King Of Kitsch
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic out in cinemas from this Friday 24 June…
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
The trouble with biopics, especially when they’re about musical icons, is that regardless of the director’s best intentions, they either follow a fairly rigid formula which slavishly follows the canon to the letter or go for the oblique, experimental angle, where the subject of the movie is either a minor player in the narrative or the producers opt for a wholesale revisionist take. And let’s be honest, it’s nearly always the former. Kitsch impresario Baz Luhrmann of course opts for this, and it’s not much of a surprise that what we get is a glitzy, stylized, in-your-face hagiography. If anything, Luhrmann’s portrait of the King (Austin Butler) and his uber-dodgy manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) reminds me of the absurd literalism of Oliver Stone’s Doors movie, where the tubthumping filmmaker included every ludicrous element of the late Jim Morrison’s self-mythologization.
The film however looks great, the reconstruction of all of Elvis’s key moments remarkably vibrant, widescreen and cinematic, especially the ’68 Comeback Special – this is entirely where the movie scores, as the bravura set-pieces (the Louisiana Hayride, Elvis’s first televised gig, his first record at Sun Studios, his first meeting with BB King, his Vegas years) genuinely draw you in, and even though it would be too much to state that the film takes you inside the music, it is immersive at times. Meanwhile Butler is exceptional as Elvis, his committed and painstaking effort almost jarring in its accuracy, even if he doesn’t really look that much like him. Although he certainly has the voice down pat. He is easily the best thing about the project.
However, (and yes, it’s time for that word) this is a superficial, empty 160-minute video, or 80s TV movie but with high production values. You learn little about Elvis’s musical journey beyond his descent into tawdry showbiz and although there is subtext, it’s all tacked on or fudged ad absurdum. His early years, such as when he has an epiphanic moment (i.e. he becomes imbued with the soul of rock and roll) in a Pentecostal church remind me of the ironic silliness of Jake’s similar conversion in the Blues Brothers. And then there’s the attempt by Luhrmann to shoehorn in context, such as when we get to see him briefly musing about the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther-King and other African-American leaders, which is a bit rich for such an apolitical and hidebound character as Elvis. Worse is how clichéd all the dialogue is, the cadences, naturalism and seediness of Elvis’s entourage (the Memphis Mafia) sadly completely absent, while his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) the stuff of daytime soaps.
Yet the worst thing of all about the movie is Tom Hanks, sporting a silly Cod-Dutch accent while covered in a dense layer of prosthetics that make him resemble a bumbling, bloated clown who keeps on getting in the way. Even when Hanks gets to do the key Faustian scene where he tempts Elvis to sign up with him he barely hints at the appalling ruthlessness of the real Parker, and as an unreliable narrator he falls short, as Luhrmann didn’t want an authentically nasty villain. This is a feelgood movie after all, and even Elvis’s rapid mid-70s decline is airbrushed, his complete subservience to drugs and his Memphis cronies’ parasitism kept to a minimum. We do get to see Butler’s Elvis lash out a handful of times at Parker, and although it would’ve been worthwhile to have seen more of the political side of their relationship it still wouldn’t ring true, despite Butler’s remarkable and touching turn as Presley.
Despite my carping at the predictable lightweight cheesiness, Elvis is much better than it could’ve been, even if the movie does struggle to find any drama whatsoever once the King gets trapped in Vegas (surely Luhrmann’s spiritual home). It could never have been anything else, a relentless cascade of garish museum facades and slick yet vapid rock opera that sidelines gritty reality in favour of vaudeville.
The ironic thing that Elvis being Elvis, his position in pop culture as a trite fantasy object for legions of fans while being the subject of acres of commentary means that it’s doubtful there’ll ever be anything better than this.
Elvis is in cinemas from this Friday 24 June
King Of Kitsch Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic out in cinemas from this Friday 24 June… Elvis Director: Baz Luhrmann Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge The trouble with biopics, especially when they’re about musical icons, is that regardless of the director’s best intentions, they either
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