Thursday, June 23, 2022

A splashy 'Elvis' from director Baz Luhrmann

    It's entirely possible that Baz Luhrmann's Elvis is exactly the movie the director wanted to make. Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Australia, The Great Gatsby) tells stories in heaving rushes of narrative that rely on speed and visual flair as much as on content. 
     Luhrmann doesn't seem to know the word "enough." He specializes in excess. His movies aren't lifelike; they're supercharged and episodic -- and in the case of Elvis, a collection of conjoined themes careen off the screen.
    Luhrmann's distinctive style turns Elvis into a whirl of a movie that swivels and pivots in much the same way that Elvis did on stage.
     The movie’s style also mirrors Austin Butler's performance as Elvis, perhaps the first major rock icon, the all-American boy who dipped into Black culture and emerged a superstar. 
    Boosted by near-hallucinogenic close-ups of his face, Butler charms, sweats, and gyrates his way through a performance that he improbably pulls off without seeming like an Elvis impersonator. His work feels fresh and that's a hell of an achievement.
    Still, there’s risk in filling the screen with so much verve: To put it another way: There's a whole lot of shaking' goin' on (to quote a non-Elvis rock anthem) but you may find yourself wondering  what underlies Luhrmann's vigorously drawn sketch-book of a movie.
      Energy carries Elvis a long waybut the movie also can be viewed as a big splash into what ultimately may be the shallow end of the pool. Oh well, the splash can be fun.
      To some extent, Elvis is held together by a narration provided by the man who made Elvis into a phenom, the Dutch-born huckster who called himself Col. Tom Parker. 
    Tom Hanks plays Parker with a weird accent, added girth, and an ever-present cigar. The movie portrays Poker as a devil who tried to steal Elvis's soul in return for bringing his carnival  skills to the promotional effort that pushed Elvis to the American center stage.
    Scuzzy, ingratiating, and conniving, Parker emerges as a weird curiosity. This might be the first time I've been puzzled by Hanks's acting choices. His sleazy, parade-float approach to Parker threatens to capsize the movie, even as it underscores Luhrmann's point: Parker helped Elvis achieve fame while thwarting The King's artistic development 
    Parker led Elvis into sugar-coated Hollywood movies, and, in his later years, chained him to Las Vegas where he sometimes seemed a near parody of himself, Elvis as the ultimate Elvis impersonator.
     But let's go back to the beginning. Elvis starts on a fast track, offering scenes in which young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) revels in the Black music of Tupelo, Mississippi. As a kid, Elvis was inspired by gospel and when he moved to Memphis, he received advice from B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) 
     Luhrmann treats Elvis's forays into Black culture more as inspiration than appropriation. Young Elvis heard and felt the music and answered its call -- or some such.
     After hooking up with Parker, Elvis starts as a low-billed member of a country music review built around Hank Snow (David Wenham) and Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It doesn't take long for Elvis to light flames of desire among the teenage girls who screamed at his every move.
      Luhrmann spews exclamation points as the movie offers its rendition of  social commentary: Stodgy folks objected to Elvis's sexualized moves, perhaps because they stemmed from observing Black performers. 
     None of this is fully explored in Luhrmann's collage of a movie: References to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are grabbed at like rings on a merry-go-round. 
     Parker understood the resistance to Elvis and tried to sanitize him.  He even convinced Elvis to join the Army in 1958. (The movie doesn't point out that Elvis was drafted and never made a fuss about fulfilling his military obligation.)
      Of the supporting players, few stand out. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis's father, the man who became his manager but who cow-towed to Parker. Helen Thomson makes a bigger impression as Elvis’s mother, a God-fearing woman whose death shattered Elvis. 
      While serving in Germany, Elvis met Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the woman who became his wife. She, too, gets short shrift.
       A 1968 TV Christmas special receives much attention. A rebellious Elvis decides to defy Col. Parker and the show's sponsors who want him to don sweaters for what they hope will be a family-oriented holiday treat. 
      Despite Elvis's insistence on doing the show his way, he was lured to Las Vegas by Parker who used Elvis's contracts with hotel owners to negotiate his way out of gambling debts. 
       Elvis's fate was sealed. He wanted to tour the world. Instead he gained weight, popped pills, and worked hard to haul his star power from the wreckage Parker helped create.
       And, oh yes, the music. Luhrmann includes contributions from Stevie Nicks, Chris Isaak, Gary Clark Jr., Shonka Dukureh, Doja Cat, Les Greene, Ann Nesby, Kacey Musgraves, Elvis, Butler, and others. 
       Luhrmann's approach to the music tells you something about the movie, which can be viewed as a tribute to eclecticism orchestrated by Luhrmann as if he were wielding an electrified baton.
       Elvis rushes across the screen like a wave that refuses to break, carrying great chunks of bio-pic detail and pop-cultural riff in its foamy wake.
      But at two hours and 39 minutes, Elvis overstays its welcome and the movie can't entirely escape the downside of too much frenzy, which, alas, is too much frenzy.  
     Call my reaction "mixed." Elvis can't be called deep or definitive, but there's plenty to enjoy in the story of a star who couldn't stand still and a movie that follows suit.    

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