The Ecstasy and the Agony
Making an unexpectedly early appearance this year is Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, a bold attempt to explore some of the more obscure crevices of American popular culture (I jest). Why unexpectedly early? Well, the subject matter (one of the great American icons), the presence of a usually-reliable awards-bait performer like Tom Hanks, and the whopping running-time (the far side of two and a half hours) might reasonably lead one to conclude this is a film destined for a run at the Oscars. But prestige awards-bait movies usually appear no earlier than the Autumn; positioning Elvis as a summer blockbuster is a slightly odd choice.
Not that it isn't a good time to be releasing a movie about Elvis Presley, an undeniably colossal figure in the history of music, but one who tends to get forgotten about by most people for long stretches of time. As far as the UK goes, I remember there being a bit of a fuss about the tenth anniversary of his passing, a spate of sightings of the King in off-licences and supermarkets a couple of years later, more attention on the twentieth anniversary, and then an unexpected spike in interest when a TV commercial directed by Terry Gilliam powered a remix of A Little Less Conversation to the number one spot a couple of years later.
This is not to say we are not living in a musical landscape influenced and to some extent defined by Presley's work, but Elvis' actual music too often gets absorbed into the greater mass of Elvis the cultural icon – the movies, the jumpsuits, hundreds of impersonators of rather varying quality. Perhaps one of the ideas behind the movie was to chip away at some of the impedimenta and acquaint people with something of Elvis Presley the man.
The central tension in the film comes from the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler getting his big break) and his long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks). The popular consensus about this is that Parker was mainly interested in simply exploiting Elvis for his own financial gain, a grasping parasite who effectively sabotaged Presley's career and contributed to his premature death. However, the movie opens with an elderly Parker – addressing the audience, in one of those extravagant conceits you tend to get in Baz Luhrmann films – declaring that he has been misrepresented and that he is about to set the story straight.
And so we learn of how Parker, a protean and shady character, a citizen of no country whose name and title are both assumed, chances upon a youthful Presley while looking for a new carnival attraction. Parker sees this 'wiggling boy', who blends the music of different cultures so strikingly and has such a profound effect on his audiences, as just the sort of thing he is looking for. Elvis indeed proves to be a sensational success, but this also courts controversy in the segregated and conservative USA of the late 1950s (Luhrmann successfully manages to align Elvis with the progressive politics of the period).
Outrage is averted when Elvis is persuaded to spend two years serving in the US army in Germany, returning as a more clean-cut, less outrageous performer whom Parker succeeds in inserting into a string of profitable but nondescript musicals. These are followed by an attempt to relaunch him – rather against his will – as a family entertainer, which transmogrifies into his famous 1968 comeback special. This, however, merely sets the stage for an extended series of residencies in Las Vegas, with the singer chafing to leave and extend himself but compelled to remain, in no small part due to the personal terms Parker has reached with the casino owners (the line 'We're caught in a trap' echoes plaintively on the soundtrack) . The seventies continue... and we all know how this story ends.
Longstanding watchers of Baz Luhrmann films will probably not be surprised to hear of the slight feeling of sensory overload I experienced during the opening sequence of the movie (it was exactly the same during Moulin Rouge, over twenty years ago), but – just as on that occasio n – the film eventually settles down, becoming a somewhat more conventional musical bio-pic. (I say somewhat more conventional, as Parker continues to be an abrasive, unreliable narrator – the reason Elvis made all those lousy musicals, he insists, is simply because the audience didn't want to see anything else.)
Luhrmann is clearly intent on presenting Elvis as a tragic hero, ill-used throughout his adult life, and a performer of real significance – which is presumably why the musicals are zipped through in a matter of moments, while the 1968 comeback special is dwelt on at considerable length. There are moments recalling lots of other films of this ilk, particularly once Elvis' final, miserable decline sets in.
In many ways the most interesting section of the film comes much earlier, exploring just who Elvis was, what made him so special, and why audiences responded to him in the way they did. It's hard to quantify a talent as magical as the one Presley had, but the film leans heavily into the idea of him as someone capable of provoking an extraordinary, almost Dionysiac response in a crowd. In one sequence Luhrmann shows the young Elvis running from a brothel where the blues are being played to a marquee hosting a religious revival with a gospel choir in residence: the two kinds of music blend together, with a hint of country, and suddenly the Elvis sound is there, accompanied by images of people in the midst of transcendental moments, both sacred and profane. It's an almost irresistible and hugely impressive moment.
Austin Butler is really up against it having to play one of the most famous people in history, but acquits himself well in both the musical and the dramatic sequences. Whether Tom Hanks is authentically recreating a very outlandish figure or simply wildly over the top seems to be up for debate, but his performance is big, it's also consistent, and gives the film a strong centre which it probably needs. I knew the broad strokes of Elvis' life going into the movie, and found it to be an interesting, entertaining and occasionally moving story; I expect that people less familiar with the singer may emerge with more of a sense of why he was and remains such a huge figure. If the film never quite succeeds in explaining what made Elvis so special, that's because some things are simply beyond solely rational explanation – but it does a great job of reminding the audience of just how special he was.