tribute to a titanic force in American music, delivered with the verve and flamboyance of Lurhmann’s riffs like “Moulin Rouge.” and “Romeo + Juliet”; part sad cautionary tale of a rapid rise and a long, slow decline; and part showcase for Austin Butler, who takes on an impossible role and does an excellent job even though he, like everyone else on the planet, doesn’t really look like Elvis. But at other times, the film is also a late Elvis-sized snow job that playfully distorts the life and career of an icon.

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Of course he does it knowingly and with a wink or two; Luhrmann is not the kind of person whose films should be scrutinized for historical accuracy. His nonchalant approach is often for the better: at the beginning of “Moulin Rouge!” there’s a thrilling moment when the raving crowds inside the famed 1900s Paris nightclub burst into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an exhilarating statement that Paris at the dawn of the 20th century can be anywhere, anytime.

“Elvis” approaches that kind of moment a couple of times, most notably when young Elvis sees an old bluesman stomp on a swampy, doom version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and combines it with supercharged execution. from a gospel choir through “I’ll Fly Away,” in the process creating something like the version of “That’s All Right” that became his first single for Sun Records.

It’s a wacky, exhilarating moment, and yet the math is wrong: Elvis certainly drew on blues and gospel, but the key was that he mixed them with country music, which is almost completely absent from “Elvis,” except as a symbol of sobriety. old order that Elvis was tearing down. So Lurmann’s equation – blues + gospel = Elvis, and by extension rock ‘n’ roll – is just too wrong to give the scene the power it might otherwise have.

Okay, “Elvis” is not a movie that claims to talk about the birth of rock. In fact, it doesn’t even start out as an Elvis movie. The first person we see and the first voice we hear is that of Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker, who has just had a heart attack and announces that he is going to tell us the true story of the boy he made into a star. “Without me,” he says, “there would be no Elvis Presley.”

Priscilla Presley gives Austin Butler's Elvis her stamp of approval: 'Wow!  Bravo to him

If this were really Colonel Parker telling the story, of course, it would be a lot cleaner and a lot less entertaining, and it certainly wouldn’t immediately launch into a flaming split-screen montage that superimposes one great moment on top of another. Photographed by Mandy Walker with a gloss worthy of The King and styled down to the last sequin by Catherine Martin (give her the task of creating Graceland and back off!), this is a two-hour, 39-minute oversized movie. extravagance, even if it starts at county fairs and blues shacks in the rural South.

According to the Colonel’s account, Elvis sounded black but was white, which Parker knew was the perfect mix in the quiet but expected explosion of the mid-1950s. He also had the dance moves to shock white girls who didn’t. they had seen twists like that because they didn’t hang out at juke joints or gospel stores.

“It was a taste of the forbidden fruit,” Parker says as he watches a girl collapse in screams. “She could have eaten it whole… It was the biggest carnival attraction she had ever seen. He was my destiny.”

The cunning Colonel is the hero of his narrative, but everyone who sees “Elvis” will label him a huckster from the start. It probably helps that Hanks opts for the weird accent. Really thick, laying a bit too much ground by the time we later discovered the Colonel’s true provenance.

Basically, the first stretch of the movie is a streamlined sprint of Elvis’ rise that shows how faithfully Butler can recreate the Elvis moves we’ve seen, and how eagerly Lurhmann can fall into intended anachronisms like the rap that suddenly lands on Big La Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog”.

In that simplification there is a lot of simplification, the reduction of three chaotic years in Elvis hits big / Elvis offends people with his twists and is in danger of being arrested / Colonel Parker sends Elvis to the army to repair his image. Still, there’s enough energy and flare to overcome most picky eaters, and Butler launches into a performance that’s wildly physical but never cartoonish or disrespectful. (The movie respects Presley, who deserves it, but not Parker, who doesn’t.)

Elvis - Austin Butler Tom Hanks
Warner Bros.

Butler was largely unknown when he was cast over reported contenders such as Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Harry Styles, all of whom likely would have brought too much of their own baggage to the role. And it’s really not his fault that he doesn’t look like Elvis, that his singing voice can’t really come close to Elvis’s, and that the makeup, hairstyle and wardrobe that went into getting him into the stadium make him look like an Elvis. imitator. (There have been too many of those over the years for us not to think about it.)

Luhrmann’s cut-and-paste job of covering Elvis’s career falls somewhere between “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which purported to tell the true story of Freddie Mercury but did nothing of the sort, and “Rocketman,” which told you from the beginning it was going to turn the Elton John story into a fantasy. You get the feeling that Luhrmann would have liked to go further in the direction of fantasy, but maybe Elvis was too big, too familiar and too sacred for him to go crazy, so he settles for musical sequences instead. big and loaded and a lot of lies of different sizes.

It’s most egregious, perhaps, in the long sequence covering the 1968 “comeback” special, when Elvis shrugged off the Colonel’s desire to put on a quiet Christmas show and delivered a breakneck rock performance that revived his career afterward. of more than two dozen terrible movies. (and oh, four or five good ones). Not content with telling the story bluntly, “Elvis” sets up a fictional meeting at the Hollywood sign between Elvis and the show’s producer and musical director, drops the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the middle of taping (it didn’t happen then), and conjures up a ridiculous moment where an entire Christmas decoration is built just to fool Colonel Parker.

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It’s a shame that Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner had to go to such lengths when re-enactments of ’68 managed to capture some of the power of that show, and when they could have shown Elvis standing up. to the Colonel, which he made, much more believable.

The TV special leads to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas leads to the long decline, which is treated somewhat sparingly and, again, with plenty of narrative rationalization. (But it doesn’t feel like simplifying: The film is two hours and 39 minutes long, much of that apparently taken up by decline.) In this particular stretch, it’s hard for Butler not to look like he’s some guy in an Elvis. costume; heck, circa 1975, Elvis He looked like a boy dressed up as Elvis.

And then, oddly enough, there he is at one of his last concerts, sweaty and swollen but sitting at the piano and singing a magnificent, gut-wrenching version of “Unchained Melody”. For a minute, you might look around and think that Butler suddenly looks like a batch like late Elvis period, until you realize that Luhrmann has dropped the artifice and is showing you the real thing. He is triumphant without the distraction of being an impersonation; he is pure Elvis in a sad but glorious moment.

(Interestingly, the last film about Elvis to be shown at Cannes was Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The King,” which was shown under its original title, “Promised Land,” and that film, a provocative look at Elvis and America, also culminates in this same performance of “Unchained Melody,” a rare artistic benchmark in those later days).

The glimpse of the real Elvis in “Elvis” is finally followed by some exciting end credits music, a mix of remixes, covers and raps over Elvis tracks that captures much of what the film aspires to and sometimes achieves.

As for the moments that don’t work, well, back in “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957, there’s a characteristic (and of this elimination, embarrassing) scene where the character of Elvis forcefully kisses a music promoter played by Judy Tyler. “How dare you think those cheap tactics would work on me?” she snaps back. “That’s not tactics, honey,” says Elvis. “It’s just the beast in me.”

So maybe the right thing to do is accept the extravagant pleasures of “Elvis” and ignore the nonsense. After all, it’s just the beast – or, more accurately, the snowman – in Baz.

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