But He's Still Elvis
It's ridiculous, but if you're loyal to the King you'll probably watch
[Coming along with my annual review of Best Picture Oscar nominees! So far I’ve done Everything Everywhere All At Once, Avatar: The Way of Water, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Women Talking – now, this:]
Back in 1979 some wiseguys made a short film called He May Be Dead: But He’s Elvis. Ostensibly about some hustlers using Presley’s corpse for marketing, movies, and “personal appearances,” its satiric intent is obvious, but incomplete: In a way, practically every product built on the man and his music since his death in 1977 has been exploitative.
I don’t even entirely exclude the serious-minded investigations and meditations of astute critics like Peter Guralnick, either, because as obvious as Guralnick’s respect is for his subject, so is his desire to make something of it, as it were — not the marketing opportunity that the grave-robbers in He May Be Dead… seek, but a key to unlock the meaning of modern culture.
This is also true of the rest of us who love Elvis — who have played, sung, and danced to his music, gone to Graceland, called him (never entirely without irony but never entirely with it) the King, and done our own spelunking of his legend in search of greater meaning — and who are bound almost by duty to resent Elvis, the hyperactive Baz Luhrmann spectacle that’s up for Best Picture. From our — well, I’ll just say my — viewpoint, Luhrman’s style is completely wrong for the subject. If anyone’s career needs rescue from the heedless flash and rattle surface spectacle of show biz and its ugly twin the show biz biopic, it’s the dreaming boy from Tupelo who seemed barely to understand the significance of what he was doing and meant to the world we all still live in. And Luhrman is nothing if not (I might say “but”) flash and rattle surface spectacle.
If there are two things good about Elvis, one is that it’s so overdriven and grotesque that if you didn’t care about Elvis Presley, or if you did care but could set that aside temporarily, preferably via a shit-ton of Dr. Nick drugs, the zooming and spinning cameras (there are a lot of 180-360 perspective shifts in the picture, though I doubt this is Luhrmann’s semiotic comment on Elvis’ effect on popular culture), cocaine editing, sudden anachronisms (nothing like Jim Broadbent singing Madonna, though — sadly!) and general sensory melee might make the two and a half hours fly; and if the pace of the burlesque is sometimes wearying, to pull you through there’s always the snips and songs of actual Elvis.
Which brings me to what, if there are indeed two things good about Elvis, is the second and greater good thing: That it’s Elvis. As an object of contemplation Elvis Presley, even denatured, will always summon specific personal memories and something akin to Jungian ancestral memory: Like all the cheesy Elvis tat Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker peddles (he draws the word “memorabilia” out as if it’s an unfamiliar German compound), the film is, for all its artistic ambition, mainly a totem to which we will bring our own associations. (I think of Lisa Robinson of Esquire telling the Washington Post in 2017, “for those of us who were sitting at CBGB, he was just kind of a kitsch figure.” But to some people a kitsch figure is a household saint.)
In this regard it helps that Luhrmann didn’t go the route Andrew Dominik did with Blonde, which so debrides the Marilyn Monroe legend that both her sentimental and revisionist fans have gotten mad about it. Dominik’s approach is only slightly less spectacular than Luhrmann’s, but the latter — a showman like his subject — doesn’t want to discomfit anybody.
So we get something like a modern consensus Elvis — that his elevation came with manipulation and exploitation, but the talent was real and great. (In my youth greybeards still believed Elvis was just a tool, entirely the product of mass media. The saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” had not yet come into general use.)
We start with the Svengali Tom Parker — first in some documentary demonization, then in flashback to Parker as a shameless roustabout advance man, working a makeshift press office for Hank Snow when he hears “That’s All Right” and makes the connection (the hilarious “He’s HWAHT!” sequence you may have seen as an online clip). We stay awhile with Parker’s narration, and Hanks leans hard on the Dutch accent that the real Colonel only slightly showed — possibly to make him seem like an Indiana Jones villain; possibly to support what at a later point seems to be a half-assed attempt to parallel him and Elvis as outsiders.
After that we get, at first in glimpses, then in long stretches, the Elvis story as such: His acquaintance with and immersion in black culture — rapturously sacred and low-down profane, and believe me, Luhrman’s shorthand for that is no less glib than mine — and then the expected progress through fame, crappy movies, backlash, the Army, Priscilla, the ’68 comeback, Vegas, drugs, and death.
But the Colonel, with his self-interested manipulations of Elvis, keeps coming back. Sometimes he loses — e.g. Elvis and the Hollywood hippies and “If I Can Dream” — and sometimes he wins — e.g. every bad thing that happens to Elvis.
Even with all the cinema stunts lavished on them, these events remain unidimensional and unsurprising. As mentioned, there are trademark Luhrmann anachronisms — some rap, bursts of screaming psychedelic feedback to indicate the Power of the Pelvis — but they’re not as blatant as usual, perhaps because the connection between the past and the present is already baked into the Elvis story. Or it may just be Luhrmann realized that if he fooled with the formula too much, if he turned his talents to upheaving the legend or even just interrogating it rather than merely jacking up the amperage, he might lose the crowd. Maybe there’s more than one reason why he gave the Colonel so much play.
Luhrmann was lucky to find Austin Butler. You need someone good-looking enough for the role — a high bar! — who also can compensate for his unavoidable lack of Elvis’ appeal. (Elvis looked more like a Greek god, or goddess, than a modern pretty-boy — Stephanie Hsu is a closer match than Butler, but if you put someone like her in front of modern audiences they just wouldn’t get it.) Butler has enough of the pouty softness, and also the gift of making Elvis’ opacity attractive and mysterious rather than just blank. That’s a real acting challenge — and, give credit, a directing challenge, too; Don Siegel may have been the last guy to get it out of the real Elvis — and Butler and Luhrman meet it. And goddamn, Butler really sells the songs.
That the craftsmanship is turned to an ultimately disappointing purpose is no knock on its effort and skill; Mandy Walker’s cinematography is a living dreambook and Matt Villa’s and Jonathan Redmond’s editing makes the image overload comprehensible. I’m afraid that, characterization tricks aside, Hanks’ Colonel is a bad concept, and the attempt to make his villainy semi-sympathetic is hopeless and weird. But I was delighted to see Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Power of the Dog as Hank Snow’s Elvis-struck boy, and Helen Thomson is just right as Elvis’ mama, full of hurt and love.
What a good review! You are always extremely fair and work very hard to find the worthwhile among the dreams.
Pauline Kael was good at that- she would go to watch films but was perfectly happy to see movies and give credit due.
I watched a bit of this. The lead was good! The patented " Baz Lurhman" headache set in within moments so I changed the channel. Baz is ...ok. Sometimes. Mostly not. I really hated Moulan Rouge. I was forced to sit through it (evening out with friends) . I thought it was a bad idea poorly executed. It has a lot of fans.
The Romeo + Juliet was saved by the leads.
I always imagine, when watching a Baz Luhrmann film, that I am having a similar experience to that of a person who has made the dubious decision to drop acid at Disneyworld. Which is to say for those who like that sort of thing, then that is the sort of thing they like. I kind of like it myself in the right mood, but I overdose in a hurry. I watched about half of “Elvis” and enjoyed it for the same reasons Roy highlights, but then I couldn’t take any more. Maybe I’ll return to it one of these days.