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“Elvis,” The New Biopic By Baz Luhrmann, Reviewed

Elvis
Elvis

People keep criticizing biopics, but Hollywood keeps making them. There are very few famous musicians who have managed to escape the silver screen treatment from Ray Charles to Johnny Cash to Freddie Mercury to Elton John to Brian Wilson to Aretha Franklin, to Judy Garland to Tupac Shakur to James Brown… there’s a long list of super productions, and even though I haven’t seen all of them, they more or less all have the same plot elements: an infant raised in poverty, some childhood drama or at least some adversary conditions, a fulgurant ascension to stardom due to a remarkable talent, often with the help of a greedy character, a doomed love story, an addiction story or a terrible disease, a redemption episode and sometimes a tragic death. This is the recipe of any biopic, and you have to wonder why we need one for each pop-rock star who has ever existed.

The new Baz Luhrmann movie combines some of these elements, but it also should be called the king of all biopics because it ambitiously brings back to life the king of rock & roll, one of the most enduring American myths and probably the most imitated man of all time. A few actors have played Elvis before, Kurt Russel or Nick Cage come to mind, but nobody has played the king like Austin Butler. Before watching the movie, I had no idea who he was, although he had a small role as a member of the Manson gang in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but this role is certainly a revelation. Whatever you think about Baz Luhrmann’s outrageous style (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Australia,” “The Great Gatsby”), the movie has an electrifying energy thanks to Butler’s phenomenal performance: you simply cannot detach your eyes of his lip curls, hip-thrusts, magnetism, and self-confidence. He manages to disappear in the role while magnificently avoiding the tempting caricature, and plays a very charming Elvis from his Sun Records days to his Vegas residency and B-movie deals.

The film is viewed from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (played by a Tom Hanks in a fat suit, and made almost unrecognizable behind prosthetics), Elvis’s controversial and fraudulent manager who signed the young star to RCA Victor and milked him for 50 percent of his income for 20 years. Parker pilots the narrative, while Hanks plays him in a clownish manner, with a terrible and completely annoying accent. Meanwhile, Elvis has never looked more defiant: he takes the stage like a tornado, shaking and shocking the world with provocative pelvis moves, and never betrays Lennon’s phrase: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” No wonder the movie was endorsed by the family, this Elvis is a delightful rebel, with the letters of “rock god” written in large bold gold characters over each frame.

I am certainly no Elvis Presley historian, and specialists will probably have plenty to complain about the storyline and the treatment of the facts. I honestly didn’t learn anything about the King but, at the same time, I don’t think it was the goal here. The film is pure style over substance, it is a busy collage of images and scenes assembled in an epic manner, an excessive style that could be a perfect fit for the King of rock & roll’s life. In 159 minutes, there’s plenty left out, although Luhrmann has revealed that a 4-hour version of the movie exists (including Elvis’s meeting with Nixon) that had to be cut for the theatrical release. I hope we can eventually see it.

During the entire movie, Elvis is also presented as a champion of Black culture rather than someone who appropriated it. When he is called “the king of rock & roll,” he immediately denies it and calls Fats Domino the real king of rock & roll.” In the movie, Presley’s only critics are white conservative and religious authorities who thought his provocative stage persona was the work of the devil, while he walks among Black crowds with great ease. As a young kid who grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood, young Elvis watches Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr.) perform a very slowed-down version of “That’s All Right,” and is transported during a Pentecostal service in a Black church, which inspired him his deep love for gospel music. The impact of Black culture is acknowledged when Elvis is seen frequenting Black clubs on Memphis’ Beale Street, where Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola), Little Richard (played by Alton Mason), and B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) used to play. He also laments the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy during this agitated period of American civil rights, whereas B.B. King probably tells him one of the most accurate lines in the film: “They’re not gonna put you in jail. They might put me in jail for walking across the street, but you’re a famous white boy. Too many people are making too much money off you.”

I have no doubt that the reality was probably much different, Presley has been and continues to be criticized by plenty of Black artists from Ray Charles to Quincy Jones to Chuck D (who put his name in the same verse as John Wayne). The same could be said of his marriage with Priscilla as actress Olivia DeJonge looks indeed much older than 14, Priscilla’s age when they met in Germany.

But “Elvis” is not supposed to be an accurate piece of music history, it’s a movie that relies on a vibe, it’s a typhoon of images and sensations, and probably an idealized impression of Elvis. Presley died 45 years ago, in poor health due to overprescribed drugs, but who wants to remember the King overweight, and burnt out at only 42? Everyone wants to be the wide-eyed girls trying to touch his body wrapped in black leather from head to toes during his 1968 comeback. The scene, like all the other stage scenes, is electrifying, as Austin Butler reincarnates a thrilling version of Elvis – it’s even his actual voice singing young Elvis. The movie may be worth watching just for this reason, it is pure style over substance, a hair-raising dreamy experience of Elvis, a gripping impression of a myth that could soon fade away otherwise.

2 Comments

  1. Bill Holdship on June 30, 2022 at 9:16 am

    Yes, those black musicians you mentioned have criticized him even though every single one of them that you have mentioned got facts wrong. Quincy said he met him at a show that would have been historically impossible and went so far as to say that “Elvis couldn’t sing.” It was the same interview in which he said that “the Beatles couldn’t play.” So I sure take everything in that interview with a grain of salt.And Chuck D has now backtracked and changed his opinion regarding that fallacious lyric although the damage he did lingers on. Elvis was many things. A racist was not one of them.

    And just as many, probably more, black musicians have praised Elvis including James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino (who Elvis did call the King of rock ‘n roll several times when asked), BB King, Jimi Hendrix, and on and on and on. Muhamed Ali once said that he never admired anybody but that he admired Elvis who was the sweetest kindest man he ever knew.

    And I do consider myself an Elvis historian, by the way.

    Good review, by the way.

    • Alyson on July 2, 2022 at 1:05 pm

      Thank you! and especially thank you for your valuable input.

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