Dir: Baz Luhrman
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
With a wiggle and an ecstatic whirl of his guitar-strumming hand, Elvis has entered the movie theatre. In a little over 2½ hours, we take a journey of over 40 years, partially seen through the events of The King of Rock & Roll – who also made influential moves into gospel, blues and R&B – but in a story mostly divulged through his grifting manager. The enigma of Col. Tom Parker, and just how much backhanded dealings he signed in Elvis’ name (including contract duplications between agencies and Parker with separate signings for Elvis to hide the true amounts Parker paid himself) were only revealed years after The King’s death. This film exposes a decidedly dark side to Parker’s dealings, yet as told through his eyes, while the narrative attempts the sympathetic; it leaves us precisely where we need to be. And in the end we wonder: with proper management, what kind of a long and marvelous future could have come from such a talented musician.
The photography and acting, makeup, production design and direction are as spot-on as can be. To make up an adjective, Elvis, the movie, was Spielbergian in depth and scope. I struggle to decide which aspect to praise first.
Acting. The titular role is played here by television actor Austin Butler. You may remember him as the murderous Tex from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, who in the end gets beaten to a pulp by LSD-stoned Brad Pitt. In interviews, he states he spent over 2 years working on the film, watching, reading and studying everything Elvis. And it shows. Although his resemblance to Elvis Presley is only a little more than passing (the jaw and lower face on Austin are thinner), yet through makeup, impersonation and just genius showbiz, those of us at least in their late 50s didn’t see a handsome young Hollywood actor projected on the screen; they saw Elvis. Or at least what is arguably the best filmed impersonation ever. We can tell within the first few minutes of his first on stage performance that Butler worked his skinny little ass off to nail that role … and he pulls it off, with the help of great direction, wardrobe, production design and cinematography.
The impersonation is so good it should provide a wakeup call to the industry. I’ll provide an important example. The half-baked movie Solo: A Star Wars Story told us of the adventures, roughly a dozen years before Star Wars: A New Hope (originally released in 1977 as Star Wars), of the character Han Solo. Between 3 directors and an otherwise talented Alden Ehrenreich, there seems to have been absolutely no look back at the 4 films already released to LOOK at the CHARACTER played brilliantly by Harrison Ford. NO attempt was made to replicate the facial stresses, the body movements and the stylization which made Ford’s portrayal so relevant. And anyone who doesn’t think Ehrenreich didn’t smile far too much to be a convincing Han Solo can reach out for an optometrist referral. On the other hand, as the screen shot below should show you, at least in the Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi”, a passing hint at portraying the same character was made.
image coming soon
Direction. So now we move to Baz Luhrman, whose brilliant visual/audio style, combined with genius-level storytelling devices, place this movie on an Oscar-worthy plane. I’ve been a fan of Luhrman since 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, and to me, his interpretation of Romeo + Juliet knocks Franco Zeffirelli’s 1969 telling out of the water in every way. Still, IMHO, Luhrman has not redeemed himself from the shitshow Moulin Rouge! (2001), which is one of the few films I ever have actively loathed.
Luhrman is an absolute master of storytelling devices. To give one example, during a transitional time in Elvis’ early career, a stack of the same newspaper is flipped, taking the still image of Presley giving an interview and moving them, GIF-like, while we transition to the interview. Since I won’t give any spoilers here – I want you to see this film in the theatres or on a really good audio/visual system – I’ll not give away anything else.
So back it is, to the story. While the mild and subtle narration from Parker (Tom Hanks) attempts to be sympathetic from his point of view, what we experience is an abused artist taken at every turn away from people who would do Elvis best, with puppet strings pulled by a master manipulator. Self-serving Parker, who it is slowly revealed is not a “Colonel”, a “Tom” or a “Parker”, was as much of a fraud as DJTrump, and would have been a perfect fit for politics, except he didn’t have citizenship in any country. We never do learn within why Parker (nee Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) fled his native Holland, and several researchers surmise it may have to do with an unsolved murder there. Instead, the film stick to the torturous relationship between the huckster and the artist, with Parker knowing perfectly well when to and not to make decisions, leaving the bone-headed arrangements for Presley’s inept and bad-with-money father (who, IRL, died just 2 years after Elvis).
This film is executed with a very well-planned and well accomplished form: scenes run their proper lengths to illuminate breadth and depth, with master auteur Luhrman at the helm.
Call me Nostradamus, but I predict come Oscar and BAFTA time next year, Elvis, the movie, will not be forgotten. And both the movie and the person will once again take the center light on stage.