Can we just admit that if Baz Luhrmann was Elvis, he would be the Vegas Elvis? Not the skinny and wild Early Elvis, or the bored Movie Elvis or the slow and puffy Late Elvis. He would be that early Vegas Elvis, glitzy and prone to excess but also capable of being damn exciting. “If I Can Dream”, “Burning Love” and the “Suspicious Minds” era – it would be that Elvis.
The problem with Luhrmann, however, is one that sometimes rubs off on Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” which premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival: the Australian director also has a lot of Colonel Tom Parker in him. Parker was a showman, of course, a former carny who mentored Elvis and guided him down a path where profit always trumped art. And as Colonel Parker (who was rightly neither a colonel nor born with the name Parker) repeatedly says during “Elvis,” “All showmen are snowmen.”
The Colonel was talking about himself and, to a lesser extent, Elvis, but Luhrmann knows the cut of racquets and he wears it proudly. The film is in part a fiery tribute to a titanic force in American music, delivered with the brilliance and extravagance of Lurhmann’s riffs like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet”; part sad cautionary tale of a quick rise and a long, slow decline; and partly a showcase for Austin Butler, who plays an impossible role and does a terrific job even though, like everyone else on the planet, he doesn’t quite look like Elvis. But at other times, the film is also an Elvis-sized snow job that blithely twists the life and career of an icon.
Of course, he does it knowingly and with a wink or two; Luhrmann isn’t the kind of guy whose films should be reviewed for historical accuracy. Its freewheeling approach is often for the best: At the start of the “Moulin Rouge! there’s a heart-pounding moment when the delirious masses inside the famed Parisian nightclub in 1900 suddenly burst into Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, an invigorating statement that Paris at the dawn of the 20th century can be anywhere, anytime.
“Elvis” comes close to that kind of moment a few times, most notably when young Elvis watches an old bluesman stomp on a swampy, doom version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and mistakes it for the supercharged run of a choir. gospel through “I’ll Fly Away”, creating something like the version of “That’s All Right” which became his first single for Sun Records.
It’s a delirious and invigorating moment, and yet the math is wrong: Elvis certainly tapped into blues and gospel, but the main thing was that he mixed them with country music, which is almost entirely absent from ‘”Elvis”, except as a symbol of stuffiness. old order that Elvis was overturning. Lurmann’s equation – blues + gospel = Elvis, and by extension rock ‘n’ roll – is therefore too out of whack to give the scene the power it might otherwise have.
Certainly, “Elvis” is not a film that claims to tell the birth of rock. Besides, it doesn’t even start out as an Elvis movie. The first person we see and the first voice we hear is from Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker, who has just suffered a heart attack and announces that he is going to tell us the true story of the boy he turned into a star. “Without me,” he says, “there would be no Elvis Presley.”
If it was really Colonel Parker telling the story, of course, it would be much more sanitized and much less entertaining, and it certainly wouldn’t immediately launch into a flamboyant split-screen montage that superimposes a grandiose moment above from another. Shot by Mandy Walker with King-like brilliance and crafted to the last sequin by Catherine Martin (give her the mission to create Graceland and step back!), it’s a super-sized two-hour and 39 minutes. extravagance even if it starts at county fairs and blues shacks in the rural south.
In the Colonel’s tale, Elvis sounded black but was white, which Parker knew was just the right mix in the quiet mid-1950s waiting to explode. He also had the dance moves to shock white girls who hadn’t seen gyrations like that because they weren’t hanging out in juke joints or gospel tents.
“It tasted like forbidden fruit,” Parker said, watching a girl break down screaming. “She could have eaten it whole… It was the biggest carnival attraction I’ve ever seen. He was my destiny.
The cunning Colonel is the hero of his story, but anyone who watches “Elvis” will call him a peddler from the start. It probably helps that Hanks goes for the odd accent. really thick, throwing away a little too much ground for when we later find out where the Colonel’s true provenance is.
Basically, the first stretch of the film is a streamlined Elvis-climbing sprint that shows how faithfully Butler can recreate the Elvis moves we’ve seen, and how eagerly Lurhmann can fall into deliberate anachronisms like rapping that suddenly lands in Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog.”
In this rationalization there is a lot of oversimplification, reducing three chaotic years to Elvis hitting hard / Elvis offends people with his gyrations and risks being arrested / Colonel Parker sends Elvis into the army to fix his image. There is, however, enough energy and flash to overcome most fussiness, and Butler launches into a performance that is extremely physical but never cartoonish or disrespectful. (The movie respects Presley, who deserves it, but not Parker, who doesn’t.)
Butler was largely unknown when he was cast on reported suitors like Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Harry Styles, all of whom likely would have brought too much of their own baggage to the role. And it’s not really his fault that he doesn’t look like Elvis, his singing voice can’t really come close to Elvis and the makeup, hairstyle and wardrobe used to bring him into the stadium mostly make him look like an Elvis impersonator. (There have been far too many over the years for us do not to think about it.)
Luhrmann’s cut-and-paste job of covering Elvis’ career falls somewhere between “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which claimed to tell the real story of Freddie Mercury but did no such thing, and “Rocketman,” which tells you said upfront that it was going to turn the Elton John story into fantasia. You get the feeling Luhrmann might have liked to go further in the direction of fantasy, but maybe Elvis was too big, too familiar and too sacred to make a whole pig out of – so à la instead, it is content with big loaded musical sequences and a host of lies of varying sizes.
It’s perhaps most egregious in the lengthy streak that spans the 1968 “comeback” special, when Elvis ignored the Colonel’s desire for a quiet Christmas pageant and spun into a searing rock performance that reignited his career after more than two dozen terrible films. (and oh, four or five good ones). Not content to tell this story directly, “Elvis” sets up a fictional encounter with the Hollywood sign between Elvis and the show’s producer and musical director, drops the assassination of Bobby Kennedy mid-tapping (it doesn’t isn’t being produced then) and evokes a ridiculous moment in which an entire Christmas decor is built just to fool Colonel Parker.
It’s a shame that Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner had to go to such extremes when the reenacted performances of 68 manage to get some of the power out of that show, and when they could have shown Elvis stand up to the colonel, which he did, much more credibly.
The TV special leads to Vegas, and Vegas leads to the long decline, which is handled with some restraint and, again, plenty of narrative streamlining. (But that doesn’t sound like rationalization: the film is two hours and 39 minutes long, much of which seems taken up with decline.) In this stretch in particular, it’s hard for Butler not to look like a dick. to be a guy in an Elvis. suit; hell, circa 1975, Elvis looked like a guy in an Elvis costume.
And then, oddly enough, here he is at one of his last gigs, sweaty and puffy but sitting at the piano and singing a beautiful, heartbreaking version of “Unchained Melody.” For a minute you might look and think Butler suddenly looks like a ground like late-period Elvis, until you realize Luhrmann has ditched the artifice and shows you the real thing. It’s triumphant without the distraction of being a knockoff; it’s pure Elvis at a sad but glorious time.
(Curiously, the last Elvis film to play at Cannes was Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The King,” which screened under its original title, “Promised Land” – and that film, a provocative look at Elvis and the America, also culminates with this same performance of “Unchained Melody”, a rare artistic reference in recent days.)
The glimpse of the real Elvis in “Elvis” is finally followed by uplifting end credits music, a mashup of remixes, covers, and raps to Elvis tracks that captures much of what the film is about. aspires and realizes sometimes.
As for the moments that don’t work — well, back in 1957’s “Jailhouse Rock,” there’s a signature (and cringe-worthy deletion) scene where Elvis’ character kisses forcibly a music promoter played by Judy Tyler. “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me,” she quips. “It’s not a tactic, honey,” Elvis said. “It’s just the beast in me.”
So maybe the thing to do is embrace the extravagant pleasures of “Elvis” and ignore the stupidity. After all, he’s just the beast – or, more accurately, the snowman – in Baz.