Friday, July 15, 2022


I had a break between county-fair-week newspaper assignments this weekend and I decided to use it to go to a movie. I wasn't turned on by Top Gun: Maverick, Thor: Love and Thunder, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, Jurassic World Dominion, Where the Crawdads Sing or Minions: The Rise of Gru. I mean, that's a lot of sequels and fanchise films, with one exception that was just a little too teen-melodramatic for my taste. So I went with what was left, and that was Elvis. It's a biopic about guess who, directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) and featuring Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker, Faramir from The Lord of the Rings as old-time Country and Western singer Hank Snow (back before the "and" was replaced with a hyphen), Dracula (from Van Helsing) as Elvis's dad, Anthony LaPaglia as Elvis's tailor, and Austin Butler of The Shannara Chronicles (whom I last saw playing the member of the Manson family who gets his face stomped by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as the King himself.

Well, clearly it's a very Australian production. But you wouldn't know it to hear the accents. The only person in the movie who doesn't sound all-American is Tom Hanks. Exactly where his character is supposed to be from is hard to tell; apparently the Colonel was a man without a country, and most certainly not from Wheeling, W.V. as he claimed. With the Colonel sporadically narrating, Luhrmann frames the biopic in the context of the relationship between Elvis and his abusive, con-man manager, with a some out-of-chronology callbacks to the superstar's earlier life, collage and montage effects and some weird, dream-like material. It's definitely got style, and it's loaded with music, and it's sadder than all get-out. Most definitely a tragedy, it even takes on (during part of the last act) almost the tone of a horror movie. Like Butler as Elvis as the protagonist in Polidori's The Vampyre, with Hanks as the Colonel as Mr. Ruthven, the monster in human form who drives him to his doom.

Elvis's impressive career is telescoped into four phases – the early part where he exploded onto the music scene and proved so sexy that the authorities wanted to throw him in jail for moistening the panties of too many nice southern girls; the film career (lightly glossed over) after his rehabilitation as a clean-cut American boy, fresh out of the army; his shameful interlude hawking Singer sewing machines and recording Christmas jingles; and the descending slope of his career as a Las Vegas entertainer, when he struggled to break free of the Colonel and found himself completely trapped. This last bit was the ruin of his health, his marriage and (as the film depicts it) his identity as an artist. The movie's depiction of his career is such a downer, despite the glitzy production numbers, that you may end up feeling surprised when one of the title cards at the end informs you that he is the best-selling solo recording artist ever; most of that recording career is left out of the film.

OK, so the movie slices the material a certain way and focuses on the Presley-Parker aspect of the story, which is the kind of thing dramatists do. It's very effective and hits a wide range of feelings along the way, from the excitement and joy of his first public performance of "Hound Dog" to the tear-jerking scene where Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) tries to persuade Elvis to go into treatment. The movie makes Elvis look pretty good, only forcing Butler to wear a fat suit for one scene toward the very end; which is a good marketing strategy, considering that Butler is mostly known for his good-looking sex appeal. (I also remember him playing a short-lived love interest for Thea Queen on Arrow.) From now on, I suspect, he's going to taken seriously as an actor – something, ironically, that Elvis craved but was denied. He may, in fact, end up in line for major awards, like the stars of many other rock star biopics in recent years. What I mostly took away from his performance in this movie is that he can disappear in a role, and throw himself into it with disturbing intensity, and look terrible in a way that cuts you to the heart (as an interesting alternative to just looking good). Also, in a certain light, he looks a little bit like a young Johnny Depp – which could save Hollywood a lot of trouble right about now.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The collage of Elvis's big-band-Vegas-act version of "That's All Right" with his early-career recording of it and his childhood musical-religious ecstasy, a sort of fourth-wall break in which Luhrmann seems to turn toward the audience and go, "Get it? See how far he came?" Or maybe "fell?" (2) The heartbreaking horror sequence, in which Elvis tries to break free of the Colonel, then gets pulled back in. (3) The first moan of the first girl who is whammied by Elvis's jittery stage charisma in that first performance (which also colleges in that childhood experience of his). First time in front of a live audience, it was almost a disaster ... and then he just took off. It was a great moment, and not the last moment of pure fun in the movie, but even that scene carried foreshadowings of things to come. The tragic unities. With tight pants.

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