Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Elvis (2022) - Movie Review

Baz Luhrmann. The Aussie king of camp. The Man from Showy River.

I don’t like Baz Luhrmann’s films.

His woeful adaptation of The Great Gatsby marks the first time I ever left a cinema actually angry at having wasted my time and money on a particular film. Romeo + Juliet was the first time a specific adaptation choice (the whole ‘Sword-branded guns’ thing) actively annoyed me. Australia was the first time I discovered how much test screenings can interfere with the creative process in rather peculiar ways (i.e. The Drover was originally meant to die, but test audiences didn’t want to see that happen to Hugh Jackman, so… that changed).

Yeah, he’s responsible for a lot of personal milestones, and none of them positive. The man’s insistence on absolute bombast constantly gets between him and whatever the hell point he thinks he’s making in his films, and even as someone who enjoys the patently ridiculous, Baz keeps testing my patience in just how loud he plays every aspect of his films.

But even with all of that in mind, one thing I have always maintained, alongside my utter contempt for the bulk of the man’s filmography (Australia and The Great Gatsby are easily on the shortlist for worst films I’ve ever seen, period), is that he is talented. He knows how to put a film together, he’s a properly unique voice in Australian cinema, and for as much as I personally can’t stand his work, I can at least understand why others would. Hell, I’ll even give him credit for Strictly Ballroom, which is a genuinely good film and something of a mission statement for Baz’s entire career to follow: Play to the crowds, don’t worry about the committees. It’s just that, with everything since Strictly Ballroom, that talent has been squandered on increasingly misguided and frequently exasperating storytelling decisions.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t really looking forward to his latest release. I may be growing more and more comfortable with lengthier films, but considering how much I just can’t with this guy to begin with, sitting down for a near-three hour presentation is one of those moments when this job of mine actually feels like work. Or, at least, that’s what I was expecting. In what is raring to be the biggest surprise of 2022 (pleasant ones, at least), this is the first Baz Luhrmann film I’ve genuinely enjoyed since Strictly Ballroom.

It's all the usual garish and gaudy visuals that are Baz’s trademark by this point, but in the story of Elvis Presley, he finds a proper outlet for his storytelling sensibilities. Between his direction, his for-some-reason-dual-credited writing, and Austin Butler’s astounding performance as the King himself, Baz’s impulses to crowd-please are given a vehicle that works in the world of bright lights and head-spinning cameras. With all the historical context put into Elvis’ career trajectory, from the black artists that he collaborated with and… well, let’s be honest here, appropriated, to the real-world tragedies happening around him, even his own spiral into the caricature most remember the artist as today, Baz puts emphasis on how important it is to have that kind of artistic force that can give the audience some much-needed catharsis. Hell, at points, it even feels like Baz is commenting on his own career and how lonely that mission statement can be; when you spend all your time trying to please the masses, the more intimate connections can be lost.

I feel the need to clarify something, though: While I specifically brought up appropriation, know that I’m not explicitly pointing it out as a bad thing. One of the more surprising aspects of Baz’s treatment of the music here is that he has crystal clarity about why Elvis became famous and why, no matter your own views on the man himself, he was an important figure for pop music. He was the white man that brought Black music to white audiences, at a time when Black artists weren’t even allowed in the same venues as white audiences, much less getting to play at them. This is basically the same reason why Chuck D of Public Enemy supported Vanilla Ice early in his career, and no, that’s not a joke.

To that end, especially after seeing the gigantic shitshow that is Baz’s attempt at commenting on racism in Australia, he shows a surprisingly amount of focus as far as respecting where rock ‘n’ roll came from (Black gospel, rhythm and blues), and depicting Elvis as someone who understands that he is taking part in an art form that wasn’t necessarily made with someone like him in mind. It’s basically the litmus test for white artists getting involved in distinctly Black art forms, and who really cares about the culture (3rd Bass, Beastie Boys) and who doesn’t (Eric Clapton, Pat Boone).

As a quick aside, I had no intention of checking out Baz’s TV miniseries The Get Down, which looks at the early days of hip-hop, specifically because of what I’d seen of his understanding of Black cultures on film… but after this, I dunno, I might actually give it a go.

But that’s all to do with the context for what is shown: The full-on text of the thing is something else again. Baz goes for the holistic take on the rock biopic, trying to squeeze everything about the artist into a single feature, and to his credit, he does an impressive job, even considering the run time. From the hip-shaking rebel, to the film star, to the family entertainer, to the raucous stadium rocker, to the bloated Vegas regular, the narrative is quite messy but covers an awful lot of ground in showing Elvis in his many facets (right down to admitting that his own movies were… not that great). It opens with Elvis immersed in Black culture, showing solidarity along those lines, and it essentially ends with Unchained Melody as the unfortunate anthem for his life on the stage; there’s a hell of an arc to this thing.

Then there’s the music performances, which is where the sheer rise in quality compared to Baz’s usual fare makes itself most apparent. Butler’s energy on-screen is invigorating, and the combination of his own vocals with that of Elvis himself are rather seamless (basically, Butler sings as the young man, while the later years are done by the original article), but it’s the staging and framing that truly make it work. It’s easy to joke about Elvis and his highly imitable persona, but it’s also easy to forget just how revolutionary the man’s performing was back in the day. In a country in the grips of utter sexual repression, the Pelvis was a shock to the system, and the film craft here reinforces that effect.

The soundtrack on its own is quite interesting as well, with its occasional dips into more modern music that… work in ways they probably shouldn’t. On one hand, hearing Doja Cat out of nowhere is incredibly jarring (like, “hey, who left their phone on?” kind of jarring), but on the other hand, mashing up Viva Las Vegas with Britney Spears’ Toxic was a stroke of genius. The degree to which popular culture is catching up with just how masterful Bloodshy & Avant’s beatwork is has been highly interesting to see over the last several years.

And speaking of things with a weirdly inconsistent effect in this film, I figure I should get to the weirdest thing about this (which, typical of a Baz Luhrman film, has a lot of competition here): Tom Hanks. The acting across the board is fantastic, from Butler to Olivia ‘the older sister from The Visit’ DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, to the myriad of Aussie talent on display, to the acted cameos from Black music legends like Little Richard and B.B. King), but Hanks sticks out in a few ways. He plays Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager and the narrator for the film proper. It’s all told in retrospect from his deathbed, as he recounts his own skewed perspective on Elvis’ career, the impact it had, and what ultimately drove the two apart. Namely, himself.

Now, considering Tom Hanks’ reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, him being cast as the villain in anything might seem weird. Having seen him in Cloud Atlas, as well as him recounting his favourite part of it (i.e. getting to throw a critic off a balcony), I can actually get why that would be the case. But his place as far as importance within the story, however, feels off. He may be the narrator, but it’s not his story, not even remotely, and the film does not hold back in portraying him as either the direct reason for Elvis’ downfall, or at the very least being the initial push for the snowball effect that led to it. It doesn't help that him narrating about all of this after the fact runs into the common issue where he's commenting on events he was not around to see initially.

There’s also the performance itself to consider, which would somehow look less bizarre if he was in the lead role of The Disaster Artist (hell, the amount of times Baz Luhrmann credits himself, it’s not that far off). Yeah. His attempt at a Dutch(?) accent is that uncanny, and as the man who treated Elvis as a circus freak for the parading, it can be difficult to take him seriously as a narrative threat. Not nearly as difficult as it has been for past Baz productions, mind, but still difficult, especially given how on-point the emotional tone is for the bulk of it.

And yet even that ends up speaking to Baz’s positives as a creative entity, as the Colonel is depicted as someone who just wants to manipulate the audience by any means necessary, whereas Elvis actually cares about the audience and how he connects with them. Again, this feels like Baz is reflecting on his own work through artistic proxy, which is like cat nip for someone who dwells on auteur theory as much as I do, and it helps reconnect him with the ideal that made me… well, not forgive his trespasses, but at least understand where they came from after first watching Strictly Ballroom.

It’s an unwieldy tribute to a mythic figure in pop culture, and while it doesn’t stick the landing on every topic it broaches over the course of that tribute, there’s genuine heart and a rather infectious amount of earnestness behind what is presented at every turn. It lives up to the idea of a man who entertained the masses when they most needed it by delivering a film that serves the same purpose, at a time where the vital need for escapism feels the most pertinent.

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