Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Elvis warbles some notes, but is mostly a catchy cinematic tune


Returning from a nine-year hiatus from feature film directing (largely spent shepherding the short-lived Netflix show The Get Down), director Baz Luhrmann has returned to the big screen with Elvis, a movie that's almost defiant in how much of a classic Luhrmann movie it is. The filmmaker behind Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby has once again set his sights on a period piece told with thoroughly modern music choices, lots of colorful extravagances, and zippy camerawork. If you didn't like any of Luhrmann's prior films, Elvis, which opts to tell the story of Elvis Presley, probably won't make you a devotee to his style. But if you were on the fence about his earlier efforts, and especially if you would ride or die for Romeo + Juliet, then the sincerity behind Elvis is primed to win you over.

Elvis immediately establishes its offbeat affectations by beginning with the final days of Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the former manager of the great Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). Now a withered old man, Parker recounts to viewers how he first came to know Presley back in the 1950s. Here was a kid that seemed like a joke to everybody when he initially waltzed onto the music scene. "I cannot emphasize," Parker recollects during Presley's first stage performance, "how strange he looked." Wearing a pink suit, makeup largely associated with women, and then belting out such aggressively sexual gyrations with his tunes. Presley was a paradox that seemed to be throwing up a middle finger to America's love for conformity in the 1950s. 

Being a veteran carny, Parker prides himself on knowing how to tempt people with "feelings they don't think they should be having." Seeing how the ladies react to Presley's on-stage behavior, not to mention hearing his voice, Parker sees an opportunity for fame and fortune. So begins the duo's dynamic, which stretches on for decades. The screenplay for Elvis, penned by Luhrmann as well as Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, proceeds to take us through the life of the king of rock n' roll until his tragic end. All along the way, Presley and Parker are an inseparable duo, but not always for the best of reasons, with this scheming manager primarily acting like an abusive spouse more than a thoughtful mentor.

Luhrmann's works have varied from being original concepts to adaptations of famous texts. No matter their origins, they're all bonded together by the dissonance between grand personal ambitions and the brutalities of reality that nobody escapes. The love at the center of Romeo + Juliet, for instance, can never be real, while The Great Gatsby is all about being consumed by a past that will never become a present-day reality. His characters exist in worlds full of "BOING!" sound effects and peppy Jay-Z tunes, but they're also odes to how our world can trample idealism and classical romanticism. This core theme of Luhrmann's films informs the most insightful thoughts that Elvis imparts about its central subject. 

This story is about how capitalism-informed greed wrings everything out of a man, even a "king" can become a pauper when he can be financially exploited. All those hopes and dreams Presley started his career with are suffocated by endless merchandising and an inescapable Las Vegas performance gig. Plus, unlike in past Luhrmann films like The Great Gatsby or Moulin Rouge!, the tragic qualities aren't cemented by a sudden death in the third act. Elvis's third-act chronicles this singer trapped in a slow death, we're watching him implode piece by piece. The gradual depiction of his decline allows this biopic to emphasize the tangible human being trapped behind the grand oversized pop culture image of Elvis Presley.

Elvis's parallels to prior Luhrmann works is apparent on a thematic level. However, the recurring facet of his career that people will walk away talking about when it comes to Elvis is his visual tendencies. This is a movie slathered in cartoonish maximalism, nary a scene transition goes by without the camera twirling around or one object transforming into another. This approach is best-realized during the scenes where Presley belts out his tunes. Here, Luhrmann ramps up the spectacle, noise, and camerawork to create the same sense of energy on-screen that listeners felt when they first heard "Hound Dog" or "Heartbreak Hotel." It's excessive, but it's a sense of excess that both feels appropriate and is a lot of fun to watch, especially Luhrmann's amusing lingering on how one man's pelvis can make the world quiver. 

While Luhrmann injects Elvis with plenty of enjoyable distinctive qualities, even he can't outrun the sense of familiarity that permeates all music biopics. While Presley's stage performances brim with life, depictions of his troubled domestic life do tend to play like serious renditions of select Walk Hard scenes. Similarly, much like with other music biopics about male legends, there's not much room for women in this production. Dutiful partner Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) is around to say all the normal dialogue wives say in this kind of movie (namely, "I love you" and "I'm taking the kids") with little variation. Speaking of underwhelming aspects, Luhrmann disappointingly maintains the sporadically distracting editing from The Great Gatsby. Some unimaginative and clunky cuts undercut what should be pivotal intimate moments for the characters, like an early conversation between Presley and his mama that keeps cutting around to a distracting degree.

Most troubling of all, even with Luhrmann finding emotionally affecting ways to apply his fascination with reality trampling dreams to the life of Elvis Presley, I did find myself wondering if Elvis truly had something Earth-shattering or new to observe about its titular lead. Was this all just glossy energetic mayhem rehashing the famous life events of a man we've seen chronicled in cinema so many times before? Thankfully, the third act manages to lend enough downbeat heft to the proceedings to stave off some of these concerns. Plus, Austin Butler turns out to be so good in the lead role that he keeps you from wondering if Elvis could've dug deeper into this music legend.

If there's any reason to see Elvis, it's to witness Butler deliver a performance that's still going to be impressive even after the inevitable onslaught of praise the internet bestows upon him. Butler manages the impressive hat trick of perfectly channeling an image of Presley we all know and love, especially in his Southern twang, but he transports those qualities into a discernible human being. Butler doesn't feel like a caricatured impression of Presley, he just feels like an everyday guy who happens to be a music legend. Plus, he's got magnetic charisma to spare and throws himself into the physicality of the assorted stage performances. More so than anything else, Butler is the heart and soul of Elvis.

Tom Hanks is less consistently successful as Tom Parker, but he's not necessarily bad. Hanks leans into chewing the scenery as the character, particularly through his unreliable narration, and that leads to fun line deliveries. But the application of a fatsuit, prosthetics, and an erratic accent makes it a bit harder to buy this version of Parker as a believable human being, especially when he shares so much screentime with Butler's effortlessly real vision of Elvis Presley. Hanks as Parker is emblematic of the big admirable swings Elvis is constantly taking as a whole movie, with some working out much better than others. This is a music biopic that registers as ambitious, flawed, moving, unwieldy, conventional, and rebellious, all sometimes in the same scene. Most importantly, though, I was moved and entertained by what I witnessed in Elvis, and that counts for a lot. Baz Luhrmann has returned from a hiatus with Elvis, a movie that's far from perfect (it's no Rocketman, that's for sure), but delivers the kind of imaginative gusto that makes him a filmmaker worth watching. Even in his off-notes, you can't help nodding your head to the tune he's playing.

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