Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Before Elvis Left the Building

Last Thursday, the day I learned of the death of Lisa Marie Presley at age 54, seemed the right time to finally check out Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Lisa Marie’s daddy. Of course I mean Elvis, who was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi and succumbed to cardiac arrest in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977, at the not-so-ripe old age of 42. In life, Elvis—who upended the music world by injecting African-American rhythm and blues into Top Forties pop, then adding in an outrageously kinetic performance style—was credited with transforming rock n’ roll into something essential to teenage life. His flamboyance and Luhrmann’s often over-the-top brand of  filmmaking would seem to be a perfect match.

 My feelings for Luhrmann as a film director have always been mixed. Back in 1992 I was entranced by his charmingly outrageous Australian debut film, Strictly Ballroom. Once he went Hollywood, I found things to like in both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, notably a hugely expressive visual style. Still, Luhrmann’s tendency to overwhelm his stories with lurid art direction and camera tricks was hardly to my taste. But I wondered if, with a born showman like Elvis Presley, he’d finally discovered his perfect subject.  

 Luhrmann’s choice to frame Elvis’s story by using his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, as its narrator also sounded provocative. Parker, something of an international man of mystery, concealed his Dutch roots and his lack of official American papers as he promoted some of country music’s rising stars. Upon discovering Elvis, he became a shifty father figure, influencing the star’s personal life as well as his career. Though the all-American Tom Hanks would seem to be an odd choice for the role of Parker, I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s early scenes, in which razzle-dazzle filmmaking whisks us from one concert venue to another, underscoring Elvis’s intense visceral effect on his female fans. There’s a carnival quality to these scenes, connecting with the fact of Colonel. Parker’s longtime familiarity with carny acts and sideshow spectacles, that struck me as distinctive and important.

 Actually, my favorite section in the entire film does not even include Austin Butler’s much-hailed performance in the title role. Its focus is the very young Elvis, a poor country boy perhaps 8 years old. Hanging out with a horde of African American cronies, he happens upon a Black juke joint where hot music and steamy sensuality are the order of the day. In his wanderings, he also discovers a Black revival meeting, where he’s entranced by the writhing of newly-saved souls. These formative encounters, conveyed to us via strong visuals, are what Luhrmann suggests have eventually shaped the mature Elvis’s personal style. And this notion is passed on to us in the audience by way of Parker’s narration..

 At a certain point, though, the notion of Parker as a Mephistophelean narrator and commentator wears thin, and Tom Hanks, with his weird (though apparently authentic) accent, has less and less to do in this story. As we move into Elvis’s private life, spending time in situations of which Parker would seem to have little knowledge, Elvis devolves into that very standardized thing, a biopic. Which means we see Elvis, having reached the pinnacle of his fame and fortune, struggling with his past, with his marriage, with his rapidly degrading  sense of self. Ho hum. After a while, all biopics start to look alike. Childhood trauma, then the heart-pounding rise to stardom, then the long, sordid slide into desolation and decay. Why, really, do we bother?  It always ends the same way.

 

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