Posts Tagged Baz Luhmnan

Baz Luhmnan’s Elvis reviewed

  • 2022
  • 12A
  • 2h 39m
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge
  • Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner

In the build up to the release of this year’s Elvis movie, and in the various reviews I’ve read, seen and listened to since first seeing it on the big screen in late June, much has been made of the movie being ‘Baz Luhman’s Elvis’. I wouldn’t know. Scanning through Mr. Luhman’s Filmography shortly after my first viewing, I realised that I had never actually seen a Baz Luhman film. Since then, I’ve rectified this by seeing his Australia; and based on this admittedly small sample of his work, I have recognised certain stylistic tricks in his Elvis that would appear to be typical of his modus operandi

The life of Elvis Presley, from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s.

It is certainly a very much a stylized reading of the Elvis story, with much fast cutting from scene to scene, and much use of music as a means of illustrating the story, so that the film takes the form of a semi-musical, rather than a movie with music as might be expected in a film about a major musical icon. All in all, what we get with Luhman’s Elvis is an impressionistic rather than a literal telling of Presley’s life.

Elvis focuses heavily on the relationship between Presley and his legendary manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by another legendary Tom, Tom Hanks. Indeed, the film begins with Parker, at the end of his life, seeking to absolve himself of all blame for the sad decline of his protégé through addiction to prescription drug and junk food, problems which led to his tragically early death, aged forty-two, on August 16th, 1977.

Parker’s words are used as a means of giving narrative structure to the film, and this is perhaps the most important of Luhman’s stylistic tricks, the way that Parker’s narration, which seeks to dispel any notion of himself as the villain in the Elvis Presley story, are in sharp contrast to the action we see unfolding on the screen. We thus have at the core of the movie the cinematic version of the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator, and this works very well.

The same can’t be said, however, for Tom Hank’s accent. Anyone with a decent grounding in the Elvis Presley story will know that Parker was a native of Holland, was an illegal immigrant to the United States, and that his alien status played a huge, perhaps a defining part in preventing Presley from touring the world outside of America. For those who don’t know, the issue is dealt with in some detail in the movie in any case. It is therefore rather overdoing it to give Parker a vaguely Dutch, or perhaps generically European accent, especially as there is ample evidence to the fact that Parker didn’t speak anything at all like this. Why didn’t Hanks, skilled craftsman that he is, attempt to speak as Parker spoke, that is as the typical carnival huckster that he was? Apart from the issue of his voice, Hanks’ performance is very good, more or less capturing the charlatan essence of Parker, which was summed up by the assessment of one wag that he ‘was not a Colonel, not Parker, and not even a Tom.’ Hanks looks great too, largely due to the efforts of the film’s prosthetics department, who did a great job of aging the character as the film processed, and of adding considerable bulk to Hank’s frame.

If Hanks’ performance is very good with reservations, then that of Austin Butler as the leading man is simply superb without any such qualifications. It’s actually relatively easy to do an Elvis impersonation, of both the man’s speaking and singing voice, which is no doubt is why so many people do it. But it’s not easy to do it without lapsing into parody. Kurt Russell made a fair fist of it in 1979’s Elvis the Movie. But he didn’t do his own singing, and his 1969 Elvis, the year at which this film concludes, looked and sounded more like mid-seventies Elvis to me. Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the 2005 CBS Miniseries Elvis the Early Years wasn’t bad either, but again he didn’t do his own singing, and as with Russel, the script didn’t call on him to go beyond the late sixties. Butler, by contrast, portrays the man all the way from 1953 to close to his bloated, drug addled death in Memphis twenty-three years later. And, Butler did do his own singing throughout the film. His vocal performance is spot on, so good in fact that when the voice of the real Elvis was intercut with his at some points on the later numbers, the change was so seamless that only keen students of Presley’s singing style would be able to tell the difference. If anything, Butler nails Presley’s spoken voice and mannerisms with even greater precision. At times, his ability to capture the essence of Presley in a word or look is simply breath-taking.

For me, the ‘very Baz’ fast cutting of the movie worked much better on the big screen than it did the small. In the cinema, the visual pyrotechnics have a mesmerizing, hallucinogenic quality. By contrast, re-watching the film more recently on television, the style became at times a little wearying. The problem with this style of editing is that the mind has no opportunity to properly settle on and take in individual scenes before it is scattered elsewhere, and major events pass by at such a rate that it is easy to miss them. As an example, it is generally accepted that Elvis’ mother Gladys was the real love of his life, a major influence on how he lived it, and that her death was a tragedy from which he never really recovered. But Luhman never really takes the time to develop her character into someone we really care about independent of our knowledge of her real-world importance. Though we do see the devastating emotional impact of Gladys’ death on Elvis, it is rather fleeting and to the extent that it is explored at all, it is done so more in relation to how Parker uses the event as a means of supplanting her as the central guiding influence in Presley’s life than for its long-lasting psychological impact on Elvis himself.

The frenetic pace is however fitting for the section of the movie that deals with Elvis meteoric rise to national and international stardom in 1956. There has been no better depiction of what it must have been like to be young, particularly a young woman, experiencing Elvis’ raw sexual power live on stage in this period, before Parker succeeded in taming him in order to win the acceptance of the mainstream Show Biz’ establishment.

The pace does slow when we reach the last decade of Presley’s life, a period that encompasses roughly one half of the two-hour, forty-minute movie. This was perhaps a conscious decision to reflect changes in Presley’s life, and it is a good one as characters, including the lead, are at last given the space to change and develop, and for the viewer to become emotionally invested in them.

I should say here say a few words about Priscilla, the girl Elvis married in 1967, an event that neatly signifies the end of part one and the beginning of part two of the film. The fact that she was a mere fourteen years’ old when they first met, whilst he was serving in the armed forces in Germany in 1959, is never explicitly stated. The age difference between the two is only revealed to us through the words of Elvis as he says, rather desperately in response to her ending of their relationship five years after their marriage, ‘you’ll see Cilla, when I’m fifty and you’re forty, we’ll be together.’ Her youth may not have been made explicit, but in that very first meeting she is depicted as a bubbly, chattering, and frankly adorable presence, in a way that was perhaps typical of well-bred, mid-teens all-American girls of the period. Taken through the whole movie, the role of Priscilla is relatively small, but important, the character revealed through perhaps four short two-hander scenes opposite Butler, and which are very, very well played by Olivia DeJonge.

The musical component of Elvis has been criticised, mostly by the type of Elvis fan who prefers even the dodgiest Elvis sixties movie soundtrack track to anything none-Elvis. Luhman must have known that he was on a hiding to nothing with this stratum when he decided to include in the movie not only Elvis’ songs, but also songs that blended Elvis into a ‘mash-up’ with modern artists, and illustrative music that didn’t include Elvis at all, such as the hit single Vegas by Doja Cat, and The King and I by Eminem and CeeLo Green. This eclectic use of music new and old is apparently an oft used device in the Luhman playbook, an example being his use of Hip Hop in his version of The Great Gatsby, as well as the Jazz which is more often associated with this story. Personally, although we could perhaps have done with a tad more Elvis, I think the musical choices in the movie were brave, and very, very effective, and could perhaps widen the appeal of the movie beyond the Presley fan-base towards a younger audience.  

As mentioned, the script opts for a much more impressionistic than factual interpretation of the Elvis story. As with Luhman’s choice of music, this deployment of poetic license in the depiction of real-life events is fraught with danger, opening him up to the criticism of often knowledgeable hard-core fans. But, again with some qualifications, think the approach generally worked well.

As an example, Elvis’ relationship with blues guitarist/singer BB King is presented as being much closer than it was in real life. But the deception works as an excellent shorthand for Presley’s relationship with black culture as a whole, particularly with the blues scene centered around Beale St in Memphis at the time of Presley’s rise to stardom. It also helps to dispel the oft’ repeated myth that Elvis was a racist.

All attempts at telling the Elvis Presley story, be they dramatisation, documentary, or even literary, tend to deal with the rightly derided Hollywood years, roughly 1961 – ’68, almost em passant, usually through the use of quickly moving and quickly gone montage. Luhman’s effort is no exception, except for the way he rather brilliant combines a cursory run through of this period with an introduction to Presley’s fabled Memphis Mafia gang.

The treatment of the iconic 1968 Comeback Special is even more outlandish. Elvis fans all know that Parker’s vision for the special, which was to air at Christmas 1968 in America, was for Elvis to come out into the lights of an empty studio wearing a Tuxedo, say ‘Good Evening Ladies and Gentleman,’ sing twenty or so Christmas songs and spirituals, say ‘Goodnight and Merry Christmas everybody,’ and fade the lights. Fortunately, the show’s producer Steve Binder, and even more thankfully Elvis himself, realised that such an approach would have spelled the final death knell to his already dying career, and chose instead to put Elvis together with members of his 1950’s band, dress him in black leather with an electric guitar strapped round his neck, and put him in a boxing ring style stage surrounded by adoring fans. What Luhman does is to use this real-life disconnect between the visions of Parker and Binder as the starting point for an onscreen farce which bore little relationship to actual events, during which Binder and Elvis attempt to convince Parker that they are indeed producing a Christmas-themed show, complete with Elvis wearing a horrendously cheesy Christmas jumper curtesy of Singer sowing-machines, the special’s sponsor, for the closing number, whilst in reality they are putting together a show much heavier on rock ‘n’ roll than on Christmas cliches. It’s funny and enjoyable, and I think works well as a means of revealing the existential choice that faced Elvis as he returned to public performance after more than seven year’s burial beneath layers of Hollywood schmaltz. My only criticism of this part of the movie is that we see none of the sit-down sections of the special, the heart of the show, when Elvis, for once, really played guitar and bantered informally with members of his band and crew. This will perhaps be addressed when we eventually get the four-hour cut that Luhman promises us is coming, and at least we do get a sizable chunk of If I Can Dream, the actual show closer, when Elvis donned the white suit that was so much cooler than the white jump suit that was soon to come, and produced perhaps his finest ever vocal performance.

 It was a brave but brilliant decision by Luhman to have Butler’s turn as Elvis effectively close with Presley’s incredibly poignant rendition of Unchained Melody, seated at the piano, only weeks before his death. The moment when Butler’s Elvis finally gives way to the real Elvis, bloated and defeated but still pouring his whole self into this operatic last-gasp performance will, I think, have left few dry eyes amongst cinema goers. From 1977, we then cut back, to the early years, to Elvis, the real Elvis, at his peak, ripping through the social fabric of America, and of much of the world, leaving it forever altered. Finally, his phenomenal achievements and lasting legacy as the most successful solo recording artist in history, are reminded to the audience by bare, simple, but revelatory screen-text. As brilliant as Austin Butler is in this movie, it is only right and proper that it is the real Elvis who closes it.

So, there we have it.  Baz Luhman’s Elvis, far from perfect, but a genuine cinematic experience that is way in advance of any other dramatisation of the life of the man they called The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It could even be a contender for the greatest ever rock biopic.

By Anthony C Green


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