starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Luke Bracey, Olivia DeJonge
screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromwell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
directed by Baz Luhrmann
by Walter Chaw Baz Luhrmann's Elvis is part Perfume, part Immortal Beloved--which is to say, it's horny as fuck and formulates music as mass delusion and mind control. Safe to say, the sordid story of the King of Rock-and-Roll is the perfect match for a maximalist director I have found to be excessive to the point of obnoxious, even on those rare occasions where I've liked the movie anyway (see: Moulin Rouge!). Before Elvis, there wasn't an establishing shot Baz didn't torpedo with gratuitous angles and "whooshing" sound effects; before Elvis, his films were not just childish but relentlessly, punishingly childish. The first half of Elvis is more frenetic than the last, though neither sports any affectations that don't augment the story in positive ways. Dissolves, triple-split screens, restless camera movements--they all underscore the breathless headlong rush of Elvis's rise from broke Tupelo hillbilly living in the "Black" part of town to the biggest-selling solo recording artist in history. When it comes time for his inevitable fall, Luhrmann places it in a sociopolitical context, toning down his trademark freneticism in favour of a, most shockingly of all perhaps, thoughtful analysis of several factors that may have played into Elvis's decline into paranoia, drug abuse, isolation, and despair. A story this familiar in a genre as permanently scuttled by Walk Hard requires a certain wisdom to know what to recap versus what to excavate. Elvis walks that line more than it doesn't.
Elvis borrows its overarching structure from Amadeus, framing this biopic from the perspective of an aged, would-be benefactor/actual lamprey as he reflects from a far point in the future on the wunderkind 'they' discovered, fostered, and drove to an early grave through a combination of jealousy and ambition. The Salieri in question is Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a self-avowed "snowman" (a term he adopts for himself as the master of the "snow job," the grifter, the collector of PT Barnum's suckers born every minute) who sees in Elvis (Austin Butler) a white boy trafficking in Black rhythm and gospel, thus providing cloistered, bigoted middle-American kids a taste of popularly forbidden fruit. "I love how that boy sings, maybe I should record that song," says Elvis one night in a honkytonk on the wrong side of the tracks as he watches the newest discovery of Sister Rosetta Tharp (Yola), Little Richard (Alton Mason), perform his paean to anal sex, "Tutti Frutti." Elvis's friend B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) says, "If you did, you'd make more money off it than that boy ever will." What Parker understands and what this film, explicitly and repeatedly, returns to is how Elvis's popularity was due almost entirely to his being sold as a "freak" who sounded like a Black singer and favoured styles coded Black while appropriating Black songbooks, but who looked like, and was, a backwoods good ol' boy. Was he a consummate showman? No question--a generational one, in fact, but Luhrmann is clear about the influences and, specifically, how everything came together for Elvis (at least his version of Elvis) when he equated music with sex and religion. There are no atheists in foxholes. None in the midst of toe-curling orgasms, either. One of the best explications of the Elvis phenomenon occurs in this film when Col. Parker watches a young woman in the audience feeling feelings she suspects she shouldn't be feeling. Immediately after, Luhrmann frames Elvis by himself behind the show tent, standing in profile against a huge "Geek" poster. All genius is an unfortunate mutation. Sometimes the superpower a mutation bestows is the ability to move a crowd to climax.
What Luhrmann has created here is a quintessentially American film in the same way Las Vegas is the quintessential American city. Everything is a creation, an artificial shrine erected in worship of the great god Mammon. In Vegas, everything has a price, everything is for sale, and everything is a candy-coloured distraction from the progressive decay at our rotten, miserable core. Simultaneously, Vegas is the pinnacle of what is possible in terms of modern architecture and technology--proof, if proof were needed, that only profit and the promise of more of it get things done. Vegas is an object lesson in primatology, and so is Elvis. Col. Parker is fucking Elvis. Elvis's label and his sponsors are fucking him, too. The American government that wants Elvis banned is fucking him. Elvis's weak and ineffectual dad (Richard Roxburgh) is fucking Elvis. The only person not fucking him is his child bride Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who has the integrity to leave him when he proves too weak to free himself from his vampires. At the end of it all, Parker says he hears the people blaming him for The King's death, but he blames us for being suppliers of the only drug Elvis couldn't kick: our love for him. Grandiose and eye-rolling? Sure. So was everything about Elvis, from the time he spent in the military to rehabilitate his reputation (and avoid prison on obscenity charges), during which he met and fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, to his five-year run at the International Hotel and Casino, which became the career template for fading stars even though Elvis did it in part to pay off Col. Parker's gambling debts. Against Elvis's plastic-fantastic travelling sideshow, Luhrmann pits the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Altamont Motor Speedway, Vietnam, the Beatles... The film marvels at Elvis's life having not only a second act but also third and fourth acts--the well-timed "comeback" special, his canny embrace of '70s kitsch--in the way one marvels at the strength and endurance of a bull being slowly tortured to death in a stadium.
Elvis is a tragedy about America as a victim of its bottomless potential. In Elvis, there was this alchemical, magical, transformative thing that could have united Black and white but was pilloried and prostituted instead to feed the hunger of powerful white men. Luhrmann stages a public moment where Elvis decides, following a humiliating performance of "Hound Dog" on Steve Allen, to discard the "new" Elvis in favour of what he knows: grinding, pumping, hardcore sexing gospel, irising in on "evil" as he drives all the daughters, and a few of the sons, to the edge of orgiastic frenzy. Barriers set up to segregate the Black from the white audience instantly break down, and in a gloriously unsubtle moment, we see Black and white teens dancing together in the United States a full ten years before Loving vs. Virginia. Elvis here is set to become as galvanizing a progressive force as Bobby K, MLK, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X...but conservatives and their corporate masters assassinated him, too, just a lot slower. There was hope once, until every single progressive leader in this backwards bumblefuck of a country was extinguished. Elvis is about that. It's about the weaponization of fear to control progress in Parker's refusal to allow Elvis to embark on a world tour. There is even the suggestion in the uncertain origins of Parker himself that foreign agents are engaged in the magnification of our faults for their nefarious gain. The story is told in broad strokes, in terms idiots can understand, and it works because it treats Elvis appropriately as an American myth and sees the fall of a king--the King--in archetypal terms. There's a great line from The The's "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" that sums it up nicely: "If the real Jesus Christ were to rise up today/he'd be gunned down cold by the CIA." The greatest threat to the 1% is a person who can unite the 99% against them, who can pull back the veil and deliver the message clean and hard. Elvis is not a biography of Elvis Presley--it's a biography of who we could be vs. who we are. We could be heroes if only we weren't sloppy, addicted, venal, and sedated, it says. We could be heroes.