Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ is a disorienting medley

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ is a disorienting medley

Placeholder while article actions are loading
1.5 stars

The best way to appreciate Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’, the daring, frenetic, sometimes astonishing and ultimately confusing film about Elvis Presley, is to simply surrender to it. Luhrmann, best known for kaleidoscopic fantasies like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!”, possesses just enough hubris to believe he is able to recreate the lightning that Elvis Presley embodied, and has remained an icon of the pop culture decades after his death in 1977. With ‘Elvis’, Luhrmann matches Presley’s drive and instinctive charisma and nurtures him for sheer grit, while at the same time adhering to the grittiest conventions of Hollywood biopics about the rise and fall, taking them at every turn. cheerfully undermines.

Should Elvis’ legacy live on?

The result is a dizzying, almost hallucinatory experience – like being thrown into a washing machine and churned mercilessly for 2 ½ hours. That’s not to say “Elvis” doesn’t offer moments of insight or even real inspiration; it’s just that they act erratically, when the viewer is momentarily stuck to the window before being plunged again into the course of Luhrmann’s lurid sensibility.

The most interesting conceit of “Elvis,” which Luhrmann co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, is also his greatest weakness: the story of Presley’s life is told by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks behind layers of prosthetics. and a heavy Dutch accent. (Born in the Netherlands, Andreas van Kuijk took the name “Tom Parker” when he enlisted in the United States Army in 1929. The honorary “colonel” came later, in exchange for his assistance in Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis’s campaign. .) Jovial, cunning and defiantly amoral, Parker provides a sulphurous and, frankly, exhausting guide through Presley’s life story, which Luhrmann illustrates with a bricolage of musical numbers, set pieces and melodramatic encounters, at one point tossing into an animated sequence borrowed from to the comic books that Elvis read as a child. During his formative years, young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) watches as the African-American patrons of a Tupelo juke joint squirm frantically at Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, then rush to a nearby Pentecostal revival tent where he’s equally mesmerized by the preaching of the word. Luhrmann cuts through the scenes with a heightened intensity, portraying Presley’s love of black music and culture as seduction and spiritual conversion. (Crudup is played by Gary Clark Jr. Presley’s friends and influences BB King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard are played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yola, Shonka Dukureh and Alton Mason respectively in postcard scenes of club life in Beale Street.)

It’s a blunt, unsubtle but also exciting scene whose momentum is strangely cold stopped by a cut to Presley – now played by Austin Butler – performing in the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. As the Colonel explains in his ever-present, self-righteous narration, the black voice in a white body, combined with Presley’s signature stage presence—the nervously wobbling leg; the fey, almost feminine beauty; the otherworldly embodiment of the carnal and the sacred – made Presley “the greatest carnival act I’ve ever seen.”

The storyline of “Elvis” often feels like it was lifted from a piece from Guillermo del Toro’s recent adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Parker, a carnival worker whose showmanship and knack for short-dating earned him the nickname “The Snowman,” is portrayed as an Iago-esque schemer who sees Presley as the ultimate geek, ripe for exploitation. “Elvis” is aware that the public knows exactly where this is all going: In quick succession, using dramatized and real-life news clips, Luhrmann visits the highs, lows and most bleak depths of Presley’s life, including his sudden stardom, the ensuing anger at his sexuality and “race mixing”, his stint in the military, his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), his film career, his demise during the British Invasion, his 1968 comeback special, his stay in Las Vegas and his ancestry to drug addiction and exhaustion. Luhrmann plays it all with fidelity and excess of funhouse, an approach that begins to feel as suffocating as Parker’s merchandising gimmicks.

Just as Parker claimed 50 percent of Presley’s earnings, he claims at least half of the film, blending into the story with glittering-eyed asides and haunting voiceovers. Luhrmann takes some admirable risks in ‘Elvis’, including using contemporary covers of Presley hits by the likes of Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves, and Jack White, but nearly every choice he makes has the effect of disorienting and distancing the audience. instead of submerging them.

To paraphrase the title of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film, which used similar techniques to a more intriguing and meaningful effect, the problem with “Elvis” is that he isn’t there. Luhrmann moves so fast, with such mannered, overbearing self-consciousness, that Butler can barely get a hip flick, let alone a fully realized characterization. Singing himself during Presley’s formative years, he does an admirable job of capturing the intoxication and terror of his burgeoning stardom. But he is put to the test by a filmmaker who proves to be just as controlling as Parker himself.

It’s tempting to theorize that Luhrmann is more temperamentally attracted to Parker as the protagonist because he sees a fellow martinet, but the Colonel is really the lens through which the filmmaker explores a broader theme: the freak show of fandom. Constantly prevented from giving his character anything akin to an inner life, Butler’s Presley threatens to get lost in a riveting spectacle of bloating, sweat, and adoring girl tears. But something eerie happens when Parker installs him at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Butler is lip syncing to Presley’s actual vocals. But his embodiment of the character has reached another level, where every secret smile and a bit of swagger feels like it’s being channeled rather than executed. Karate chopping and munching through “Suspicious Minds” and “Polk Salad Annie,” Butler turns what could have been yet another impression of the most imitated musician of all time into something authentic and unexpectedly powerful.

Then it’s back in Luhrmann’s tumbling barrel. Vegas, of course, marks the beginning of the end in “Elvis,” which ends with Presley himself singing “Unchained Melody” shortly before his death. It’s a haunting coda: sad and soaring, tragic and eerily timeless. And it inadvertently suggests that the previous film was always an afterthought. There would always be only one Elvis, and he’s long since left the building.

PG-13. Near theaters. Contains substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. 159 minutes.

Leave a Reply