I suspect filmmaker Baz Luhrmann isn’t a huge fan of Coco Chanel. The designer, as is known, suggested looking in the mirror and removing one accessory. Luhrmann is all about adding things – more color, more music, more elaborate sets, more showgirls (often literally)! Are his films cheesy? Coco would certainly think so.
As you may have noticed, I’m not the biggest Luhrmann fan. Even his favorite movie Moulin Rouge, wasn’t my cup of absinthe. (I found the insertion of all the pop songs irritating and fan-service, and felt that Nicole Kidman, an actress I usually love, was a bit too cool and elegant to play bombshell.) And his latest, elvis has all the hallmarks of a Luhrmann film. Almost every scene – and I’m not exaggerating here – is a montage, often overlaying Elvis on stage with a scene from his youth, when he was spellbound by black gospel music in a revival tent, with a glimpse into an independent blues nightclub and a press conference at which a grim politician condemns Elvis’ waist-shaking debauchery. Each of these scenes is of course shot with a different filter. And they are repeated often. (In case you missed that young Elvis has reached nirvana in this revival tent – don’t worry, it will return several times.) There are flashy dissolves – from a ferris wheel to a spinning record, for example. There’s a lot of wonderful and contemporary music – blues, rock and gospel – but there’s also hip-hop because, well, Luhrmann.
And yet, almost amazingly, I liked it elvis. Part of my appreciation simply has to do with Austin Butler’s all-in performance. Elvis is of course a dream role for a young actor – but also a trap. There are so many Elvis impersonators out there, how do you break through the impersonation, stand out from the lip-smacking crowd? Butler pulled it off by playing the full method — and showing off some pretty impressive singing (and hip-swinging) chops along the way. Clearly the young actor has embraced Baz’s whirling, sweaty, maximalist vision – and his dedication to the role is astounding. He’s got the voice (multiple voices actually – Elvis’ voice got raspier and deeper with age), the looks, the moves, and even Elvis’ sneaky flashing grin. I didn’t think the slim, handsome actor would be able to sort of pull off “Fat Elvis,” but with a lot of help from makeup and wardrobe (and apparently buckets of fake sweat), he’s surprisingly successful.
Less successful, of all people, is Tom Hanks, of all people, as Colonel Tom Parker, the Dutch Svengali-esque con-entrepreneur who managed Elvis and exploited the Memphis singer until his death. Hanks has almost never had a bad performance – and while this one isn’t exactly bad (god knows Hanks swings for the fences), it’s not exactly good either. It doesn’t help that his Parker is buried under pounds of makeup and prosthetics, or that Hanks’ Dutch accent, which for all I know could be accurate, sounds odd coming off his lips. But the real problem lies with Luhrmann. He sees Parker as such an obvious villain – a racist, a liar, an almost repulsive vulgarity – that Hanks is unable to bring much of his patented humanity to the role. I mean, maybe we should think that Parker loved Elvis like a son even though he lied to him, stole from him, drugged him and kept him in a gilded Vegas cage. But it’s more likely that he used the boy for his own gain.
Luhrmann portrays Elvis’ life as a tragedy – how could you not? He died of a drug-related heart attack at the age of 42. But he sees Parker as the engine of this tragedy – and envisions this story as a journey into Parker’s rambunctious underworld. Elvis, on the other hand, is considered an Orpheus-like naif. A good-natured country boy who loved rock ‘n’ roll, his mom and his wife Priscilla, who was unknowingly dragged into Parker’s Hell.
elvis is too long, too melodramatic, too everything. But it’s also often very entertaining – the performance scenes, busy as they are, are amazing feats of imitation. There’s young Elvis bulging his pelvis in a pink suit, causing the teenage girls in the audience to feel things they’ve never felt before. There’s the older Elvis, with mutton chops, in a studded leather jacket and cape. There’s Vegas Elvis performing an updated arrangement of his first hit “That’s All Right” – grooving across the stage, barking riffs at the musicians, adding horns and backing vocals and a drum solo. It’s compelling stuff.
When you leave the theater you are a bit exhausted. You are aware that you have not seen Elvis hagiography – and Parker demonization – for reality. But one can never say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. Sometimes more is more.