Can we just admit that if Baz Luhrmann was Elvis, he would be Vegas Elvis? Not the lean and wild early Elvis, or the bored movie Elvis, or the sluggish and bloated late Elvis. He’d be that early Vegas Elvis, mottled and prone to excess but also capable of being damn exciting. “If I Can Dream”, “Burning Love” and the epochal “Suspicious Minds” – that would be him the elvis
However, the problem with Luhrmann sometimes rubs off on Luhrmann’s “Elvis”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday: The Australian director also has a lot of Colonel Tom Parker in him. Parker was certainly a showman, a former showman who managed Elvis and steered him down a path where profit always took precedence over artistry. And as Col. Parker (who, appropriately, was neither a colonel nor born the Parker name) often says during “Elvis”, “All showmen are snowmen.”
The Colonel spoke of himself and to a lesser extent of Elvis, but Luhrmann knows the snowshoe fits and he wears it proudly. The film is in part a spirited homage to a titanic force in American music, delivered with the brio and flamboyance of Lurhmann riffs like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet”; part sad cautionary tale of a rapid rise and a long, slow decline; and partial showcase for Austin Butler, who takes on an impossible role and does a great job despite, like everyone else on the planet, not really looking like Elvis. But at other times, the film is also a snow job the size of a late Elvis, cheerfully distorting the life and career of an icon.
Of course, it does so knowingly and with a wink or two; Luhrmann is not the type whose films should be examined for historical accuracy. His freewheeling approach is often for the better: At the start of “Moulin Rouge!” There’s a thrilling moment when the insane crowds at the famous Parisian nightspot in 1900 suddenly burst into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an invigorating statement that Paris at the beginning of the 20th century can be anytime and anywhere.
“Elvis” comes close to such a moment a few times, notably when young Elvis watches an old bluesman stomp through a swampy, doomy version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” fusing it with the charged run of a gospel choir.” I’ll Fly Away” while creating something like the version of “That’s All Right” that became his first single for Sun Records.
It’s a maddening and invigorating moment, and yet the math doesn’t add up: Elvis certainly drew on blues and gospel, but the key was that he mixed them with country music, which “Elvis” is almost entirely absent from, except to symbolize the decent old order that turned Elvis on its head. So Lurmann’s equation – blues + gospel = Elvis and by extension rock ‘n’ roll – is too wrong to give the scene the power it would otherwise have.
Admittedly, “Elvis” is not a film that purports to be about the birth of rock. For that matter, it doesn’t even start out as a movie about Elvis. The first person we see and the first voice we hear is Col. Parker from Tom Hanks, who has just suffered a heart attack and announces he’s going to tell us the true story of the boy he’s turning into a star Has. “Without me,” he says, “Elvis Presley wouldn’t exist.”
Of course, if this were actually Col. Parker narrating the story, it would be a lot cleaner and a lot less entertaining, and it certainly wouldn’t immediately devolve into a blazing split-screen montage overlaid on a terrific moment and another. Shot by Mandy Walker with a glamor worthy of the king and designed down to the last sequin by Catherine Martin (commission her to create Graceland and step back!), this is a supersized, two-hour, 39-minute long Film extravagance, even if it begins at county fairs and blues joints in the rural South.
In the Colonel’s narration, Elvis sounded black but was white, which Parker simply knew was the right mix in the quiet but awaiting mid-1950s. He also had the dance moves to shock the white girls who hadn’t seen such spins because they weren’t hanging out in music bars or gospel tents.
“He was a taste of forbidden fruit,” Parker says as he watches a girl break down in screams. “She could have eaten him whole… It was the biggest carnival attraction I’ve ever seen. He was my destiny.”
The wily Colonel is the hero of his story, but anyone who sees “Elvis” will take him for a shopkeeper from the start. It probably helps that Hanks opts for the odd accent Yes, really thick, a bit too much groundwork for the moment when we later discover the colonel’s true origins.
Essentially, the first section of the film is a streamlined ascent of Elvis, showing how faithfully Butler can recreate the Elvis moves we’ve seen and how eagerly Lurhmann can throw in purposeful anachronisms like the rap that suddenly ends up in Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog”.
There’s a lot of oversimplification in this rationalization, the reduction of three chaotic years on Elvis hits it big / Elvis offends people with his spins and runs the risk of being arrested / Colonel Parker sends Elvis into the army to improve his image repair. There’s enough energy and flash to overcome most sophistry, however, and Butler throws himself into a performance that’s wildly physical but never cartoonish or irreverent. (The film respects Presley, who deserves it, but not Parker, who doesn’t.)
Butler was largely unknown when he was cast against well-known competitors such as Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Harry Styles, all of whom would likely have brought too much of their own baggage for the role. And it’s not really his fault that he doesn’t look like Elvis, that his singing voice doesn’t quite measure up to Elvis, and that the make-up, hairstyling, and wardrobe that he came to the ballpark with makes him look like Elvis most of the time Imitator. (There have been far too many of these for us over the years Not think about it.)
Luhrmann’s cut-and-paste brief for documenting Elvis’ career falls somewhere between Bohemian Rhapsody, which purported to tell the true Freddie Mercury story but didn’t do anything, and Rocketman, which told you in advance said it was will turn Elton John’s story into a fantasy. One has the feeling that Luhrmann might have liked to go further in the direction of Fantasia, but maybe Elvis was too big, too familiar and too sacred to go all out – so instead he settles for big, charged musical sequences and lots of them lies of different sizes.
It’s perhaps most egregious in the lengthy sequence covering the 1968 “Comeback” special, when Elvis shrugged off the Colonel’s desire to do a portly Christmas show and delivered a fiery rock performance that would follow his career more than two dozen horrible movies (and oh, four or five good ones). Not content with telling this story directly, “Elvis” conjures up a fictional Hollywood sign meeting between Elvis and the show’s producer and music director, drops Bobby Kennedy’s assassination mid-shot (it didn’t happen at the time) and incantations it up a ridiculous moment of setting up an entire Christmas set just to fool Col. Parker.
It’s a shame that Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner had to go to these extremes when the ’68 re-enactments managed to pull off some of this show’s power and when they had Elvis standing could show to the Colonel, which he did much more credibly.
The TV special leads to Vegas, and Vegas leads to the long decline, treated with some restraint and, again, plenty of narrative tightening. (But it doesn’t feel like streamlining: The film runs for two hours and 39 minutes, much of which seems taken up by the demise.) Especially in this segment, Butler has a hard time not looking like he’s a guy in one Elvis costume; hell, around 1975, elvis looked like a guy in an Elvis costume.
And then, oddly enough, he sits in one of his final concerts, sweaty and bloated, but seated at the piano singing a great and heartbreaking version of “Unchained Melody”. For a minute you might watch and think Butler suddenly looks a a lot of like Elvis from the late period, until you realize that Luhrmann has dropped the artificiality and shows you the real. It’s triumphant without the distraction of being an imitation; it’s pure Elvis in a sad but glorious moment.
(Oddly enough, the last Elvis film to screen in Cannes was Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The King, which ran under its original title Promised Land — and that film, a provocative look at Elvis and America, also culminates in the same performance from “Unchained Melody,” a rare artistic benchmark in those last days.)
Finally, the glimpse of the real Elvis in “Elvis” is followed by an intoxicating end credits, a mix of remixes, covers and raps about Elvis tracks that captures much of what the film aspires to, and sometimes achieves.
As for the moments that don’t work, well, back in 1957’s “Jailhouse Rock,” there’s a signature (and from that remote, pathetic) scene where Elvis’ character force-kisses a music promoter, played by Judy Tyler. “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work on me,” she snaps. “It’s not a tactic, honey,” says Elvis. “It’s just the beast in me.”
Perhaps joining the extravagant delights of “Elvis” and ignoring the stupidity is the right thing to do. After all, it’s just the beast – or rather, the snowman – in Baz.