Sunday, June 26, 2022

If He Can Dream: ELVIS

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is made with an energetically heightened reality that bursts through the cliches of the rock ’n roll biopic and the overfamiliar caricature that is its subject. It restores life and vitality to both, making something enormous and earnest and enveloping. This is a perfect match of filmmaker and subject. Luhrmann has a brand of cinematic theatricality in which wall-to-wall music covers a visual feast. Every shot is a riot of movement and color, frames are filled with flashing lights and flashy design, and every performance is goaded higher and higher until most gestures are big and broad. Elvis Presley, for his part, was a shock to the system. He defined the mold that continues to mint music stars as part of a wave of midcentury entertainers who began to scramble ideas of race, sex, and gender for the mainstream. His life, too, was as outsized as his stardom. Every facet of it has passed into iconography and a cartoon of fame: his mansion, his marriage, his movies, his scandals, his eccentricities. The modern version of celebrity culture is yet another element of our world he was at the right place and time to pioneer. This movie is a huge, swaggering tour of the familiar stages of Elvis’ life and career. It goes on for nearly three hours and doesn’t dig deeper into arcane trivia or thornier contradictions. But what it does instead is recreate the sensation of the shock of the new, and the societal and showbiz tensions the shaped and destroyed him. Luhrmann’s excesses match this mood, and this project: to build a shining monument to an icon of Americana—and to see how the darkness surrounding his becoming swallowed him whole.

The result is a rock opera and historical panorama that sells the intensity and immediacy of Elvis’ impact and the titanic complicated edifice of his legacy. Shot like a diamond-studded kaleidoscope’s view, this three-hour music montage flows from one number to the next, chopped and remixed and covered and tracked, amped up, stripped down, or played straight. When it lingers on a specific performance—his first big break winning over an audience with his rhythmic wiggling on stage; a triumphant comeback with lush orchestrations and pounding crowd-pleasing stamina—it is electrifying. So often these musical biopics tell us a moment was important by assuming we’ll know it was by the recognizable hit covered by its lead. Here, Luhrmann actually makes us understand 1.) how much hard work it takes to make that sort of impact, and 2.) why his subject was a huge deal. Austin Butler plays Elvis with pretty looks and expert timing, often drenched in sweat on stage, hair flopping, legs twitching, hips plunging. We feel the exertion of putting on a show, and also can get swept up in it. All the smash-zooms in on screaming young women—partly hollering for their fresh crush, but also in surprise at the reaction they’re having—and erupting crowds in dizzying editing or split-screens doesn’t come across as parody, but genuine live-wire enthusiasm. You’d think 2007’s great poison-pen satire of the sub-genre, Walk Hard, would’ve killed these stories dead. But watching Butler come alive on screen, inhabiting the appeal of this star so fully and convincingly, one might realize it’s worth grinding through all the bad versions of these movies just to get to one this remarkable.

In Butler’s compelling performance we see anew why Elvis became who he was. He’s surrounded by Black artists as he grows up, but his whiteness gets him chances they don’t. This is partly why he courts controversy from the segregationists of the time—and one wonders how the racists right-wingers of our time won’t see themselves in the portrait of sniveling politicians complaining about how he’s exposing their white children to ideas of blackness. He’s a white man performing rhythm-and-blues, a bridge between jazz and country as he helps forge a whole new style on the backs of those who get less credit, less fame, less money. But he’s a racially ambiguous figure over the radio, and in live performance is also playing on some unspoken androgynously provocative visual appeal. He’s a hip-thrusting young man at once forceful and smooth, pulsing staccato guitar strumming with loose-limbed pleasure in his own talents, singing in a sensitive baritone timbre from soft, delicate features. (A great evocative moment finds a nasty senator’s teenagers in front of the TV, lost in desire for this new figure of lustful interest.) Subsequent rock stars would blur these lines in more overt and outré ways; but here’s a movie that restores the sexual and racial fault lines of his times in order to bolster its argument for why his stardom was such a lightning rod.  

That’s the benefit of Luhrmann providing a movie that’s gloriously artificial and reverently specific as it sloshes around. He’s so good at movies that drip performative sex appeal and sexual tension, of high-gloss spectacle, loud music that resonates in the chest, expressive complicated camera moves you can hardly take in at once, and emotional dynamics you can believe in an instant. He’s also fond of tragic romantics destroyed by the troubles of their times. In his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby we see swooning melodrama, preening showmanship, and bombastic glamour. That’s where he loads in the opulent period style, gilded cages remixed with anachronistic fervor. And locked in the center are these tortured beautiful people who want to love and be loved. Here it’s Elvis, who searches in his family and his lovers and his audiences and, yes, even his sneaky, villainous manager (Tom Hanks) for that approval, that what he’s doing matters and will last. He’s a sensitive and artistic young man taken in, lifted up and exploited by a charismatic scheming promoter into the life of an international superstar. Hanks acts chummily threatening from within layers of makeup and a fat suit, speaking with a marble-mouthed accent and wielding a cane with a snowman top. His narration flows through the picture as well, a frustrated unreliable narrator who can’t quite prove he’s not the bad guy here. He’s a clear contrast with Elvis, the business side of the singer’s show. Somehow, they need each other, even if it will leave them worse off, too.

The movie is totally swallowed up in Elvis’ life and times. It argues that, far from being the Singular Great Man, Elvis was a product of his culture and his collaborations, forged by forces beyond his control and the contributions of others. He’s constantly surrounded by family, friends, business people, audiences, cops, politicians, and hangers-on. In the few dark, quiet moments of empty solitude—stewing in a suite, or lonely in a spotlight on an empty stage—he’s surrounded by doubt. Here’s a celebrity biopic that vigorously sells the spectacle and excitement of such a life—and the fundamental unknowability of such a man, even to himself. What a show! What a cost.

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