CINEMA REVIEW – ELVIS (2022)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay by: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Story by: Baz Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner
Produced by: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick, Schuyler Weiss
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, David Wenham , Kodi Smit-McPhee etc.
*** MAY CONTAIN HISTORICAL SPOILERS ***
Since 1992, Baz Luhrmann has directed only six feature films. Each of them, aside from the lower-budgeted, Strictly Ballroom (1992), is a gigantic and epic extravaganza, full of colour, imagination, verve, energy, music, poetry and larger-than-life characters. Even Strictly Ballroom contains many of the stylistic and formal elements which would become part of Luhrmann’s oeuvre. I pretty much feel this auteur’s excessive approach to filmmaking including the fast-cutting, opulent settings, big musical numbers, all-star casts, plus grandiose and melodramatic narrative delivery are always a wonderful spectacle to experience.
Arguably, adapting the American novel, The Great Gatsby (1993), in this periphrastic packaging, took away from the enigma and majesty of Fitzgerald’s classic. However, with Elvis (2022), Luhrmann and his incredible production team, marry such genius excessive style with the perfect subject matter: the King of Rock and Roll! Because in colliding the life, music and films of Elvis Aaron Presley with Luhrmann’s stunning methodology brings to the screen one of the best films of the year Indeed for Luhrmann, Elvis (2022), is evidently a stylistic, subjective and thematic labour of love, marking it as his best film to date.
I wasn’t even going to watch Elvis (2022) at the cinema. I’d recently seen Spencer (2021) on Amazon Prime and was happy to have streamed that. While that eerie adaptation was a valiant attempt to breathe life into the ghost of Diana. An elegiac attempt to explain the oppressive result of her naïve choice to land her Princess dream. With Kristen Stewart’s exceptional impression rescue breathing Diana’s tragic existence, I knew the story. I knew enough to care for someone whose mental health was discarded by the heartless Windsor’s. But the monarchy have been killing the working class for years, so why should I care deeply for one singular spoilt individual? Similarly, I pondered whether I wanted to watch another film about Elvis Presley. A God-given talented singer, heartthrob, actor, musician and legendary performer had a story I was already familiar with. But, I am so happy I overcame my ignorant prejudice because Elvis (2022) is a humdinger of a part-musical-part-biopic-part-drama-part-American tragedy.
Elvis (2022) is structured around the memories of shadowy manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). He is suffering illness in his old age, close to hospital demise. Parker is a grotesque in a billowing gown, drifting around the nightmarish Vegas slot-machines as Elvis’ voice echoes within his mind. Is it the guilt or the morphine? The story flashes back to a younger Parker promoting country singers at a travelling Carny. Until that fateful day when he hears a miracle on the radio, a young singer who everyone thinks is Black. But he isn’t. In the markedly racist times of 1950s America (has it really changed in certain States or Police departments?), a Black singer won’t sell records like this white dude will. Seizing his chance Parker attends Elvis’ first gig and witnesses a phenomenon. An attractive, sexual, gyrating and angelic powerhouse with an incredible voice who sends shockwaves into audience, especially the teenage girls.
A star is born, and it takes a star to play a star. Take as many bows as you want, Austin Butler. He is a genuine phenomenon in Elvis (2022). Of course, the wardrobe, postiche and make-up artists work wonders to help recreate Elvis’ iconic looks as the narrative flashes through various stages of Presley’s devastatingly successful career, Yet, Butler just lights up the screen, producing acting fireworks in a physically, spiritually, emotionally and musically astounding screen presentation. It is not an impression, but a tour-de-force for a relatively unknown actor who has jettisoned his career to glory.
Butler, lives and breathes the King. This rendition and great direction from Luhrmann make you feel tragic empathy for a career which was manipulated and controlled by grubby gambling addict, Parker. Hank’s portrayal of the Colonel feels unnatural and theatrical compared to Butler’s organic turn. Perhaps that was the intention? Deliver a pantomime villain to boo and hiss at. Although, Hanks’ cigar-chomping and jowly make-up made me think the evil touch of Orson Welles’, Captain Hank Quinlan, had somehow been resurrected.
I cannot praise Elvis (2022) enough as a cinematic biopic and musical spectacle. While the choppy editing style is jarring at the start, once the film settles down into a groove, Butler’s stunning incarnation shines through. Overall, I was enlivened by, not only the constant remixing of Elvis Presley hits, but Luhrmann’s choice to alloy gospel, rhythm and blues, rap, rock, pop, ballad and protest songs throughout the scintillating soundtrack. Much, quite rightly, is made of how much diverse music influenced Elvis’s formative life and how he connected with Black musicians of the era. Luhrmann also ensures we are aware of how much of a threat Presley was seen by the establishment due to the sexual nature of his sang satanic verses. Sent to Germany to prevent him demonising America, his comeback special after seven years in movies is one of the finest cinema set-pieces I have seen in many a year. Funny, rocking, poignant, effervescent, beautiful and astounding, just like Elvis, the man and myth, and Elvis (2022) the film.