Tuesday 23 August 2022

There goes my everything: "Elvis"

Elvis gets right about Elvis Presley is the excitement. Few contemporary filmmakers are better equipped to deliver sensation than Baz Luhrmann, no-one more inclined to throw everything at the screen and leave it all up there on the screen. The new film underlines Luhrmann's status as if not our greatest showman, given his altogether haphazard collection of credits, then certainly our busiest and most relentless. Helicopters sweep in over a recreation of 1970s Vegas; a radio DJ plays "That's All Right" 27 times in a row, cuing some kind of early Elvis remix - a sonic stroke - on the soundtrack; every hip thrust in the 1968 Comeback Special is studied and replayed from multiple angles, sometimes in split-screen. Editorially ADHD - where the HD stands for high-definition, hyperactivity disorder and Hound Dog - Elvis forms a recognisably 21st century take on one of the 20th century's foundational showbiz legends, rapidly plugging itself into the electric thrill of witnessing The King at his peak, and then inviting us to crowdsurf alongside it for in excess of two-and-a-half hours. It is at once more imaginative and cinematic - visibly more motion picture - than its immediate predecessors in the pop biopic subgenre (the staid Bohemian Rhapsody, the timid Rocketman); it knows how to keep a wall in your local multiplex busy - with close-ups of Austin Butler's big, made-up, mumpy face, not quite Presleyian, but somewhere between young Val Kilmer and Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede, so that's all right; with close-ins on spinning records and headlines, clichéd and fun at the self-same time - the way its subject filled stadia and jumpsuits alike.

It is also, it should be noted, wildly inconsistent. Elvis is ninety miles wide and a half-inch deep, actively terrible when not merely mediocre, the span of a thousand-page biography hammered aggressively into 150 minutes, which explains why the spots between the thrills fall so disastrously flat. There might be a great Elvis movie - or at least one blessed with more detail than Luhrmann's feels obliged to take on - which spoke to the audience fantasy of what it would have been like to be Elvis for one night, at either his highest or lowest. Luhrmann, maximalist to the last, takes as his field of study the 1,001 nights the singer spent under the control of predatory manager Colonel Tom Parker. As played by Tom Hanks, acting his way out of layers of latex and a chewy Mitteleuropan accent that suggests he really, really enjoyed his time shooting Cloud Atlas (bless), Luhrmann's Parker is introduced skulking around the margins, waiting to pounce; the arc is how this carny-schooled conman, cigar-puffing avatar of showbusiness's basest urges, stole our hero away from band and family, fed his appetites, and then worked him into an early grave. If Elvis comes over as exceptionally tinny entertainment in the main, it's because of the vast gulf between its operatic framing and the childlike simplicity of its storytelling, its abundant technical sophistication and the noise it makes when it actually approaches the mic, which is that of a nervy fifth-former giving his first presentation on Elvis Presley, and concluding this was a talent crushed by the wheels of industry. Is this thing still on? Make no mistake: Elvis is Elvis for teenagers the way Romeo + Juliet was Shakespeare for teenagers and The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald for teenagers, and while it's nice that our youngsters have such a friend in Uncle Baz, telling them to read the right books and play the right records and always - always - wear sunscreen, it does also indicate that neither Luhrmann nor the studios have developed any in 25 years.

Or, if anything, that they've devolved further. Every so often, the film betrays flickers of a more insidious modern influence. "I watched that skinny kid transform into a superhero," Hanks-as-Parker mutters to us in his role as narrator, and Luhrmann and his co-writers evidently conceive of Presley as another regular boy blessed with special powers he has to master, faced with a corrupt handler and politicos trying to shut down his project for good. In 2022, it would appear that even a figure as singular as Elvis Presley isn't safe from the Marvelisation - which is to say infantilisation - of the Western world; it wouldn't surprise me to learn Luhrmann had compared Presley to, say, Wolverine while doing the promotional rounds, the same way Tom Hiddleston said that 2011's first Thor movie was basically the Bard. Passing justification is offered in the young Elvis's love of comic books, but this warping worldview also emerges in the way Luhrmann approaches this life as scarcely more than a series of setpieces, gigs taking the place of punch-ups, and especially in the film's fairytale ending, which seeks to reposition this martyr-Elvis as a figure somewhere between Jesus and Superman, rather than - you know - an actual, flesh-and-blood human being who could sing and dance a bit (or a lot). This, I'm afraid, is real swivel-eyed cult-of-Elvis stuff, and I was wondering why it left me feeling so uncomfortable rather than stirred or moved. Then it struck me: with these two-and-a-half hours, Luhrmann has done for Elvis what Michael Jackson did for himself around the time of "Earth Song". (And there aren't Jarvis Cockers enough to push back in every screen showing it.)

What precedes it, less objectionable, is no better or worse than Elvis for Dummies, each scene a Wikipedia header grabbed by the throat and forced to swallow down fistfuls of rhinestones and glitter: the re-education on Beale Street (sparking a Gatsby-ish mash-up of Big Mama Thornton and Doja Cat), the accusations of obscenity, the spell in the army, a deeply perfunctory appraisal of the movie career, and onward onto the fitful late flourishes. It flies past, a berserker rush of scenes topped and tailed of their dramatic content and often crassly juxtaposed, never more so than when confronting Elvis with the revolutionary chaos of the 1960s; absolutely nothing lingers, challenges or inspires any sort of reflection or reassessment. Excitement - the kind of excitement that jabs true believers into giving up their panties and cash - is what Luhrmann has his eye on, and in a few isolated flashes here and there, excitement is what he gets. But that's what Parker had his beady eye on, too, and excitement without any grounding experience wears off quickest of all, leaving behind nothing but an empty wallet and a hollow ringing in the ears. A weightless evocation of a heavyweight cultural figure, beamed in from an adjacent reality where gravity doesn't appear to be a thing, the whole movie is its own spinning headline, almost exactly what popped into your head the first time you heard Baz Luhrmann was making an Elvis biopic: part showstopper, part gaudy embarrassment. It is unarguably a vision realised, which is far from the worst aspiration the studios could enable in their current flop era. But it's also a vision with glaringly obvious limitations, one that was only ever going to give us the flashier parts of this narrative, rendered in a house style as flimsy as taffeta.

Elvis is still playing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.

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