Saturday, November 19, 2022

Stubs - Elvis

Elvis (2022) Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner. Produced by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick, Schuyler Weiss Run time: 159 minutes. Color. Australia/United States Biographical Musical Drama

The story of Elvis Presley told through the eyes of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis is a biography seen through the eyes of Baz Luhrmann.

For those of you who may not know, Elvis Presley, or as he’s also known, the “King of Rock and Roll” was the biggest singing act in the world after Frank Sinatra and before The Beatles. He had a string of number one hits beginning with “Heartbreak Hotel” and including such songs as “Love Me Tender", "Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”. His last hit, “Burning Love”, hit #2 in 1972. He made a ton of movies and recorded gospel as well as country albums.

And, if you watch the Luhrmann retelling you might or might not learn any of that. The film seems to tell the story like a stone skipping across the water, hitting on certain moments, like young Elvis’ exposure to the Blues and Gospel, but skips over things like the 30 movies Elvis made. We see him being embarrassed by Steve Allen on that comedian’s variety hour but not his appearance on Ed Sullivan’s, which was the sign you had really made it in America. We see him on the Louisiana Hay Ride, a traveling show, singing ”That’s All Right” but not him being discovered by producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

Austin Butler is Elvis signing on the Louisiana Hay Ride.

Further, if you do look into certain events, like the 1968 Comeback Special, things didn’t quite go the way they’re depicted in the movie. The producers apparently came to Elvis and told him he could do something special rather than just sing Christmas songs, which is what Tom Parker wanted. The film seems to depict it the other way around. When you learn details like that you start to wonder if the movie is really telling you what happened or if it is being fantasized to some degree.

Hollywood biopics have long been known to move events around and downplay the worst aspects of their subjects. But the trend now seems to be sprinkling fantasy into the stories. I became aware of it with Bohemian Rhapsody, which sort of altered timelines to fit the story of Freddie Mercury. Rocketman, which was much more upfront about it, also did this in its telling of Elton John’s life. So, it makes a certain amount of sense that Elvis, in Luhrmann’s hands, would go through some of the same transformation. I have to imagine a blues man wasn’t playing “That’s All Right” at the same time there is a gospel show going on yards away but it was a way to make the point about Elvis’ early influences.

That said, the film concentrates on the downside of being Elvis Presley. No one ever seems satisfied, no one ever seems to stand up for him, least of all Presley himself. The story makes him out to be a rather tragic figure with his life ending with his tragic death in 1977 at the age of 42.

For his part, Austin Butler does a really great job of capturing Elvis. His singing, which is blended in with the real Elvis’ voice in places, sounds good and he makes Elvis seem like the down-to-earth in-over-his-head man that he probably was in real life. He makes you feel sorry for him, which is a trick when you’re playing someone who should have the world at his feet.

What does come through is that Elvis, like all men, was flawed. He felt trapped by Col. Tom Parker and when he tried to break away, he could not do it.

Tom Hanks, as Col. Tom Parker, was not his best performance.

A lot has already been written about Tom Hanks’ undefinable accent as Col. Tom Parker, who was the conman’s conman. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Tom Parker speak but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that accent spoken either. That accent tends to work against Hank’s performance. It wouldn’t have taken a great actor to make you hate the Colonel. He was a despicable man who knew what he had, a meal ticket with his claws in it and he wouldn’t let go.

Director Baz Luhrmann is very involved with his films and Elvis is no exception. He is the writer, director and producer of the film, so whatever we see on screen runs through him. There are his touches throughout, including a bit of rap music when the film is set in the 1950s, and songs featuring more contemporary artists like Stevie Nicks, Chris Isaak, and Jack White included in the soundtrack. Overall, though, you can tell that Luhrmann does love his subject matter. The film even ends with a rather touching performance of a very overweight Elvis playing "Unchained Melody" in one of his last concert performances.

I would say that I’m a superficial fan of Elvis. By that, I mean I respect him for what he did, especially in the beginning of his career; we wouldn’t have rock and roll without him. I do enjoy his “hits.” I have watched a couple of his films but I have not taken, nor do I intend to take, a deeper dive into his career. I will admit that I am more interested in his 68 Comeback Special because of the film but I’m not going to go out of my way to watch Clambake or Harum Scarum.

Elvis is more than a film for die-hard fans but I’m not sure watching it will make new ones. There is a lot to like, including Austin Butler’s depiction and the rather imaginative soundtrack. But on the other hand, Tom Hanks sort of takes over the film with his peculiar depiction of Col. Tom Parker. There are moments that are glossed or skipped over that might have been interesting and while I wanted to like the film going in, I’m not sure I’ll be watching it again anytime soon.

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