Elvis The Movie

We received an e mail from our friends Mr. & Mrs Yaskiel to advise / remind us that there was to be a week of showing of Elvis, the recently released bio-pic of Mr. Presley, in English at The Multicines Atlantida in Arrecife. That´s pretty quick to get over here to Lanzarote, and we had a pass we could wave that would grant us admission. So I e-mailed back to Mr. Yaskiel, who must have on occasions stood pretty close to members of the Elvis entourage whilst working as an executive at A& M Records, although of course Elvis was confined to barracks by Colonel Parker and so The King never actually left America.

I sent my thanks to Larry Yaskiel for alerting us to the showing of Elvis The Movie, only for his immediate response to be a loud cry of ´false alarm´. The English language versions had already been screened, he said, so maybe we should hold our horses. (Larry knows how barren is our Spanish vocabulary !). Nevertheless, I e-mailed back jokingly to say that a Heartbreak Hotel is a Heartbreak Hotel in any language, so we´d give it a go.

His response was, ¨Well, please remember that Elvis (in English) has left the building ´!

I couldn’t compete with that brilliant reply, so come the Thursday night, off we set for the five o´clock showing, having checked up on what others had been saying about the film.

Whenever Rotten Tomatoes reviews are thrown at a film they tend to be contained in a tin and can be quite hurtful. Nevertheless, even they were offering praise to the film.

Flashes of colour, lightning cuts, and the camera spins and needle drops are at times overwhelming, but it’s an overall enjoyable experience that washes over you in waves of excitement said a Chicago reader of Rotten Tomatoes.

Elvis is hyperbolic, one-dimensional and ludicrous – but as high-excess cinematic myth-making, it’s a blast, said the very credible Uncut magazine.

The Independent had wondered, ´If we were to pull back the curtain on Elvis Presley, what would we even want to see? A soul stripped of its performance? Something cold and real behind the kitsch? I’m not convinced. America’s pop icons aren’t merely shiny distractions. They’re a culture talking back to itself, constantly interrogating its own ideals and its desires. I don’t think who Elvis was is necessarily more important than what Elvis represents. And, while you won’t find all that much truth in Baz Luhrmann’s cradle-to-grave dramatisation of his life, the Australian filmmaker has delivered something far more compelling: an American fairytale.

“I am the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” utters Tom Hanks’s Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, as the curtain rises (literally) on Luhrmann’s expansive, rhinestone-encrusted epic. “And yet there are some who would make me out to be the villain of this story,” he adds.

Parker, who saw early promise in Elvis’s almost certainly unintentional politically radical blend of country and R’n’B, slyly positioned himself as the sole overseer of the star’s creative enterprise – the man who won him a recording contract with RCA Records, who secured his merchandising deals and TV appearances, and who navigated him through a fairly brief but bountiful acting career. But Parker took far more in return. In 1980, a judge ruled that he had defrauded the Presley estate by millions. Some even blame him for pushing an overworked Elvis to the brink and ultimately contributing to his death.

For Luhrmann, the fairytale parallels couldn’t be more obvious. Parker is the evil stepmother, Elvis (here played by former child star Austin Butler) is the princess locked in her tower – if that tower is, in fact, the vast and gilded stage of his Las Vegas residency. When Parker, a former carnival worker, first seduces Elvis to become his client, it’s in a literal hall of mirrors. That may sound a little absurd, but Luhrmann’s roots in the Australian opera scene have granted him a winning (though, to some, divisive) ability to deliver baroque stylings with a sincere, romantic sensibility.

I’ve always believed strongly in the purpose and necessity of Luhrmann’s outlandish visions – that it’s not enough simply to capture the grotesque consumption of The Great Gatsby’s Jazz Age, but to prove that we, the audience, would be as weak to its charms as Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Nick Carraway. The same is true here, in the ways his subject is both seduced and betrayed by his own fame. And, anyway, Luhrmann’s always shot his films a little like Elvis performs – sweaty and kinetic, as the camera sweeps through the corridors of Graceland and through decades of his life with the fury of a thousand karate kicks.

​​Elvis will, and should, invite serious discussions about the musician’s outstanding legacy, and the film’s weakest spots speak mostly to how unsettled the debate around him still is. There’s certainly a lot to be said for how nervously the film tiptoes around his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who was 14 when they first met. Can a film speak on behalf of a woman who’s still alive and able to share her own story? And where do we settle on the great debate of Elvis’s wider role in music history? Was his success really another chapter in white America’s long history of cultural appropriation, or did that early, rebellious appeal in fact prove to be a surprisingly powerful tool in the fight against segregation?

Luhrmann’s film arguably offers the most plausible, romantic ideal of Elvis, even if it turns him into something of a naïf trapped under Parker’s spell. He is always, in Parker’s narration, referred to as “the boy” and never “the man”. He is the sweet-souled, blue-eyed momma’s boy who just wants to buy his family a Cadillac and play the music of his childhood, which was spent in the Black-majority communities of Mississippi. Even at the height of Elvis’s fame, the film is careful to constantly bring us back to the Black artists who inspired him, either through the musician’s own words (and he was always deferential to his origins, to the very end) or through Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond’s frenetic editing work. When singer-songwriter Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh)* launches into her rendition of “Hound Dog”, a voice on the radio commands us to listen – this is the voice of Black America speaking.

By framing Elvis’s story through Parker’s, Luhrmann’s film is cannily able to take a step back from the intimate details of the musician’s life. Instead it views him as a nuclear warhead of sensuality and cool, someone stood at the very crossroads of a fierce culture war. Parker thinks he can turn him into a clean-cut, all-American boy for the white middle classes, compelling him to accept the draft, cut his locks, and go to war. Elvis resists, and his gyrating pelvis (captured in many, glorious, zooms to the crotch) helps fuel the burgeoning sexual independence of young women across the country. “She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy,” Parker notes, as the camera surveys one wide-eyed, lip-biting fan. Costume designer Catherine Martin – Luhrmann’s spouse, credited also as co-production designer and producer – dresses Elvis in an array of soft, dreamy pinks to sublime effect.

To say that Elvis isn’t really so much about the real Elvis might sound like it’s taking the pressure off of Butler’s performance. But that’d be an entirely unfair judgement of what’s being achieved here – an impersonation of one of the most impersonated people on the planet, that’s at times uncanny without ever coming across as parody. Sure, Butler has the looks, the voice, the stance and the wiggle nailed down, but what’s truly impressive is that indescribable, undistillable essence of Elvis-ness – magnetic and gentle and fierce, all at the same time.

It’s almost odd to watch a performance so all-consuming that Hanks – the Tom Hanks – feels like an accessory. He’s all but buried underneath layers of prosthetics and a pantomime Dutch accent, seemingly cast only so that the warm smirk of America’s dad can trip a few people into questioning whether he’s really the villain of all this. Butler makes a compelling argument for the power of Elvis, at a time when the musician’s arguably lost a little of his cultural cachet. So does Luhrmann. So does the soundtrack, which is packed with contemporary artists (Doja Cat’s “Vegas” has sound of the summer written all over it). And while not everyone will be convinced by their efforts – I know that I’m ready for Elvis to be cool again.

To summarise, the film explores the life and music of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The story delves into the complex dynamic between Presley and Parker spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in Elvis’s life, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge).

PG-13 (Strong Language|Smoking|Substance Abuse|Suggestive Material)
Original Language: English
Director: Baz Luhrmannç
Run time¨ 2h 39m

There are so many debating points in the extracts above, as we acknowledge that Rotten Tomatoes and The Independent have been primary sources for this article.

However I´d now like to add my own observations. I grew up and worked on the very peripheries of the pop music industry pretty much in parallel with the time scale covered in this film.

In fact, the very first piece of music we hear in this film is of Elvis singing a couple of lines of the great American Trilogy configured by white singer-writer Mickey Newbury. A few years after Elvis recorded the song I had the pleasure of interviewing Newbury who had so many good Presley stories but spoke only kindly of the man.

His fans, his manager, his politicians and the entire music business still seem today to be confused by what was Presley´s position on the black and white musical borders. What did a song like Trilogy, so romanticised and yearning, say about that? I was wakened as a young man by Chip Taylor´s reminder that we should always want The Real Thing rather than a white-world´s sanitised mis-appropriation of true (black) roots music, and alert to Chip Taylors alarm. I had no doubt that Elvis was trying to give us that Real Thing and this film reveals that his styling of Hound Dog and That´s All Right Mana etc had been imbibed as a young man and so his recordings sounded authentic.

The film gives me a fresh insight into how ensconced Elvis was in that church-gospel and rhythm and blues era that immediately followed the Jazz Explosion. He is shown to be very close to Little Richard and Fats Domino and other artists of the time.

Perhaps the key scene in the film is one that shows the insight and cunning and even the sheer greed that epitomised Colonel Parker.

Before he´d even heard of or seen Elvis the former carnival proprietor had been passing some kids listening to an Elvis recording His ears prick up and he says softly to himself, ¨Hell, that´s a white boy, but with a black voice.´ And you can see him beginning to wonder how he would handle an artist with that talent. The promotion of black artists, or recognition of their talents, were never on Parker´s agenda even if they might have been on Presley´s.

The film is set against a horrible decade or so in America´s history, with the assassinations of JF Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy and, surprisingly to me, President Johnston heard as a voice of reason.

In some ways Presley seems to have been not much more than an unwitting agent provocateur in the racial unrest but in striding across the black and white categorisations of music, he was undoubtedly a catalyst.

What we will never know is whether Presley was or could have been a unifying force for good in the way of Sidney Potier or Joan Baez, had he been given more room by Parker to follow his own instincts, or indeed if he could have found the courage to find his own instincts.

All of the above and more was discussed by my wife, Dee, and I as we we walked around San Gines to The Divinia Restaurant, and over dinner I said I was now looking forward to reading a biography of Elvis as I had so obviously been unaware, perhaps, of how important is his place in the firmament.

Dee responded wryly that she had felt that way after we had watched the film bio-pic of Aretha Franklin a few months ago at the same cinema, Even now she is still only half way through a four volume series on the life of Aretha !

So often, we only know half the story, don´t we?

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